Herb Grilled Chicken Thighs

header for herb grilled chicken thighsThis is my own version of a very popular local treat. A long time ago, a professor in the food science department at Cornell University, which is a stone’s throw from my back door, created a recipe for a chicken marinade that remains a staple of chicken BBQ’s and that everyone around here makes all summer long.

You can find the original recipe just by googling “Cornell Chicken”, but my version is brightened up quite a bit with fresher ingredients than Dr. Baker, the original inventor, used. And though I will be forever grateful to Dr. Baker for his ingenious idea, the lack of garlic in his version shows a serious flaw in his thinking, and maybe even his personality. He passed away in 2006, so I can’t ask him, but really? No garlic? Craziness.

While my version gives a nod to the original, there are some huge differences as well. For starters, I like to marinate the chicken for at least 24 hours, and up to 48 hours, to really get the flavors infused completely. I also only use it for dark meat, preferably thighs, because they take up the marinade better and don’t get dried out on the grill. Finally, I poach the chicken in the marinade for about 20 minutes, before it hits the grill. I can’t tell you how many times I have been served the original version of this, only to find that it’s not cooked through. And if you go to any of the fund raising BBQs that are held by every fire station in upstate NY, you find they are making sure they aren’t serving undercooked chicken, by grilling the ever-loving heck out it, so that the white meat is bone dry. [sorry firemen – I love you, but your chicken is dry] My method makes sure it is cooked all the way through, without the dryness.herbs and garlic for chicken marinadeIt could not be simpler to make – chop a big bunch of fresh herbs, smash up some garlic cloves, mix together with some oil and vinegar, and submerge the chicken in this wonderful stuff. Stick it in the fridge for a day or two, and when it is time to cook, it will have an unbelievable flavor. You can go in there and stir it around a few times to make sure everything is getting evenly marinated, but if that is not possible, or you forget, it’s not the end if the world.marinating chickenYou do need to plan ahead a little bit, but if the weekend is coming up, you are probably figuring out what you want to make anyway, so that isn’t a big deal.

Herb Grilled Chicken Thighs
You need to start the marinade a couple days ahead of time, so be sure to plan for that. 48 hours is ideal, but 24 hours will do.
Recipe type: Chicken, Grilling
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
  • 5 big cloves of garlic
  • ½ cup fresh, whole sage leaves
  • ¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves
  • ⅛ cup fresh oregano leaves
  • ⅛ cup fresh thyme leaves
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup of cider vinegar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 & ½ tablespoons kosher salt
  • 10- 15 grinds of black pepper
  • 8 to 10 chicken thighs
  1. Mince garlic very finely, or mash to a paste with the tines of a fork, or grate on a microplane. You want it to be reduced to very small bits.
  2. Strip any stems from all of the herbs, and chop them well - they should equal about a half cup total when they are all chopped.
  3. Using a non-reactive container [stainless steel or glass], whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, egg, salt and pepper. The egg is to keep the mixture emulsified, and though it is often left out of the original recipe. I think it works better with it.
  4. Whisk in the chopped herbs and garlic.
  5. Trim the excess skin and fat from the chicken thighs - not all of it, just anything that might hang down on the grill and get burned anyway.
  6. Wash thighs, and pat dry with paper towels.
  7. You can just put the chicken in the bowl with the marinade, but I like to put it all in a large ziplock bag. Make sure all of the air is pushed out and it is well sealed. For extra insurance I lay the bag flat on a large plate or in some other flat vessel. A couple times a day, I just flip the bag over and kind of mush everything around a little to make sure all the thighs are getting marinated.
  8. After 24 - 48 hours, take the chicken out of the fridge. Arrange the thighs in a large saute pan or dutch oven - it is best if they can all lay flat, but if you don't have a big enough pan for that, get it as close as you can.
  9. Pour over the marinating liquid, and set the burner at medium. Watch carefully, and when it starts to boil, turn it down to barely simmering. After 10 minutes, turn each piece carefully, and cook another 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  10. Get your grill heated up, and be sure to oil the grates.
  11. Once the grill is well heated, place the chicken, skin side down, on the grates. Keep the heat at about medium. You may have some flare up because the oil is going to drip down some, but a spray bottle of water kept handy will take care of those.
  12. Don't turn the chicken until you can pick it up off the gates without tearing the skin - when it is ready to turn, it will come up easily. This will take around 8 to 10 minutes, depending on your grill. Brush the marinade over the upper side a couple times during cooking.
  13. Turn and grill the second side for another 5 to 8 minutes. If you want to be sure it is cooked through, check the internal temperature, which should be about 165º [74ºC]
  14. Let it rest around 5 minutes, and then serve hot. Leftovers should be refrigerated and are great cold.
grilling a chicken thighThe smell while it’s grilling is likely to draw a crowd – you won’t have to look for your guests when it’s time to eat.serving herb grilled chicken thighsAnd, while there is not a big chance there will be any leftovers, this is, hands down, the best cold chicken ever. Go ahead and get some marinating for this weekend!


