For years, my go-to to-go spot has been a Cuban rotisserie, so I'm no stranger to the simple but lively combination of tart citrus and sweet garlic that powers a great grilled mojo chicken. So when I got the assignment to develop a recipe for this dish, I figured, how hard could it be? Whip up a batch of mojo sauce, marinate some chicken in it, and roll the chicken around on the grill, basting as I go.
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But it turns out that not all mojos are created equal, as recipes use all sorts of ingredients in different ratios. Most mojo sauces I made in my early tests were too bitter with citrus pucker, harshly garlicky, or just generally out of balance. I set out to make a better mojo, one that had balanced but bold citrus, garlic, and herb flavors.
A Little Bit About the World of Mojo
There are myriad sauces that go by the name “mojo,” but they’re all spin-offs of the version originating in the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Canarian mojo is made from garlic, oil, spices, and red or green bell peppers. Sailing west, you will encounter the Cuban mojo that inspired this recipe; it’s based on garlic, oil, cumin, oregano, and the juice of sour oranges. Mexican mojo de ajo is oil infused with garlic, lime, and various herbs and spices. The one mojo constant? Lots of garlic.
Mojo, in its purest form, is a combination of the juice from sour oranges (sour oranges are a staple in many Latin kitchens), garlic, spices (often black pepper, cumin, and oregano), and oil. It's basically a supercharged citrus vinaigrette. Unfortunately, sour oranges aren't readily available to most home cooks in the United States outside of Florida. As a substitute, some recipes suggest a combination of 1 part fresh-squeezed regular orange juice and 1 part lime juice. This proved to be a decent swap, but it lacked some of the sour orange juice's complexity. Adding grated orange and lime zests to the juices brought the citrus punch and aroma up to speed. (Check out “Getting to Know: Winter Fruits” to learn more about the best fruits found from October through February.)
Mojo's garlic flavor has to be assertive, but not so much so that it would make your eyes water. Some recipes went overboard by using heads of the stuff, but I found that a much lighter hand, just six minced cloves, was plenty. To take the raw edge off the garlic, I gently heated it in olive oil just until it turned golden and fragrant; this had the added advantage of infusing the oil with deep garlic flavor.
It just wouldn't be mojo without the earthy jolt of black pepper and a dose of oregano. Cumin was a winner, too, as its musty savoriness added backbone to this recipe. To bring out their best, I bloomed the herbs and spices in the warm garlic oil. Yellow mustard contributed depth and helped thicken the sauce.
I was now clearly hitting the right notes, but my tasters felt that the sauce was a bit bracing. Some recipes call for sugar, but its straightforward sweetness tasted out of place. Brown sugar and honey were no improvement. What about fruit juice? Apple juice didn't add much, but then it hit me: What about pineapple juice? Its tropical taste complemented the other flavors beautifully. Equal parts pineapple, lime, and orange juice proved to be the ideal combination.
On to the grilling. The test kitchen has a tried-and-true technique for grilling marinated chicken leg quarters. First, we slash the raw chicken to the bone a few times so the marinade penetrates deeper and more quickly. We start grilling the chicken over low heat so the fat renders and the chicken gently cooks through, and then we move it over a hot fire for just a few minutes to crisp the skin. This process worked like a charm.
I found that I needed to baste the chicken only once during cooking. For an extra hit of flavor, once the chicken came off the grill, I doused it with more mojo—this portion amped up with chopped jalapeño and fresh cilantro—while the chicken rested. When I took that first bite of the finished dish, I knew I finally had this mojo working. And it was definitely worth the wait.