Grilled Chicken 101
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 techniques you’ll need for perfect grilled chicken.
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.
Easy Solutions for Common Grilled Chicken Problems
Dry meat, flabby skin, charred skin and skin that just won’t let go of the grill are all too common problems when grilling chicken. Here’s why they happen—and how to keep then from happening to you.
PROBLEM: DRY BREAST MEAT
CAUSE: White meat. Chicken is lean, especially the breast meat, which tends to dry out.
SOLUTION: Brine, the 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.
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.
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).
PROBLEM: CHARRED SKIN
CAUSE: Twofold. The fat drips down and causes big flare-ups, or sweet sauces burn.
SOLUTION: Grill, the 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
Breaking Down a Chicken, Making Parts
It may seem intimidating, but carving a whole roasted chicken isn't difficult. Here are the step-by-step tips you'll need to make this task effortless every time.
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 cooking 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.