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26 thoughts on “Herb Grilled Chicken Thighs

  1. I think you should definitely apply for a position at Cornell’s food science department, since you were able to improve on Dr Baker’s recipe. It’s sometimes hard to get the chicken both moist and properly cooked through, but it looks like you’ve got it just right! (With a name like ‘Baker’, you would have thought he would have got it right the first time!)

    • Hi Fran – thanks! The original recipe, done correctly, is really quite good – it is just in execution that it sometimes falters! My version is a little more fool proof is all.

    • Lorraine – he conceived the recipe in the 1940s I think – when fresh garlic was not so available as it is now. I expect he wanted to make sure all of the ingredients were accessible.

  2. No garlic! I can’t get enough garlic in food!
    I love the sound of this dish ,and poaching it before the grill would indeed keep it succulent and delicious! I am inning this so I can try it in summer.

  3. Donalyn, I think this recipe has just convinced me to change up the menu plan for the weekend–it looks SO good! I think we can use chick peas with the mustard greens tikka masala, and use the chicken thighs instead for this.
    Thank you for the poaching idea–brilliant and I’ll not worry about even cooking of the thick pieces that way.

    • Donalyn,
      Thank you for a great recipe! My teenage son made it (one of his summer goals–from mom–is to do more cooking, and he’s decided to start with grilling). I am not sure what all he mixed up in the marinade, as he had his little sister harvest the herbs and I know we don’t have fresh sage, but the result was simply delicious.

      And the chick peas with squash and mustard greens made a great vegetarian tikka masala.

      I appreciate your recipe!

      • Circling back much later to tell you that this recipe is one of our summer grilling staples, Donalyn!
        We just got a new grill a week ago and tonight made a batch of this chicken. I used both bone in skin on thighs as well as BSCBs since my spouse prefers NOT to eat chicken ‘on a bone’. The BSCBs will also be used in salads this week, and the kids polished off their thighs with lip-smacking.
        Thanks for a terrific recipe!

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  5. We followed all the directions for this recipe except the pre-cooking. The thighs (they were skinless) were so dry after grilling, and so salty, that they were hard to eat. I would try this again, marinating the meat for maybe 4-6 hours, then grilling. If the grilling chef knows what he/she is doing, there is no reason to pre-cook these on a stove before placing on a grill.

    • I’m sorry you had that trouble, Valerie. This kind of chicken recipe definitely needs to have the skin on it, to keep it from drying out, and poaching helps with that as well. I’m not sure about the saltiness – the original recipe actually calls for quite a bit more, and with this amount they never taste too salty for us. It is important to use kosher salt, but I expect you would have used that. It might just be a difference in tastes, but again, I am sorry you didn’t care for it.

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  7. Could this be frozen before cooking stage, then thawed and grilled? I am going on an extended trip in a small RV and don’t have room to bring all the ingredients with me separately.

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  9. I tried this recipe as is, except for this amount of marinade, I used 1 whole chicken cut up plus 3 whole legs cut into pieces. I only marinated overnight and did the precooking. The chicken was fantastic! I will definitely use this recipe again. I fed four teenage boys and 2 adults and I wish there were more leftovers!! I served it with a green salad, potato salad (mediterranean style) and grilled corn. Excellent – moist, succulent, not to salty, tangy.

      • The is an excellent recipe. I have all the fresh herbs in my garden. It takes a bit of time to rinse, dry and chop all the herbs and the garlic but it is so well worth it. i use skin on, bone-in thighs, legs and party wings.

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