How to Make the Best Grilled Chicken
From the heat of jerk chicken to the smokiness of classic barbecue chicken, grilled chicken is a summertime classic and a crowd pleaser. But while grilling chicken over a fire might seem straightforward, chicken is prone to drying out and sauces can be cloying. Over the years we’ve come up with the best grilled chicken recipes and all the ingredients, equipment, and techniques you’ll need for perfect grilled chicken.
Here’s how to break down a chicken, set up your grill, and avoid the top grilling mistakes when preparing a grilled chicken recipe.
Types of Fires
The biggest grilling mistake most people make happens before the food even hits the cooking grate: they set up the wrong type of fire. Here are the four grill setups we use in our grilled chicken recipes.
A single-level fire delivers an even level of heat and is often used for small, quick-cooking pieces of chicken, usually boneless kebabs. It is made by arranging the hot coals in an even layer across the bottom of the grill.
A two-level fire creates two cooking zones—a hotter area for searing and a slightly cooler area to cook the food through more gently. This type of fire is often used for bone-in chicken pieces. It is made by arranging two-thirds of the hot coals in an even layer across the bottom of the grill and pouring the remaining coals over just half of the grill.
A half-grill fire, much like a two-level fire, creates two cooking zones, but here the difference in heat level between the two zones is much more dramatic: one side is intensely hot since it has all the coals, and the other side is very cool because it has none. This type of fire if used for two reasons: to make a concentrated, super-hot fire for fast and vigorous searing; and to make the cooler cooking zone more controlled for very lean and easily overcooked chicken pieces. It is made by arranging the hot coals over half of the grill and leaving the other half of the grill empty.
The double-banked fire was created to help avoid flare-ups. We employ the double-banked fire in several grilled chicken recipes. When the coals are banked into two piles on opposite sides of the grill, leaving the center empty, the chicken can be placed in the center of the grill and receive a steady, even level of heat from both sides. As the chicken cooks, its fat renders and drips down into the center of the grill (we usually place a pan there to catch the drips), so we don’t have to worry about the fat hitting hot coals and causing flare-ups that could scorch the skin. This type of fire is made by dividing the hot coals into two steeply baked piles on opposite sides of the grill, leaving the center of the grill empty.
Avoiding the Top Grilling Mistakes
Preparing a grilled chicken recipe, whether on a gas or charcoal grill, takes practice, patience, and attention to detail. Here are some tips to ensure that your outdoor cooking remains rewarding, successful, and safe.
1. STAY AWAY FROM DANGEROUS LOCATIONS
Make sure the grill is located in an out-of-the-way spot several feet from your home (and children and pets, for that matter).
2. DON’T RUN OUT OF FUEL
You don’t want the grill to peter out before the food is cooked, so make sure you have enough fuel on hand. This means at least 6 quarts of charcoal.
3. KEEP YOUR GRILL CLEAN
Check the drip pan on your gas grill; built-up grease can be a fire hazard. On a charcoal grill, dispose of ashes left over from previous grilling before firing it up again. These ashes will affect cooing times and give off-flavors.
4. CLEAN AND OIL THE COOKING GRATE BEFORE COOKING
This will prevent foods from sticking and picking up off-flavors.
5. THINK AHEAD
Gas grills need to preheat for 15 minutes, and charcoal takes about 5 minutes once the coals are hot to achieve the proper temperature. Be sure to factor these times into your plans.
6. AVOID CROSS-CONTAMINATION
Use separate platters for raw foods and cooked foods, clean utensils after handling raw foods, and always dispose of leftover marinades. When basting chicken, pour what you need for cooking into a separate dish and set aside the rest for serving.
7. DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER
Chicken parts with nice grill marks can still be raw in the middle. An instant-read thermometer is the most effective tool for checking doneness.
8. BIGGER (AND HOTTER) ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
Gas grills have knobs for a reason, so adjust the heat as necessary to keep things in control. For charcoal grilling, use only the amount of coals specified in the recipe.
9. SAVE THE SAUCE UNTIL THE END
Sauces are affected by intense heat. If the sauce is applied to your chicken too early, the sugars in it may char and become bitter. There are exceptions, but we typically apply sauces 5 minutes before the food is done.
