Some food, some drink.
The best Fajita Marinade is None at All: Grilled Fajita Chicken Done Right.
Look, I know that real fajitas are named for the beef skirt steak and I'm pretty sure that chickens don't have a skirt. But the fact remains that chicken is pretty popular fajita fodder. All the same, where poultry is concerned, I truly think that a fajita marinade is a bad idea. Marinades don't season the innards of a slab of critter all that well, and any left on the outside at go-time tends to steam the meat (= bad fajitas) instead of contributing to a charred sear (= good fajitas). The way I do fajita chicken starts with a citrus, garlic, and chipotle-spiked brine and is finished on the grill with a homemade grill seasoning that back-ups those flavors infused into your boneless, skinless bird.
Given the nature of the popular vote around our house, I've long ago given up any purist notion that fajitas are a beef-only affair. When I fix both, the chicken gets eaten 2:1 over beef; which leaves more skirt steak for me, and I'm quite cool with that.
But oh to think about how low the chicken fajita has fallen. There's something just fundamentally wrong with the way most fajita chicken is served. Something that's supposed to be char-grilled, juicy and flavorful usually ends up as something tough, steamed, and a bit too salty. In most cases, it's pretty easy to point the finger at supermarket convenience. Countless varieties of fajita marinades and even pre-cut pieces of raw chicken swimming in sodium and preservative-laden goo have done a serious disservice to fajita-style chicken under the guise of simplicity. Having cooked for approximately a long-ass time, I've lived on both sides of the Tex-Mex tracks, having done plenty of bad fajita chicken myself. So I feel like I'm now qualified enough to speak up about how fajita chicken should be done; and although I have no grievances about using marinade on a lesser cut of beef (though I'd prefer a dry rub) I really believe that you might as well be pouring money down the drain to marinade chicken for your fajitas.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Combine all the brine ingredients except the ice into a 2 quart microwave safe container. Nuke for 4-6 minutes or until the salt dissolves. Add the ice. Stir until the ice melts; the brine temperature should be about 40F (if not colder), and if it's not, then stick it in the freezer until it is. When the brine is sufficiently cool, put the chicken breasts in the brine. Lid the whole mess up and refrigerate for 2 hours. After the stint in the ice box, take the chicken out of the brine and pat it dry with a paper towels, or air dry on a rack in a half sheet pan in the fridge for a half hour (taking care to avoid any opportunities for cross-contamination).
Set the grill to medium high (about 450F) and grill for 5-7 minutes on each side or until the internal temperature of the chicken hits 165F. Let rest for 4 minutes before slicing and serving with your favorite fajita fixings.
- First, thing you gotta understand about chicken fajitas is that there is no such thing as a good marinade. Brining is the only way to go if you're looking to get a perfectly-seasoned piece of chicken that won't dry out. For a large chicken breast, you'll want a good 2 hour dip in the saline solution, whereas a thinner piece like a cutlet or tenderloin won't need more than 60-75 minutes. If you went to the store before you found this recipe and bought some of those strips that are "perfect for fajitas," might I suggest a different dish?
- Getting rid of excess surface water is important if you want char and sexy grill marks on the outside of your bird parts. I make it a point to air-dry my chicken breasts on a rack set in a sheet pan in the fridge for about a half hour before seasoning; afterwards letting the meat rest on the counter for 15 minutes while the grill heats up. As this is a rack of raw meat that's left open in your fridge, you gotta be vigilant of cross-contamination, and if you just don't have the space to safely make it work, then reach for paper towels to do your drying instead.
- So what's my beef against pre-cut fajita chicken strips anyway? Well, frankly they're impossible to grill (duh) and they have a tendency to simmer in the pan before they brown. Liquid needs to be cooked off first as sear can't happen in the presence of water. Given the increased surface area of those smaller pieces, water has more opportunity to escape allowing much of the meat's associated liquid to steam away as the pieces cook, all the while never reaching a temperature high enough to brown the meat. So essentially, if those little bits of chicken do get browned, they're already dry and tough; and I've had one too many catered hotel meals to even want to put up with eating tough, dry chicken at home.
- After you've grilled to safe temperature, you'll most definitely want to let your fajita chicken rest for 3-4 minutes before serving / slicing. Meat finishes cooking during carryover and juices pushed to the center by heat are given opportunity to redistribute.
Much like the way I do tacos, this recipe is thoughtful of those whose palate can't do alotta heat. Most of the flavor you'll catch is a meld of slightly smoky seasoned chicken, citrus, and garlic; so if you dig it hot, consider throwing a quarter tsp of cayenne in your grill seasoning to kick it up a bit. Because we brined, the chicken's gonna be moist and remain tender even if you did happen to overcook a little; and besides, there's nothing here a big spoonful of salsa wrapped in that tortilla along with at serving time couldn't fix.
And now I'd like to talk to you penny-pinchers out there: People, have you been to the store lately? Meat's getting even more expensive, and one nice thing about serving chicken fajitas is that you (the cook) get a prime opportunity to control the portions before stuff's even hit the table. Try this: Serve your fajita chicken whole during one meal, and during the next, go ahead and be a good host and slice it all up first. I'll bet you a case of beer that you'll end up with leftovers if you serve it in the latter method of the two, which from the standpoints of economic and portion control, is certainly a win:win. Aside from your being a tight-ass, people are gonna fill up a plate with other fixings like vegetables, rice, and guacamole anyway, so everyone's still gonna walk away full (and happy).