Fowl-mouthed inspiration: Riffing on Gordon Ramsay’s Sticky Lemon Chicken

by Terry B on February 18, 2009

Lemons, garlic, honey and thyme bring a lively flavor to the table quickly, for a delicious weeknight dinner. Sticky Lemon Chicken recipe below.

When children are very young, their first experiences of playing with other children are actually playing next to other children. They don’t truly interact with one another, but for them, playing side-by-side is the beginning of their social lives. There’s a school of thought in cooking that mirrors this experience, the idea that putting ingredients next to one another actually achieves some meaningful interaction among them.

You know what I mean—recipes that include instructions like “lay sprigs of rosemary around the roast” or “place a whole peeled apple in the chicken cavity”… Or my favorite, recipes that instruct you to rub lamb chops, steaks, slices of baguette or anything with a cut clove of garlic. In my experience, this technique is a perfect way to waste a clove of garlic and five or so minutes of your life. It adds nothing to the flavor of anything, so far as I can tell. Ingredients have to fully commit to a dish and mix it up with the others to have an impact on the final taste.

So alarm bells should have been going off in my head when I read the Sticky Lemon Chicken recipe in Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food. It called for putting sprigs of thyme, slices of lemon and a head of garlic cut in half into the pan along with the chicken. And for seasoning the chicken itself only with salt and pepper. But this was Gordon-bleeping-Ramsay, almost as famous for exquisite cooking as he is for his expletive-laced tirades at anyone unlucky enough to cross his path in the kitchen. I told myself it would be okay.

And it was okay, but only okay. For all the big aromas filling the kitchen, the finished chicken was only subtly flavored by the big-flavored ingredients. Still, those aromas told me that there was something there, that if I could get everything to, well, play together a little more instead of merely side-by-side, I would have something. For starters, I decided I would use some chopped garlic, rather than the impressive looking but ineffectual halved garlic head. Some lemon juice in addition to the slices, also pretty to look at but not much on imparting flavor. And finally, dried thyme instead of the sprigs—some of it sprinkled directly on the chicken before cooking and some more in the pan with the juices.

Next we went to the Internet, which turned up something very, very interesting. Marion found an actual video of Gordon Ramsay cooking this very same dish—only with significant differences from the recipe in his own book, both in technique and ingredients! A number of food sites commented on that fact, one blogger even postulating that some inept intern had taken less than perfect notes that made it into the book. Not sure I buy that, but the whole thing speaks to the perils of becoming an empire and not being able to control every aspect of your own work. I’ll include the video in the Kitchen Notes below, in case you’d like to see how Ramsay cooks his dish. Meanwhile, here’s how I cooked it.

Sticky Lemon Chicken
Serves 4

8 to 10 pieces of chicken [4 drumsticks and thighs or a whole chicken cut up]
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons dried thyme, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar [or red wine vinegar]
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 lemon, thickly sliced [into 6 or so slices]

Season chicken on both sides with salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon of thyme. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high flame. Add oil and brown chicken until golden on both sides [in batches, if necessary], about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to plate and reduce heat to medium.

Sauté garlic until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add sherry vinegar and cook down until reduced by half. Add soy sauce, honey, remaining thyme, water and lemon juice to pan and stir to combine. Return chicken to pan, turning to coat with sauce. Add lemon slices. Cook until sauce has reduced to a syrupy consistency, about 10 to 12 minutes, turning chicken frequently to coat with sauce. Chicken should be done by that time; pierce a thick piece with a knife point to see that juices run clear.

Transfer chicken to serving platter or divide among 4 plates. Drizzle sauce over chicken and use lemon slices as garnish. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

“Do as I say, not as my book says.” Here’s the video of Gordon Ramsay preparing his Sticky Lemon Chicken. You can see he really loves food. He loves helping people make it in their homes too and is quite charming here. As I said, though, what he cooks here is not the recipe I found in his book. If you’d like to try making the version you see here, Brandon over at Brandon Eats has made a valiant attempt to transcribe the recipe from the video.

All that said, Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food is an intriguing, approachable cookbook, with a number of recipes I’m looking forward to trying. It’s filled with helpful cooking tips and is surprisingly flexible—”if you can’t find this, substitute this”—considering how imperious Chef Ramsay can be in a professional kitchen.

“Whatever you do, don’t say as I say.” Below, you’ll get a glimpse of his I-need-an-anger-management-intervention TV side. This video is neither work friendly nor kid friendly, so watch where you watch it. If you’ve read About Blue Kitchen, you know I’m no stranger to the occasional F bomb, but Ramsay carpet bombs with them. And while mine are generally directed at inanimate objects—missing ingredients, water that refuses to boil—his are directed at people. Not sure how much is TV persona and how much is actual personality defect, but I’m thinking he could dial it down a little and everyone would still get the point. Then again, he’s the one with the TV show, not me.


