In the market squares of Sicily and coastal towns of Calabria, street vendors baste thick swordfish chops with a bright blend of lemon juice and olive oil, grilling them over smoldering coals and filling the air with an alluring mix of char and sweet.
The simple, ancient combination is called salmoriglio, which comes from the Italian for brine, and it’s the primary way fish is served in southern Italy. Chicken gets a similar treatment—a soak in the marinade followed by a turn on the grill and a finishing splash of more sauce.
Salmoriglio’s double duty as marinade and sauce appealed to us at Milk Street, as did its simplicity. But cooking with lemon juice often disappoints. The juice’s acidity can break down the protein fibers of meat, turning it mushy, while the heat of the grill dulls its bright flavors.
Most recipes call for whisking lemon juice with olive oil, garlic, salt and one or more herbs. Since adding lemon juice early is how both problems start, we decided to leave it out of the initial marinade. Instead, we used lemon zest—which carries the flavor but not the acidity of the juice—along with olive oil, dried oregano, salt and garlic, then tossed half of it with the chicken. Holding the juice for later also let us briefly grill the lemon halves before juicing them, caramelizing some of the sugars and taming the acidity.
A slow, indirect-heat grilling technique ensured juicy chicken with a golden, crispy skin. We started the chicken skin side up on the cool side of the grill, rotating the pieces after 15 minutes. We then flipped the pieces and finished them on the warmer side just long enough to properly render the fat and crisp the skin.
While the chicken rested, we squeezed the lemon juice into the reserved marinade. A generous handful of chopped parsley reinforced the herbal flavor of the oregano while adding a burst of color.
By making a couple of small tweaks to a centuries-old combination, we coaxed maximum flavor from the fewest possible ingredients. The result was a bright, balanced grilled chicken that came out succulent, crispy and fragrant of summer.