Cilantro Lime Chicken is grill-friendly, freezer-friendly, kid-friendly, and perhaps most importantly, taco-friendly. Whether your serving it up in a shell, on a salad, or alongside classic suppertime sides, this easy grilled (or baked) chicken thighs recipe is guaranteed to become a go-to.
As the lazy days of summer wind down, and we’re getting deep in that last bag of charcoal, wondering if it’s worth buying another (the answer is always yes!), I’m starting to think more about checking off back-to-school boxes.
First, I need easy, fast meals at my fingertips. These aren’t all-bets-are-off days, these are stick-to-the-plan days. Second, I need those meals to be everyone friendly. Third, I need those meals to be budget friendly. (That’s less about the time of year and more about this time of life. Have you tried to buy…literally anything these days?)
That’s where grilled cilantro lime chicken come in. Once we get deeper into the winter months, I often turn to slow cooker cilantro lime chicken. But while the weather is still pleasant enough for grilling, my backyard gets the most action.
So let’s check those boxes.
✔ Fast Prep. The cilantro lime marinade works in as little as 30 minutes, or you can prep that morning and cook that evening.
✔ Fast Cook. Marinated chicken thighs take about 15 minutes on the grill or 30 minute in the oven. Both cooking methods give you plenty of time to whip up sides (or taco toppings!).
✔ Bold Flavor. Flavor without fuss is my favorite recipe “hack”. Cilantro lime marinade is a f-f-f-f-f-flavor bomb. It’s punchy enough to satisfy the gourmands, and friendly enough to work for those…less so (bless their hearts). It pairs with almost anything and everything (we’re fond of stuffing it into tacos or serving over rice and veggies.)
✔ Frugal. Boneless chicken thighs are still some of the best inexpensive protein in the market. We love ’em for being a bit fattier (and therefore tastier) than chicken breasts. Plus, with the size of chicken breasts these days, chicken thighs also help us manage portion control.
Cilantro Lime Marinade Key Ingredients
- Limes: use several fresh limes, and you’ll want to zest at least one for the marinade. Plus, fresh lime juice has more intense flavor.
- Garlic: I like to chop my own, but you can used minced garlic from a jar. One tablespoon of chopped, jarred garlic is about 3 cloves.
- Cilantro: fresh is a MUST.
- Olive Oil: oil is the binder that keeps everything “sticking” to the meat. Use regular, not extra virgin olive oil, which has a low smoke point. Avocado oil is also great for high heat cooking.
- Cumin and Red Pepper Flakes: cumin is savory, and a classic pairing with cilantro and garlic; the red pepper flakes are for heat and can be adjusted to taste (or omitted entirely for sensitive palettes). Always make sure your spices are fresh! Rub a bit of spice between your fingers. If it’s very aromatic, it’s still good. If it smells dull, it’s time for a replacement.
How Long Do I Grill Chicken?
Chicken thighs, cooked over high heat, are ready in 10-12 minutes (cook 5-6 minutes per side, flipping once mid-way).
Chicken breasts will cook in about the same amount of time if they’ve been first pounded to an even thickness of just under an inch. If not, add 1-2 minutes per side, as thicken breasts are thicken than chicken thighs.
Chicken should be cooked to at least 165°F to prevent food-borne illnesses. While there are plenty of “hacks” floating around the internet for testing whether or not a piece of chicken is fully cooked through, our preferred method is simple – an instant read thermometer.
Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken thigh and wait 5-10 seconds for the temperature to register. This is the safest way to know that chicken is fully cooked through.
How to Make Cilantro Lime Chicken
This easy recipe starts with a fast, fresh, flavorful marinade and ends with tender, juicy Cilantro Lime Chicken. Serve as-is with vegetables and rice, or slice and pair with salads, bowls, or tacos. It’s as versatile as it is tasty!
- Whisk the marinade ingredients in a large bowl.
- Add the chicken to the marinade, then toss until each piece is well coated.
- Cover the bowl and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, and up to 8 hours. Two hours is the sweet spot for tender meat with a flavor infused crust.
- Grill over high heat (450°F) with the lid open for 5-6 minutes per side.
- Rest for 5 minutes before serving. Slice against the grain, if desired, then garnish with more cilantro and lime wedges.
- Marinate at least 30 minutes, and up to 12 hours, but 2 hours is the sweet spot.
- Use regular olive oil, not extra virgin, in this cilantro lime marinade for chicken. It has a higher smoke point. You can also substitute avocado oil.
- Make sure the internal temperature of your cilantro lime chicken registers 165°F using an instant read thermometer.
