Big Little Recipes

A 2-Ingredient Marinade That Doubles as a Sauce

March 30, 2021

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Psst, did you hear we’re coming out with a cookbook? We’re coming out with a cookbook!

It’s hard, if not implausible, if not impossible, to think of a side dish that doesn’t get along with grilled chicken. Whatever is in your pantry-slash-fridge works—potato salad, salad potatoes, the hodgepodge of cucumber and onion and celery in the crisper plus a plop of sour cream.

The only question is: Will you marinate the chicken? And admittedly, this is a trick question. Because the answer is actually another question: What cut of chicken are you using?

If it’s bone-in thighs, sure, salt them lavishly, then toss them to the flames. They are fatty and juicy and resilient enough to withstand the heat. But if boneless, skinless breasts are your pick—and they cook up so quickly, so evenly, so effortlessly, why wouldn’t they be?—there’s only one answer. Of course I’m marinating the chicken.

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Top Comment:
“It is amazing as either a marinade or a sauce you can spoon lightly over your chicken breast in your plate. It is also excellent with a salmon filet.”
— Deleted A.

A marinade is to meat as an epsom salt bath is to me: a place to go after work, unwind wound-up muscles, drink a martini, eat potato chips, and read a magazine that I end up dropping in the tub when my cat leaps up and scares the living daylights out of me.

Maybe the metaphor doesn’t hold up. But you get the idea.

A marinade is the cooking equivalent of self-care, a step that’s unnecessary, but glorious. Especially with lean cuts that are lacking in personality and prone to drying out, a good marinade boosts flavor and tenderness to infinity and beyond.

Photo by Linda Xiao. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis. Food Stylist: Monica Pierini.

Of course, a lot of ingredient lists can get you there. At the minimum, you’ll need salt for its savory superpowers, something something fatty (like oil) for coatability and richness, something acidic (like citrus juice) for tenderizing and zing, and something flavorful (like herbs) for, you know, flavor.

On our site alone, we have many marinades with many ingredients: This one with jalapeños, cilantro stems, garlic, olive oil, sugar, salt, and black pepper. This one with kombucha, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, olive oil, and red pepper flakes. This one with silken tofu, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, rice vinegar, salt, and black pepper.

But for those days when you want to do less and get just as much, know that you can fall back on these two ingredients: mayonnaise and hot sauce.

As it does to sandwich bread, mayonnaise clings to chicken, expertly enriching it with oily, egg yolky goodness, and paving the path to better browning and charring (read: better flavor). Hot sauce takes care of everything else: the vinegary tang and chile drop kick, not to mention the salt and whatever flavors your chosen hot sauce features (I love the garlickiness of Cholula and the Buffalo wing-ness—a thing!—of Frank’s).

The result is a chicken breast that has the confidence of a chicken thigh.

And what’s more? These two ingredients aren’t only a marinade, they’re also a sauce. Just stir them together while the grilled chicken rests, tweaking the ratio to be as creamy or fiery as you like. Then serve it alongside for slathering and dunking, preferably outside, where you can still smell the smoke from the grill, and watch the sun slump in the sky.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Bonnie April 27, 2021
We made this last night and it was fantastic. Tender, moist and such wonderful flavor. Thanks for another winder Emma. So looking forward to the cookbook upcoming.
Emma L. April 27, 2021
Thank you so much, Bonnie—so glad to hear you enjoyed it!
Mainer April 1, 2021
Mayo as a marinade (mixed with any spice) is also amazing in the air fryer when cooking chicken breasts.
Lindy March 30, 2021
I’ve been using something similar for dipping streamed artichokes for a long time.
Emma L. March 31, 2021
Yum! Love a steamed artichoke.
[email protected] March 30, 2021
Hey! I love your cooking show--I always have mayo & various hot sauces hanging around the fridge. I am sending this to my adult (ahh...semi-adult) children who love hot sauce & mayo...and chicken!
Emma L. March 31, 2021
Thank you!
Deleted A. March 30, 2021
Instead of hot sauce, try adding a bit of soy sauce and some togarashi spice blend. It is amazing as either a marinade or a sauce you can spoon lightly over your chicken breast in your plate. It is also excellent with a salmon filet.
Rosalind P. March 31, 2021
Thank you for this different sauce. The sauce mayo/hot sauce may be wonderful but it's not the breathless miracle implied in the headnotes. My family doesn't take to any heat in sauces. Your variation is promising. Thank you.
Deleted A. March 31, 2021
A word of warning! Togarashi can be quite spicy. While not the same kind of heat as a hot sauce, it does have a bite to it, and you need to be careful as to how much you add. It will depend on the blend you happen to purchase as there are a number of different ones out there. I would advise starting out with a very small amount, tasting and going from there. Also, be careful which blend you get, I purchase one that is salt free which I find is very good and allows you to control your salt intake as well.
Rosalind P. March 31, 2021
Thanks -- again. I overlooked the togarashi (I know it's potent). If there's any "magic" in the F52 miracle, it's the mayo. And there are lots of way to season or enhance without heat. That's my takeaway.
Didi S. March 30, 2021
This looks very yummy. A friend of mine marinated bluefish with mayo. I thought it was insane, as bluefish is already so oily.. knocked my socks off!!! I didn't use my grill once last summer.. I think I was just too bummed with the pandemic. This will be my first go!!!
Emma L. March 31, 2021
Mmm! That sounds great.
Cynthia M. March 30, 2021
I don’t do hot sauce either. Is there something else you can suggest adding to the Mayo that will also work?
GardenGirl March 30, 2021
you can really add anything--I like a garlic + any herb you have hanging out in the crisper.
Bonnie April 27, 2021
I used the Chohoula sauce and it just added flavor without hardly any heat, especially after removing the marinade before grilling. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.
Becky March 30, 2021
What kind of hot sauce?
Coffeecat March 30, 2021
Emma mentions Cholula and Frank's in the article - both are really good because they aren't too hot, and have deeper and richer flavor than Tobasco. I love the vinegar zing of Frank's, but Cholulas has basically become my go-to during the pandemic. Another option is to mix garlicky sriracha in the mayo, and for a real thrill, try the Japanese Kewpie mayo made with rice vinegar - it's awesome!
Beth March 30, 2021
We don't like hot stuff, but I have some "savory mayo" from Honeybaked Ham
could I use that alone as a marinade? I think it's basically mayo with some teriyaki flavoring. Maybe add a little Worchestershire sauce, that would give a little zing without too much hotness. What do you think?
Emma L. March 31, 2021
Hi Beth, worth a try! The mayo does the heavy lifting here. In place of hot sauce, you just need something vinegary and bold to tenderize and flavor the chicken. If you like the taste of the marinade (before you add the meat), the grilled chicken should turn out great.