10. WATCH THE WEATHER
If it is cold or windy, you may need to cook foods for a few minutes longer than directed.
Breaking Down a Chicken
It may seem intimidating, but carving a whole grilled chicken isn't difficult. Here are the step-by-step tips you'll need to make this task effortless every time.
Cut where the leg meets the breast, then pull the leg away. Separate the joint by pressing the leg out and pushing up on the join, then cut through the joint.
Cut through the joint that connects the drumstick to the thigh. Repeat on the second side to remove the other leg.
Cut down along one side of the breastbone, pulling the breast meat away from the bone as you cut.
Remove the wing from the breast by cutting through the wing joint. Slice the breast into attractive slices.
An Easy Solution for Dry Chicken Breast Meat
PROBLEM: DRY BREAST MEAT
CAUSE: White meat. Chicken is lean, especially the breast meat, which tends to dry out.
SOLUTION: Brine, then rinse.
To brine 4 pounds of chicken, dissolve 1/2 cup table salt in 2 quarts of cold water in large bowl. Add chicken, cover bowl, and refrigerate for up to 1 hour. The brine also flavors the meat.
After you've brined it, rinse the chicken well to remove excess salt. The salt has already done its job, changing the molecular structure of the meat to help it retain its juices when cooked.
An Easy Solution for Flabby Chicken Skin
PROBLEM: FLABBY SKIN
CAUSE: Anxiety. Sure, indirect heat is safe (no towering infernos), but it won't ever get that crisp skin.
SOLUTION: Render, then sear.
1. START LOW
Arrange the chicken skin-side down on the cooler side of the grill. Cook, covered, until the fat has rendered and the skin is crisp and golden, about 20 minutes.
2. GO HIGH
Move the chicken to the hot side of the grill, and continue to cook, turning occasionally, until both sides are well browned and the white meat registers 160 degrees (175 for dark meat).
An Easy Solution for Sticking Skin
PROBLEM: STICKING SKIN
CAUSE: Moisture. Wet skin sticks to the grill. And if the grates are dirty, forget about saving the skin.
SOLUTION: Dry skin, oil grate.
1. BLOT DRY
Shrink-wrapped packaging makes chicken skin very wet. Brining and rinsing make matters worse. Blot the chicken dry with paper towels before cooking it.
2. CLEAN GRATE
Brush the hot grill grate clean. Next, dip a wad of paper towels in vegetable oil and use a pair of long-handled tongs to grease the clean grate.
An Easy Solution for Charred Chicken Skin
PROBLEM: CHARRED SKIN
CAUSE: Twofold. The fat drips down and causes big flare-ups, or sweet sauces burn.
SOLUTION: Grill, then glaze.
1. TAKE TEMP
Only when the chicken is nearly done (150 degrees for white meat, 165 for dark) it is ready to glaze.
2. GLAZE LAST
Apply the sauce, flip the chicken skin-side down, and grill it until it's completely done (160 degrees for white meat; 175 for dark meat) and the skin is crisp, 2 to 3 minutes more.
Our Favorite Grilled Chicken Recipes
A basting brush needs to have a handle long enough to reach the chicken without endangering the cook. We determined that 8 inches is the minimum length needed to comfortably brush all the chicken on a grill, even the piece the farthest away. We were surprised, however, to discover that a handle can also be too long.
There are two types of instant-ready thermometers: dial face and digital. Both models are accurate, but we found the digital models to be quicker to register and easier to read. Our winner is affordable and has saved more grilled chicken breasts than we care to remember.
A good grill spatula must perform many tasks well. It needs to help you easily flip grilled chicken parts (and transfer them from the grill), and it needs to have a handle that is long enough to allow you to move chicken pieces around in case of a grill flare up. Our winner does all that and even has built-in bottle opener in the handle.
Tongs come in handy in many steps of grilled chicken recipes. From arranging a chimney full of hot coals to flipping chicken breasts over on the grill, tongs get the job done—but they need to be long enough to keep us a comfortable distance from the fire. Our winner was able to do that, and measured a usable 16 inches.