- Trim excess fat from the chicken thighs using kitchen shears. The fat will get tough and gummy in a quickly cooked recipe like this one.
- Want it extra spicy? Increase the red pepper flakes or throw in a minced jalapeno or two.
- Want is a bit sweet? Add one tablespoon of honey or brown sugar to the grilled chicken marinade.
What Does Lime Juice Do to Chicken?
Marinating chicken with lime juice (or any other acidic element) will initially help to tenderize the chicken and will also infuse the exterior crust with flavor.
When it comes to tenderizing chicken and adding moisture, acid acts similarly to salt, but it has a limit. An acid will initially help to loosen the protein structure in chicken, freeing up moisture molecules and creating a juicier bite. But if chicken sits in an acidic marinade for too long, it will have the opposite effect.
TLDR? An acidic marinade, like lime juice, can make chicken juicier, more tender, and more flavorful, but don’t overdo it. Two hours is the sweet spot, but don’t go longer than 12.
Can I Use Chicken Breasts?
Yes! This cilantro lime chicken marinade also works great for grilled chicken breasts. Be sure to pound breasts to an even thickness before marinating for a quicker cook time and evenly cooked chicken. Add 1-2 minutes to the grilling time if needed, and ensure the chicken is cooked to at least 165°F.
Can I Bake Cilantro Lime Chicken?
Yes! If you don’t have access to a grill, or you’d prefer baked cilantro lime chicken thighs, they’ll come out of the oven just as tasty. Don’t try to squeeze them in a skillet – they need some breathing room to evenly bake.
Arrange the marinated chicken on a parchment or foil lined baking sheet for easy clean-up. Bake at 425°F for 25 minutes, or until the internal temperature reads at least 165°F using an instant read thermometer.
Boneless chicken thighs are great for freezer prep. And in case you didn’t know, you can totally freeze them right in the marinade!
Prepare the cilantro chicken marinade and pour in a gallon freezer-safe ziploc bag. Add the chicken thighs and make sure they’re well-coated. Squeeze out excess air and pop it in the freezer for up to 3 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight, then grill or bake as directed.
What to Serve With Cilantro Lime Chicken
What we love about this cilantro lime chicken recipe is how versatile it is when it comes to serving – you can either punch up the flavor bomb, or pair it with subtly-seasoned sides.
- Make tacos! Cilantro Lime Chicken Tacos are a family favorite, and because the recipe doubles easily, it’s also great for dinner parties served taco-bar style.
- Rice is a great companion for all kinds of grilled chicken recipes. Kick it up a notch with Mexican Green Rice, keep it simple with a instant pot rice or double-down on the flavor profile and opt for Cilantro Lime Cauliflower Rice.
- When it comes to veggie sides, if I’m not going the crisp, fresh taco veggie route, I prefer simply prepared veggies with buttery, nutty undertones to balance the acid – even better if they’re grilled! Try corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, or mexican street corn salad.
Did you make this cilantro lime chicken? I’d love to know how it turned out! Leave a comment and a rating below.
Cilantro Lime Chicken (Grilled or Baked)Print Recipe Rate this Recipe Pin Recipe
- 3 limes
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground pepper
- 1 tsp cumin
- ¼ tsp red pepper flakes, up to 1 tsp total for additional heat
- ¾ c chopped cilantro, divided
- ⅓ c olive oil
- 2 lb boneless skinless chicken thigh, excess fat trimmed
- Zest one lime to create about 1 teaspoon lime zest. Juice two limes to create ¼ cup fresh lime juice. Slice the third lime into wedges and reserve for garnish.
- Combine the lime juice, lime zest, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, red pepper flakes, ½ cup cilantro, and olive oil into a bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined.
- Add the chicken and toss until well coated with marinade. Cover tightly and marinate at least 30 minutes, but preferably 2 hours and up to 8.
- Light a charcoal or gas grill to high heat (450°F), or light a grill pan under a high flame.
- Using tongs, remove the chicken thighs from the marinade and place on the grill. Grill 5-6 minutes per side with the lid open, flipping once, or until the internal temperature registers 165°F using an instant read thermometer.
- Remove the chicken from the grill, place on a cutting board, and rest 5 minutes.
- Slice the chicken against the grain, then sprinkle with the remaining fresh cilantro. Serve with lime wedges, and enjoy right away.
- Heat the oven to 425°F.
- Arrange the chicken on a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet in an even layer with a bit of space between each piece of chicken.
- Transfer to the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the internal temperature registers 165°F using an instant-read thermometer.
- Rest the chicken for five minutes, then slice against the grain. Garnish liberally with the remaining chopped cilantro and serve with lime wedges.