My Puerto Rican grandmother had a metric for the chicken she marinated in the island’s garlicky wet adobo and roasted for Sunday supper: It had to be so saturated with sabor, or flavor, that you’d even nibble at the bones. She’d pound together loads of fresh garlic, salt, black pepper, oregano, and some vinegar and oil; dab the creamy paste onto her pinkie; and stick it in my mouth—her way of weaning me onto its heady bite.
Evidently, it worked, because growing up I’d crave the flavor of that chicken adobo more than any other dish save for one—the version my parents made by translating my grandmother’s formula to the grill. They’d marinate breasts and leg quarters in the same garlicky paste and take them to church barbecues in the park, where they’d throw the pieces over the fire. The rush of chicken-y juices mingling with the smoky flavors from the coals only heightened the adobo’s sting, and I’d nibble at the breast’s ribs to get every shred of meat. I didn’t mind if the adobo burned in spots and some of the chicken overcooked—an inevitable outcome with a hodgepodge of volunteers from our Second Spanish Baptist Church doing the grilling. I’d just douse the pieces in the bottled salad dressing my mother packed in our cooler.
Over the years, I’ve re-created this Nuyorican dish many times in my backyard outside of Boston. But my method has always been a bit ad hoc, and I’ve never quite worked out all the kinks. I recently decided to nail an ideal version: no burnt patches, with every piece tender and succulent and drenched in garlicky flavor.
Laying Down the Flavor Base
Adobo holds a hallowed place in Puerto Rican cooking as the garlicky scaffolding for sauces and marinades (adobo comes from the Spanish word “adobar,” which means “to marinate”). “It’s a Boricua taste,” Oswald Rivera, author of Puerto Rican Cuisine in America: Nuyorican and Bodega Recipes (1993), told me, using the name the native Taíno people called their island. “That’s the only way I can explain it.”
Adobo can take two forms—the traditional fresh paste or a dry form made with granulated garlic. After the latter came onto the scene in the 1960s, Puerto Rican cooks embraced it with such gusto that in many households it’s now used even more extensively. And in an application such as grilling, the dry mixture can actually be preferable, since dry spices are less likely to burn than fresh garlic.
Big Flavor, Three Ways
This deeply flavored grilled chicken gets its punch from three separate sources.
But I knew that because the dry adobo has a tamer profile than the wet paste—more nutty, less spicy—I’d need something else to kick up the chicken’s flavor. The solution was obvious: sazón, the other essential seasoning in the Puerto Rican pantry. Featuring dried garlic and onion along with cumin and multiple dried herbs (often oregano, cilantro, and grassy-tasting culantro), this blend is often paired with adobo for another layer of savory complexity. Sazón also includes achiote, the spice and colorant that tints much of the island’s cooking a beautiful yellowy orange. (For more on this spice, also called annatto, see “How to Make Achiote Oil”).
Commercial brands of both seasonings are readily available. For the sazón, I opted for store-bought, since not every cook keeps achiote or all the dried herbs on hand. But I’d definitely make my own adobo to ensure a hefty amount of garlic. After tinkering, I landed on a 4:1 ratio of granulated garlic to salt, which I stirred together with pepper and oregano and a couple teaspoons of sazón.
Grilled to Perfection
Next I got to work breaking down a chicken into parts—a move that would allow me to grill the prized backbone, which crisps up like chicharrones over the coals. In a nod to the tingly acidity of wet adobo and to help the seasoning adhere, I adopted my grandmother’s trick of tossing the parts with vinegar and olive oil. I rubbed my dry blend over and under the skin, the achiote tinting it an appealing golden orange. A 3-hour rest allowed the salt and the garlic’s water-soluble compounds to penetrate the meat, ensuring even seasoning and moisture.
To grill the chicken, I kept the parts over indirect heat until they were almost fully cooked. Then I scooted them to the hotter side until they came up to temperature and the skin bronzed and crisped. Every piece was wonderfully moist and tender and full of garlicky flavor, with herbal, earthy undertones from the sazón. To ensure seasoning in every bite, I slashed the leg quarters in my next batch and rubbed some of the mixture into these pockets, too.
A Punchy Postmarinade
It occurred to me that I could ratchet up the garlicky heat and vinegary bite by making a postmarinade—essentially, an upgrade to my mom’s salad dressing trick. I mashed six cloves of garlic with salt and then mixed this with vinegar, olive oil, pepper, and lots of chopped cilantro. To take the raw edge off the garlic, I heated the mixture in an aluminum pan on the grill and added the chicken to it as each piece finished cooking. I let the marinade sizzle over the heat for a few minutes and then let the pan stand off the heat so that the chicken juices would mingle with the sauce.
I grilled the chicken for my mom, spooning the marinade on top. I knew I’d hit all the right Nuyorican flavor notes when I looked over to see her holding a denuded leg, chewing at the bone.