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Mastering Grilled Chicken

Posted on: June 18th, 2012

Cooking chicken can be a little tricky, especially on the grill. It’s not your fault if your chicken legs are burned on the outside and raw in the middle, or that your chicken breasts are dry as a bone – it’s the darn chicken’s fault!

The problem is that chicken breasts are a totally different type of muscle than legs and thighs. Domestic chickens don’t fly, they spend their day walking around and only use their wings in short bursts to run faster.  Because of this, legs and thighs need slower cooking while breasts, especially boneless breasts, cook more quickly.

Quick cooking over high heat produces nicely browned boneless chicken breast that’s moist and juicy.

Boneless Breasts
By far chicken’s most popular cut, boneless breasts cook incredibly quickly because they are so low in fat. I suggest keeping them very cold, and then grilling quickly over direct, medium-high heat on a preheated grill to assure they brown nicely without overcooking. Cooking time depends on conditions, but they usually take about 5 minutes per side on my gas or charcoal grill (longer on the Big Green Egg or with lower heat), rest covered for 5 minutes and serve.

Bone In Breasts
Bones in chicken breasts take longer to cook than boneless, but I think they turn out better.  I suggest seasoning, marinating or brining and cooking over direct medium to medium-high heat just long enough to brown nicely. Then move them to indirect heat to finish slowly, brushing with BBQ or sweet sauces near the end of cooking to glaze without burning.

Browning over direct heat followed by slow cooking over low or indirect heat is the key to great chicken legs.

Chicken Legs and Thighs
These meaty muscles work more than breasts, making them more flavorful and juicy. Dark meats need slower cooking at lower temperatures to get nice and tender and unlock their incredible flavor.

Tony’s Portuguese Chicken Legs

Chicken legs are notorious for burning on the outside before they are done on the inside, especially when skin-on. For the best results preheat a low to medium dual temperature fire (direct medium flame on one side, little to no flame on the other and about 300-350° air temperature). Attentively grill over direct heat to brown, and then move to low or indirect heat (lid closed) to finish slowly. As they near doneness, brush with sauce once or more to glaze.

Notes: If you leave the skin on, use low heat and be extra vigilant.   Legs can also be cooked the entire time over low heat, especially on a Big Green Egg, but do keep an eye on them!

Cook whole birds with indirect heat, or split / butterfly and grill as described in chicken legs above.

Whole Chickens
A rotisserie used with a drip pan produces the ultimate results, but if you don’t have one, use indirect cooking over a drip pan.  Light your coals and when ready, carefully bank them around the outside (or to one side) of a the grill, place a drip pan with plenty of water in the center (or to the side) and replace your cooking grate. You can also turn on one side of a gas grill, and place a drip pan with water under the cooking grate on the other side of the grill.  Make sure the edges are several inches from direct flame and roast with the bird over the drip pan and the lid closed, rotating as needed. Another great method is to support the chicken upright on a ¾ full beer or soda can as in this recipe for Beer Can Chicken.

I learned this trick in Thailand, it works nicely, the only problem is making the bamboo handle!

I am quite partial to split, flattened, butterflied or spatchcock chicken because they end up with more browned surface. Have your butcher cut the bird in half, or remove the backbone as well as the keel bone from the breast (known as flattened, butterflied or spatchcock – our butchers also do a specialty cut we call ‘Flat Chickens’ where we also remove the breast and thigh bones, leaving only the drumstick and wing bones). Season, marinate or brine and cook according to the directions for Chicken Legs and Thighs above.

Whole birds are also great flattened or spatchcocked – Tony’s Flat Chicken pictured.

Seasoning, Marinating and Brining
We’ve got a wide variety of seasoning blends and marinates that are amazing with chicken. Keep in mind that sweet seasonings brown more quickly, and are prone to burning. If your seasoning is even a little sweet, be extra attentive and take advantage of the browning qualities, but don’t let it burn! Low or indirect heat is the key!

Brining is an amazing technique that adds great moisture and flavor, especially with lean, mild tasting meats like chicken breast (as well as turkey and lean pork loin).  We have a variety of brine mixes at Tony’s, simply dissolve in boiling water, chill with ice and soak the meats, chicken pieces and pork chops can benefit greatly with about 3-4 hours in brine. It’s definitely worth trying!

The Big Green Egg is great for grilling chicken!

Big Green Eggs
“Eggheads” know their beloved grills are great for cooking chicken! The coals are much farther away from the cooking surface, reducing flare up and accidental burning. The Big Green Egg used with hardwood coals and/or wood chips also adds great smoky flavor. If you are crazy about grilling, and if you like fancy grilling tools (and who doesn’t!), I strongly recommend adding a Big Green Egg to your cooking arsenal!

Tony’s Buffalo Wing Style Chicken Sausage, always cook chicken sausage to 165° internal!


When is it Done?
This topic can get a little dodgy. The short answer comes from the USDA, and suggests cooking chicken to at least 165°. The problem is that chicken legs can still be a little tough and bloody in the joints at 165°, and chicken breasts tend to be dried out and chewy at this temperature.

For the most tender chicken legs that won’t have any red blood left in the joints, I cook to about 175° internal and then rest, covered for at least five minutes.

Chicken breasts are dramatically leaner, I cook mine to 145-150° internal so they turn out moist and juicy. I do this because salmonella is killed at 130° and the surface (where most bacteria lie) gets much, much hotter than this. Most chefs agree, however, officially the recommended temperature is 165° internal!

For pulled chicken, grill thighs until falling apart tender, shred and toss with your favorite sauce.


Grilled Chicken Breast With Corn And Tomato Salsa

Grilled Chicken for a Crowd

Shredded BBQ Chicken Biscuit Sliders

Grilled Chicken and Greek Salad

Classic Southern-style BBQ Chicken

Orange Grill Roasted Chicken

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