How to Make Chicken Adobo Filipino-Style
A Filipino American chef shares how to simmer succulent homestyle chicken that’s deeply flavored with garlic, black pepper, soy sauce, and vinegar
Above: Filipino Chicken Adobo. Recipe by Jenn de la Vega. Photographs by Brittany Conerly.
Akin to the 90’s family sitcom trope of a kid yelling, “Meatloaf? Again?” it was chicken adobo for me. I would stomp my way to my chair, pouting. My parents said if I didn’t like it, I should learn how to cook my own dinner. That eventually happened, but 30 years later, now that someone isn’t making me eat adobo, I miss it.
“It’s pronounced ah-DOH-boe.” My mom playfully elongates the second syllable as I sheepishly ask for her recipe.
Not to be confused with Latin American and Caribbean adobo seasoning or canned chipotles in adobo sauce, adobo in the Philippines is a braising style that employs a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, black peppercorns, bay leaves, and lots of garlic. You can adobo anything from squid to mushrooms to pork belly, but the age-old standby is chicken. It is a largely unattended and forgiving dish. If the meat was not tender or my parents weren't home yet, we added a cup of water to let it keep simmering away until we heard the garage door roll open.
We gathered around the table every night at 7 p.m. to watch and yell the answers to Jeopardy! together, and more often than I can count, adobo was on the menu.
Adobo wasn’t something that I ate on a plate; I used a small bowl or a Corelle butterfly teacup saucer full of steamed rice. I was not into the bone-in chicken at first. I worked my way to loving drumsticks, but my favorite part of the meal was the sabaw or braising sauce. You may know it as the jus, potlikker, or gravy. With adobo I love it when it’s soupy and loose but some folks like to evaporate it completely to create almost a sticky syrup. Soy sauce and vinegar on their own sound so strong, but simmered together with rendered chicken fat they’re mellowed, savory, and tangy. The chicken flesh becomes tender and easily coaxed from the bone with a spoon. The sliced garlic and whole black peppercorns soak up the broth, yielding surprising pops of flavor.
To define Filipino chicken adobo completely or prescriptively is a daunting task due to its many regional variations. Even in my own family, there are lively discussions of the cuts of meat, proportion of vinegar to soy sauce, additions, and glaring omissions. But with thanks to my mom for her tips, following is my best chicken adobo recipe — for now. I look forward to experimenting anew, again and again.
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Chicken adobo Q&A
Before we get started, let’s address some frequently asked questions about what adobo is and how exactly you bring it to the table.
1. What is chicken adobo?
Chicken adobo is a Filipino dish stewed with soy sauce, vinegar, black peppercorns, garlic, and bay leaves. The method of cooking food in vinegar to preserve it is indigenous to The Philippines, but its name comes from the Spanish verb adobar, to marinate, to cure, to pickle. Spanish colonists in the 1500s likened it to their version of adobo where meats are marinated before cooking. Since the invention of refrigeration, it persists as an enduring way to impart lots of flavor.
2. What to serve with chicken adobo?
Classically, adobo is served with piping hot steamed jasmine rice. It’s the best for soaking up that lovely sabaw, or braising sauce. You can mix and match other grains from brown rice to wild, einkorn, wheat berry, or barley — all better with a bit of toasting before steaming to add nuttiness.
Any starchy substrate will also work, like mashed potatoes, yucca, or sweet potatoes as well as corn-based polenta or buttery grits. I’ve even made a breakfast version of chicken adobo served over savory oats with a fried egg on top.
3. How to store chicken adobo?
Just let the abobo cool, then store it airtight in a container in the fridge or freezer.
4. How long does chicken adobo last?
Due to its acidity, adobo can last up to a week in the fridge or up to 6 months in the freezer 一 a bit longer than a simple roasted chicken, which typically keeps 3 to 4 days. You’ll notice that the chicken fat separates and solidifies as it cools, creating almost a lid like you would see aspic on pate or duck confit. Not to worry, you simply need to reheat it gently over the stovetop or microwave for a few minutes to melt it back down.