{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) February 18, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Putting aside all of Gordon Ramsay’s histrionics, the guy can cook. Now, if you were to roast a whole chicken, using these same flavors and basting with the sauce made of garlic, lemon, thyme and honey, that would be delicious — the same principle you’ve used to cook the chicken in pieces on the stovetop. And no expletives required!

Carmen February 18, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Mmmmmmmm! This sounds divine. I just may make it tonight! Thanks for the inspiration.

Randi February 18, 2009 at 6:17 pm

This is perfect for a weekday meal! I never understood roasting a chicken with a half of a lemon or onion in the cavity. It always seemed like a waste. Most of the juice stays in the fruit and I never noticed any difference in flavour or tenderness. The slices make sense as there is a larger surface area and the juice sacs would come apart in the heat like in your recipe. Same with a sprig of rosemary or thyme. Useless unless it’s languishing in a liquid or nested up beside something like a piece of fat or a softening vegetable. I like flavour in my food. I don’t want to have to look for it. And like you said, it looks nice but it’s not doing anything. Glad you brought it up.

Laura February 18, 2009 at 7:00 pm

The man is a bit of an enigma today, I’ll admit. Glad you got the recipe to work for you!

Carol February 18, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Great word picture of very young children playing compared with halved cloves of garlic in a pan. I am reminded of a science class dealing with the very physics of that garlic…a chopped clove has more surface area exposed, more chance of flavor to be released more quickly.

Don’t you just love it…all in a days Cooking Blog.

Chocolate Shavings February 18, 2009 at 10:22 pm

That seems right up my alley – looks delicious!

Kathleen February 18, 2009 at 10:49 pm

This looks as good as it sounds.

It just does.

Carolyn February 19, 2009 at 12:03 am

Love the picture. I can smell that chicken across the keyboard! And I love Gordon Ramsay, too, although I never can hear what he’s saying–every other word is bleeped on the TV.

Sean February 19, 2009 at 12:18 am

I love this recipe and Gordon Ramsay is an absolute genius in the kitchen. Regardless of what he says in his shows, you can tell that he legitimately cares deeply about the food. I’ve made this dish several times and it’s fast and delicious! I highly recommend people try this dish!

Terry B February 19, 2009 at 2:07 am

Lydia—Well, maybe one or two expletives. I mean, WTF?

Thanks, Carmen! I await your report.

Randi—And honestly, I think the lemon juice did the heavy lifting, flavorwise. But the slices were so beautiful, I had to add them.

Laura—It’s interesting, even though Ramsay’s foul mouth is apparently part of his on-camera persona, most people seem to like or admire him in spite of it, not because of it. It’s one thing to cultivate a bad boy image, but this is just abusive.

Carol—And when I chop garlic, I always bash it with the side of a knife first. This rough treatment causes it to release even more oils than mere slicing.

Thanks, Chocolate Shavings!

Kathleen—It is. It just is. Thanks.

Carolyn—For once, broadcast TV seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? And as I said, I’m a fan of F bombs myself—they can be so expressive. I just don’t like them when they’re dropped on people in a mean-spirited way.

Thanks for the recommendation, Sean! Yeah, I’m looking forward to trying more of his recipes.

Paula Maack February 20, 2009 at 8:38 am

Interesting. I am not surprised by the Ramsey story, at all.

Your version looks great. I look forward to trying it!


~ Paula

Ginger February 21, 2009 at 6:36 pm

I am definitely going to try this sometime this week. I love lemon + chicken together so this sounds perfect for me, and not too time consuming!

Mimi February 22, 2009 at 3:36 am

I don’t rub garlic on anything, but I do often layer herbs under meat, chicken or roasted vegetables. I think this imparts a flavor, but maybe it is my imagination.

Perfection, that photo!

katrina February 23, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! This sounds absolutely wonderful and I have to make it SOON. Thank you for this treasure.

Jamie February 24, 2009 at 8:39 am

Hi! Just discovered your blog. Your chicken looks divine, really sticky and tasty. I love lemon chicken and have been staring for weeks at the recipe I made for my wedding luncheon many (many) moons ago. Now I must make and eat! Very fun blog!

Randi February 25, 2009 at 3:02 am

Me again. I just finished making this tonight for dinner tomorrow as I will be pressed for time in the afternoon. I should stop “sampling” the sauce or there won’t be any left tomorrow. It’s yummy!

Rita February 25, 2009 at 3:49 am

I made this for dinner tonight… No leftovers is always a great sign. This was just wonderful! Thank you!

Ishkadebble February 26, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Thank you cursing chef! I get so frustrated with recipes that have flavorful ingredients but a cooking approach that obviates said flavor…. I am off to get some chicken and try your marvelous sounding chicken.

Terry B February 26, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Thanks, Paula! I’m so glad I’ve seen the friendly, food-loving side of Ramsay. The other gets old quickly.