Anyone who has ever grilled sticky, glazed chicken breasts knows that removing the left-behind burned-on mess is a chore. Traditional wire bristle brushes only last for a few uses, and plastic-handled brushes tend to melt and lose their bristles. We’ve found that brushes with strong, stiff wire bristles and sturdy handles are best.
Many of our charcoal-grilled chicken recipes call for heating the coals using a chimney starter, then arranging the briquettes into a two-level fire. Because of this, we prefer chimney starters that have safety features like a handle that remains cool and a second handle that provides leverage when maneuvering the chimney starter or banking the coals for a two-level fire.
Key Ingredients for Grilled Chicken
Picking out a quality chicken at the supermarket is a guessing game. We wanted to know what terms guaranteed a flavorful bird. We found that genetic and environmental factors mattered very little when it came to flavor or texture. The biggest factor in flavor turned out to be none other than salt.
We prefer homemade barbecue sauce, but there’s something to be said for the convenience of bottled, which can be slathered on a grilled chicken breast to make a recipe even quicker. Sugar proved the determining factor in our testing—but not all sugars are created equal. Our top picks had molasses listed high in their ingredient lists. When this sweetener’s robust, distinct flavor was in short supply, the sauces fell flat.
Our Favorite Grilled Chicken Recipes
Invented in the 1940s by a Cornell University professor, this tangy, crisp-skinned grilled chicken has been a star attraction at the New York State Fair ever since. The original grilled chicken recipe and method remain unchanged at the fair, where half chickens are basted with a tangy sauce while they cook over a custom-made grill that elevates the birds exactly 26 inches about the coals. We wanted to adapt this grilled chicken recipe for the backyard grill.
While you might think barbecue grilled chicken means a sticky red sauce requiring lots of napkins, they do it a little different in northern Alabama. They eschew tomato altogether and slather a mayonnaise-based sauce on hickory-smoked grilled chicken.
A classic of the barbecue circuit, grilled beer-can chicken involves resting a whole chicken upright on a can of beer and grill-roasting it. The odd technique for making grilled chicken accomplishes two things at once: As the beer turns to steam, it flavors the interior of the chicken and keeps it moist, while smoke bathes the exterior and turns the skin crisp.
Perhaps Jamaica’s greatest export, jerk seasoning is a spicy blend of chiles, herbs, and spices applied to a wide variety of grilled meats; chicken, perhaps, being the most popular. Many grilled jerk chicken recipes we have tried have been too fiery to taste, or conversely, bland as can be. And some recipes require a long list of ingredients and diligent blending. We wanted a simple spicy jerk seasoning we could whip up in minutes for grilled chicken.
Despite their straightforward appearance, grilled chicken kebabs are difficult to prepare. The chicken is all too prone to drying out and the vegetables rarely cook through. We wanted to find a method for grilling kebabs that yielded tender, juicy grilled chicken and well-cooked vegetables.
In the traditional recipe for Huli Huli Chicken, grilled chicken is continually basted with a sticky-sweet sauce and “huli”-ed, which means turned, in Hawaiian. We wanted to find a way to add this to our backyard grilled chicken repertoire.
Smoky grilled chicken smothered in a thick barbecue sauce is one of America’s favorite summer meals. But despite its popularity, this grilled chicken recipe can cause plenty of headaches; one of the most common problems is grilled chicken that is nearly blackened on the outside yet bloody near the bone. We set out to change all that.
The advantages of butterflying a chicken are many—it creates a flat surface that makes for easy grilling; you can easily rub seasonings directly under the skin to flavor the meat; and the skin becomes especially crisp. But many recipes we tried for grilled butterflied chicken resulted in scorched skin and leathery meat. Still others put the chicken through a routine of flips and rotations on the grill that seemed to prolong the cooking time.
Stuffing chicken breasts and grilling them over a smoky fire sounds like a great way to dress up this mild cut, but only if the meat stays juicy and the filling packs a flavorful punch. A 30-minute soak in oil, lemon juice, and garlic gave the chicken the protection it needed against drying out on the grill, plus an extra boost of flavor to complement the stuffing.
While a sauce can achieve a nice, attractive glaze for grilled chicken, it can’t penetrate to deeply flavor the chicken like a dry rub can. We wanted to create a dry rub that would perform double duty: flavor our grilled chicken and also develop a beautiful glaze.