4. What to do with leftover chicken adobo?
Chicken adobo the next day has a more developed flavor than on the day you cook it, but if you’re like me and crave a new texture for every meal, chicken adobo breakfast fried rice is my go-to. It’s perfect because day-old rice is the best for frying. All you need to add is the chopped-up chicken, scrambled egg, a few cloves of minced garlic, and a generous pat of butter.
Leftover adobo is also great in sandwiches. Shred it and simmer with the leftover sabaw for sliders. Or mix cubed chicken with a bit of Kewpie mayonnaise and celery for an adobo chicken salad.
Ingredients for chicken adobo
Think of adobo as a base recipe for experimentation.
Chicken. Opt for bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces or a whole chicken cut into parts, rather than boneless. Chicken skin holds a lot of flavorful chicken fat, and the bones help deepen the cooking liquor. If you know you love specific parts, you can purchase all chicken thighs, legs, wing, or chicken breast.
Vinegar. The real star of the show is vinegar. In my mom’s recipe, she mixes two types for a sweet but perfumey bite: native sugarcane vinegar (Filipino dark Datu Puti Sukang Iloco native vinegar or the white vinegar from sugarcane) with a little apple cider vinegar. When tinkering with adobo, it’s best to err on the side of more vinegar, which can mellow out, versus extra soy sauce, which has to be absorbed by other items.
Soy sauce. You’ve got several options. Datu Puti, a native soy sauce from The Philippines, is made with wheat and tends to be on the saltier side. (Soy sauce came to The Philippines with the Chinese diaspora.) My mom opts for low-sodium soy sauce which she tempers with a bit of kosher salt and pineapple juice. Those with gluten sensitivities may shy away from adobo because of the soy sauce, but some tamari brands are now gluten-free (which I prefer, so I can cook for more people!).
Garlic. Fresh garlic is paramount to make your adobo sing. At minimum, I use a full head, about 10 to 12 cloves garlic per batch. You can simply smash the cloves for a lighter touch or fully grate them with a microplane for more sting. I halve the cloves and smash each half for shaggy medallions that soak up the sabaw.
Bay leaves. If you can get your hands on fresh California bay leaves, try them. Otherwise, dry Turkish leaves work just as well. Fish them out before serving or warn your guests not to chew on them. They enhance savory flavors and add a deep herbaceousness.
Black peppercorn. The majority of adobo recipes leave the peppercorns whole, softening as they simmer. I prefer a coarse grind with some whole pieces left in.
Salt. Kosher salt is used sparingly to season the chicken at first and only to adjust at the end because the soy sauce does the majority of the lifting in terms of seasoning.
Optional ingredients. Ready to play with adobo? My mom subs in a pound of pork ribs and my auntie Grace subs in cubed pork belly or shoulder to add complexity and more fat content (though be sure to cook the pork pieces until tender and falling apart).
My mom also uses 1/2 cup pineapple juice to sweeten the sabaw and tenderize the meat. Tamarind juice will do the same job but don’t let the adobo sit overnight because it will make the meat mealy. Instead of adding water to keep the simmer going, I sometimes use chicken broth to make the adobo a tad richer. My cousin Rita adds a can of coconut milk to up the fat percentage, which simmers down to a silky creamy sabaw.
To stretch out the meal, you can toss in peeled and cubed potato, green unripe papaya, chayote, or peeled hard-boiled eggs in the last 10 minutes of cooking. For those who love fire, add a chopped Thai chili pepper as they do in Bicol.
Get the Filipino chicken adobo recipe
Now you can simmer your way to tender, succulent chicken deeply flavored with garlic, pepper, and a song of soy sauce and vinegar. It’s a one-pot, easy clean-up recipe with minimal prep time. The total time to make the adobo is about 2 hours, but for easy weeknight cooking, you can brown the chicken in a Dutch oven one day and refrigerate it in the marinade; then the next day, cook it to tenderness over low heat. Don’t forget a side of white rice!
Variations on chicken adobo
Now that you know your way around chicken adobo, you can try out recipes with alternative sweeteners like pineapple chunks, honey, and brown sugar, or alternative vinegars like white vinegar or rice vinegar. In a hurry? Reach for an Instant Pot, or prep in the morning and go with hands-off cook time in a slow cooker. Try chicken adobo with pork like my family does, as wings on game days, in fried rice, or in a sandwich when you pack lunch to go.
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