Thanks for stopping by, Ginger!

Mimi—I’ve sometimes done the layering thing, but I find it imparts more fragrance to the kitchen while cooking than it does flavor to the dish.

katrina—I hope you like it!

Thanks, Jamie! I love when I can associate food with memorable events in life.

Randi—Thanks for reporting back. I think I speak for all food bloggers when I say it’s great to hear from people who actually cook the dishes we write about.

Rita—See the comment above—and thanks!

Ishkadebble—Hope you enjoy it!

katrina February 27, 2009 at 9:52 pm

That Ramsay vid was appalling – but, on a happier note, I LOVE your lemon chicken recipe! I almost always sprinkle the chicken with thyme and lemon juice, but your sauce? Fantastic.

Sally July 4, 2009 at 4:48 pm

This sounds yummy and I’m going to try it tonight. Just a quick question. When did you add the other teasp. of thyme and the lemon juice ?

Terry B July 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Thanks, katrina!

Sally—Good catch! I’ve fixed the recipe. You add the remaining thyme and the lemon juice to the sauce when you add the liquids. When cooking meat or fish in a sauce and adding herbs or spices, I like to season both the meat and the sauce with them. Hope you enjoy the chicken!

andy April 15, 2012 at 2:45 am

i really enjoy this recipe both cooking and eating, especially the eating. when I make the sauce though i add a few tweaks to it for my personal taste. firstly I always added the extra garlic and lemon as mentioned above as well as the dried thyme. Parsley is a great addition as in the video but mainly my changes are firstly to not add the water. to me the only possible problem I had with this was not strong enough flavours. why would I dilute it then? secondly I add a small amount of sieved corn flour to thicken the sauce not too much or you’ll taste it. but for me it was a big improvement you get a really thick and more tasteful version of this delicious sauce . obviously you’d need more of all the ingredients. oh also I cut slice the chicken and insert garlic chunks to be removed before eating to add extra flavour to the meat as well as sauce. don’t know; maybe it sounds like sacrilege to some people but i swear it works.

andy April 15, 2012 at 2:53 am

well there are plenty of ways to thicken a sauce but i didnt want to add butter for a beurre manié or milk for a a roux so i just stuck with flour. im sure there is better than corn flour though. probably instant blending would be best

Julius Ray, Jr. September 8, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Good chicken recipe, I like it. But I would like to see more sauce, that’s where all the flavors are. Next time I will increase the recipe. But it does taste great. Add rice and cabbage and you have dinner. My sweetheart is gonna give me so many kisses.

John/Kitchen Riffs February 10, 2016 at 9:02 am

I’m with you — I’ve never been able to figure out how rubbing something with garlic is supposed to add flavor that any normal human can detect. Maybe someone with a really, really refined palate. But that’s not me. Or most of us, I’ll wager. Fun post — thanks.

Lou February 10, 2016 at 10:24 pm

Keep Gordon in the kitchen and out of “remaking” restaurants ! Within 15 miles of our abode in Newbury Park, CA, he came in to “remake” two restaurants–one a struggling, but pretty good, alternative Mexican Restaurant, the other a family owned Greek restaurant that was marginal (I lived in Chicago for 56 years). Within maybe six months of his “redos,” the Mexican restaurants closed and the Greek place, trying to cope with a dwindling clientele, took out an ad in the local paper announcing they’re going back to their original menu and saw a significant increased in patronage.

Terry B February 12, 2016 at 10:14 pm

Thanks, John!

I agree, Lou. And personally, I would like to see reality TV in general get out of the food and restaurant business.

Dr. M February 16, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Ok, you have to go and find some of Chef Ramsey’s shows that are produced for non-US audiences. He is a completely different person – closer to the Chef in the first video but even more subdued, soft-spoken, even *nice* to people. It is so hilariously funny to watch if you’ve watched any of his shows here, eg Hell’s Kitchen. The first time my husband and I saw one of the other shows (I’d link to it but can’t remember the name, produced for England I think), we thought it was a spoof or an SNL skit or something. Nope. We couldn’t stop laughing at demure Chef Ramsey.

Oh and this recipe seems very French and delicious, even for chicken. I’ll have to try it.

Terry B February 16, 2016 at 10:01 pm

You know, I’ve heard this about him, Dr. M. I really hate what reality TV has done to cooking shows. It used to be something you watched to actually learn to cook. Chefs taught technique. Now it’s all histrionics and treachery and, sadly, people eat it up.

Dr. M February 17, 2016 at 6:56 am

Treachery! Whoa tell us how you really feel. My favorite is Iron Chef, but the Japanese version. It is so intense and they really have to cook. Sadly I never see it on TV anymore, not that I ever have time to watch tv anyway.

NathanP March 2, 2016 at 10:11 am

This recipe would be delicious done on a quartered chicken in a dutch oven.

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