The Vinegary Bliss of Balsamic Chicken


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!

Though balsamic vinegar has been around for centuries, it didn’t catch on in the United States until the late 1970s, when an entrepreneur named Chuck Williams started selling the little-known Modena specialty at his little-known San Francisco store, Williams-Sonoma.

By 1980, The New York Times wrote that balsamic vinegar is “at most fine food shops for $2.79 to $3.50.” Fast-forward to 1990 and The Baltimore Sun reported, “in a little more than 10 years, balsamic vinegar has gone from utter obscurity to great renown, from the precious stocks of families in Modena, Italy, to American supermarket shelves.” And fast-forward to today and you’d be hard-pressed to find a grocery store without it.

And by it, I mean American balsamic, not unlike American Parmesan, an ingredient that has become a staple in the U.S. and, all the while, means something else entirely in Italy. The real deal—the good stuff—is known as aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, DOP label included. Depending on the bottle and price tag, it’s probably older than most of the cast members on the new season of Too Hot to Handle.

Photo by Ty Mecham. Prop Stylist: Olivia Bloch. Food Stylist: Sam Seneviratne.

All that said? Don’t waste the good stuff on this recipe. Whatever balsamic you buy need be neither fancy nor schmancy. Any store brand will still lead you toward your new favorite chicken recipe—and the only other ingredients you need are butter and salt.

Like many Big Little Recipes, the balsamic comes in more than once. First, it teams up with water and salt for a brine-slash-marinade. This mixture encourages lean chicken breasts to stay juicy (aka insurance for when you forget to set a timer and get distracted by how fluffy your cat is—it happens). And what’s more, because vinegar is so acidic, a shorter marinade is ideal. Just 45 minutes to an hour, depending on when your workday wraps.

As soon as the chicken breasts are almost done cooking—this happens in about the time it takes for me to toss together a salad, which is to say, next to no time at all—more balsamic and a big hunk of butter join the pan. This effortlessly deglazes the flavorful bits stuck to the bottom, then simmers into a glossy sauce to baste the chicken, and make it feel like the only girl in the world.

And as soon as the chicken is out of the pan—you guessed it—even more balsamic. Like a squeeze of lemon over battered and fried fish, this sunny brightness wakes up all the flavors, turns on the radio alarm clock to their favorite song, tells them, c’mon, get out of bed. Get out of bed, get out of bed, it’s going to be a great day.

What’s your favorite way to use balsamic vinegar? Let us know in the comments!

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