Grilled Butterflied Lemon Chicken

From Cook's Country | April​/May 2007
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Why this recipe works:

To cook whole chickens on the grill, we butterfly our birds, which exposes more of the skin to the fire, and flatten them out for even cooking. Starting them over the cooler side of the grill lets the fat render and the skin dry out, and just a few minutes over the hotter fire crisps the skin.… read more

To cook whole chickens on the grill, we butterfly our birds, which exposes more of the skin to the fire, and flatten them out for even cooking. Starting them over the cooler side of the grill lets the fat render and the skin dry out, and just a few minutes over the hotter fire crisps the skin. To enhance the simple lemon zest, salt, and pepper seasoning, we grill lemons alongside the chickens to use in a flavorful sauce with garlic, parsley, mustard, and olive oil.


Serves 8


  • 2 (4-pound) whole chickens, giblets discarded
  • 5 lemons
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 (13 by 9-inch) disposable aluminum pan (if using charcoal)
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil


  1. 1. Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet. Working with 1 chicken at a time, place chicken breast side down on cutting board. Using kitchen shears, cut through bones on either side of backbone; discard backbone. Trim chicken of excess fat and skin. Flip chicken over and press on breastbone to flatten. Cover chicken with plastic wrap and pound breasts with meat pounder to even thickness.

    2. Grate 2 teaspoons zest from 1 lemon (halve and reserve lemon) and mix with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in bowl. Pat chickens dry with paper towels and, using your fingers or handle of wooden spoon, gently loosen skin covering breasts and thighs. Rub zest mixture under skin, then season exterior of chicken with salt and pepper. Tuck wingtips behind breasts and transfer chickens to prepared rack. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

    3A. FOR A CHARCOAL GRILL: Open bottom vent completely and place disposable pan on 1 side of grill with long side of pan facing center of grill. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over other half of grill (opposite disposable pan). Scatter 20 unlit coals on top of lit coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.

    3B. FOR A GAS GRILL: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn other burner(s) to low. (Adjust primary burner as needed to maintain grill temperature of 350 to 375 degrees.)

    4. Clean and oil cooking grate. Halve remaining 4 lemons and place, along with reserved lemon halves, cut side down on hotter side of grill. Place chickens skin side down on cooler side of grill, with legs pointing toward fire; cover, placing lid vent over chickens on charcoal grill.

    5. Grill lemons until deep brown and caramelized, 5 to 8 minutes; transfer to bowl. Continue to grill chickens, covered, until breasts register 160 degrees and thighs register 175 degrees, 40 to 50 minutes longer. Slide chickens to hotter side of grill and cook, uncovered, until skin is well browned, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer chickens to carving board skin side up, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 15 minutes.

    6. Meanwhile, squeeze 1/3 cup juice from grilled lemons into bowl. (Cut any unsqueezed lemons into wedges for serving.) Using flat side of knife, mash garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt into paste and add to bowl with lemon juice. Whisk in parsley, mustard, sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Slowly whisk in oil until emulsified.

    7. Carve chickens, transfer to serving platter, and pour 1/3 cup vinaigrette over chicken. Serve, passing remaining vinaigrette and grilled lemon wedges separately.

Ten Steps to Grilled Whole Chicken

1. BREAK IT DOWN: Use kitchen shears to remove the backbone from the chicken and open it up like a book.

WHY? Butterflying the chicken means all the skin is on the same side so it can crisp up on the grill.

2. POUND IT OUT: Use a meat pounder to gently pound the breasts to an even thickness.

WHY? Pounding the bird creates a flat surface to encourage even browning and cooking.

3. SEASON UNDER SKIN: Rub a mixture of lemon zest, salt, and pepper under the chicken skin and then season the bird all over with salt and pepper.

WHY? Getting the seasonings in direct contact with the meat helps them permeate and prevents them from burning.

4. REST UNCOVERED: Place the chickens on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, for at least an hour.

WHY? The salt mixture needs time to penetrate; leaving the birds uncovered helps dry out the skin so it crisps on the grill.

5. MAKE LONG-BURNING FIRE: Pour lit coals on one side of the bottom grate and top them with unlit charcoal.

WHY? Using both lit and unlit charcoal creates a longer burning fire so there’s enough heat left to sear the chickens after an hour of gentle cooking.

6. GRILL LEMONS: Place the lemons cut side down over the hotter side of the grill.

WHY? For maximum lemon flavor without the bitterness and pucker of raw lemons, caramelizing the citrus on the grill concentrates the juices and mellows the tang.

7. COOK GENTLY: Place the chickens skin side down on the cooler side of the grill with the legs nearest the heat.

WHY? Moderate heat allows the skin to render without flare-ups, and pointing the legs toward the fire means the delicate white meat won’t overcook.

8. SEAR HOT: Once the skin is golden and the chickens are cooked through, slide them to the hotter side of the grill for a few minutes.

WHY? Once the fat has rendered, the hot fire will crisp the skin and develop flavorful char.

9. LET REST: Tent the chickens loosely with foil and let them rest for 15 minutes.

WHY? Resting the birds allows the juices to redistribute for more moist and flavorful meat.

10. MAKE SAUCE, SERVE: Use the juice from the grilled lemons to make a garlicky vinaigrette for the chicken.

WHY? The smoky lemon juice makes a delicious base for the bold vinaigrette.

Detail sfs butterfliedlemonchicken 8
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