Chicken is always a family and crowd favorite and grilling chicken is a staple summer cooking and cook-outs. It works for both a big party and a simple weeknight dinner and cooking on open flames always seems so Paleo-inspired!
Grilled chicken is delicious, reduces cookware, and is a much faster cooking method than roasting. It can be a simple technique to master, but there are some common mistakes home chefs make often turning their creation into something as flavorless and texturally similar to a dry towel, only less tender.
With a few key tips and techniques, you can have moist, flavorful grilled chicken all summer long.
The Right Size.
Bigger isn't necessarily better. Large birds or even larger pieces of meat (like huge chicken breasts) take much to cook, leaving you with potentially dry, stringy meat. When choosing or portioning pieces, aim for between 5 and 8 ounces. These pieces will cook more quickly and retain more moisture.
A good tip to keep in mind is that bone-in chicken cooks slower than boneless, and thicker cuts take longer than thin. Whole birds take the longest.
Pound Or Butterfly Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts.
The uneven shape of boneless, skinless chicken breasts makes them tricky to grill. By spending a few minutes pounding the thicker end thinner or butterflying them so they are flatter and more even, you will reduce cooking time and end up with more evenly cooked meat.
How to pound chicken breasts: For average or small breasts, use a meat pounder to even out the thickness. Dip the breast lightly in water, set it in a quart-size zippered bag and pound gently with a meat pounder. Avoid pounding straight down, rather pound gently down and away from you. Aim for about a ¾- inch to a 1-inch thickness.
How to butterfly chicken breasts: This works well for breasts that are too large to pound. Using a sharp knife, make a horizontal cut from one side, nearly cutting through to the other. Open up the chicken like a book and gently pound the seam and thicker end to even it out. This will result in a heart–shaped breast.
Spatchcock Whole Chickens.
Grilling whole chickens is certainly impressive and great if you want to appease both white- and dark-meat eaters, but whole chickens take a long time to cook, and it can take some practice to get it perfect (unless you use our great recipe below). Spatchcock (also referred to as butterfly) a whole chicken instead. This means cutting out the backbone so the chicken now lies flat. Not only does this speed up grilling time, but the chicken also cooks more evenly and is easier to carve.
Make Shallow Cuts In The Flesh
More surface area gives a great marinade or rub more to cling to. Pounding or butterflying is one way. Another way is by making shallow ¼” to ½” cuts into the flesh. This allows the marinade to permeate through the meat. This works really well with both chicken on the bone and boneless pieces.
Use A Wet Marinade, Dry Rub Or Brine.
Wet marinades, dry rubs and brines all add flavor and moisture to chicken (which can sometimes benefit from a flavor infusion!) as well as act as a tenderizer.
The wet marinade: A wet marinade is any type of highly seasoned liquid, such as herb or spice pastes, wines, spiced oils, vinaigrettes, yogurt/buttermilk (if consuming dairy). If your marinade includes something very acidic, like vinegar, wine or citrus, keep the marinating time relatively short (between 30 minutes and 3 hours depending upon the size of your portions) and cut it with a little olive oil. Yogurt and buttermilk, which are both rich in lactic acid, are much less acidic and can stand a longer marinating time of 2 to 6 hours. Non-acidic marinades, like herbs and spices mixed with oils, can sit for 2 to 10 hours.
Marinade cheat: Pickle juice, especially if it is highly seasoned, mixed with a little oil, makes a great instant marinade. Leftover vinaigrette is very good, too. Be mindful of your vinaigrette ingredients and sugars (even the Paleo friendly varieties) can burn quickly meaning you will need to pay attention when on the grill.
The dry rub: A dry rub is usually a blend of dried spices, herbs, salt, pepper and sometimes sugar. The effects of dry rubs are practically instant. You can marinate for minutes or hours to add even more flavor. Foods rubbed with dry spices should be cooked over indirect heat, otherwise the sugar and spices will burn.
How to brine chicken: A brine is a mixture of salt, water, aromatics and sweetener. Not technically a marinade, a brine is an incredibly effective way to infuse flavor and moisture into meat, especially leaner cuts like chicken breasts. Depending upon the salt/sweetner/water ratio, (we recommend 1 part each salt and honey/maple syrup and 5 parts water) boneless chicken can brine for 2 to 4 hours, while bone-in can go overnight.
Clean, Oil And Preheat Your Grill.
Dirty grates are not only unappetizing, they also make foods stick. Heat the grill and brush the grates with a hard wire grill brush. To remove even more caked on grime, crumple up a damp paper bag or newspaper and rub it over the grates using tongs. Follow up with a damp paper towel. Be sure to thoroughly clean the grill regularly. Built-up grease can cause flare-ups and fires. Brush your grates after each use, too.
If you are using a gas grill, allow at least 10 minutes for the grill to heat up. If a charcoal grill is your choice, preheat for a minimum 30 minutes. Avoid adding food to an under-heated grill as it is guaranteed to stick.
Once the grates are clean and hot, carefully rub them with a lightly-oiled paper towel (held with tongs). Oiled grates release food much better than oiled chicken alone.
The Right Heat Level.
Lean cuts like a boneless, skinless chicken breast or cuts that been pounded out should be grilled quickly over high heat to retain as much moisture as possible. Chicken on the bone or large un-pounded breasts should be grilled more slowly over medium-high heat so the outside does not overcook or burn while the inside reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Close The Grill.
Closing the grill turns it into an oven, which heats everything more evenly all around. Leaving the lid open concentrates the heat only at the bottom, which works well for thinner pieces so that the bottom of the piece gets that nice char without overcooking the top.
Timing is the difference between tender juicy grilled chicken and shoe leather that no one will enjoy. You've come way too far to blow it now! It can be difficult to tell when chicken is cooked by looking or touching it. Use a meat thermometre to avoid the guessing game and get the most accurate results. Chicken should reach a temperature of 160°F when taken off the grill and will continue to rise to 165°F off the grill. Bone-in chicken is more forgiving and grills on medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the size, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
Add Sauce Last.
Many sauces have a high sugar content, especially those sweet, sticky ones. If they’re applied to the chicken too early, they will burn on the grill. If you are looking for the sauce to caramelize onto the chicken, apply 10 minutes before cooking is complete.
If you cut into your chicken it right away, you will lose all those lovely juices and flavours you have worked so hard to create. Allow grilled chicken to rest for 10-15 minutes after it has been cooked so that the juices can redistribute throughout the meat, resulting in perfectly juicy chicken every time.
When handling raw chicken, it is important to avoid cross-contamination. Once the raw chicken is on the grill, thoroughly wash anything it touched (especially your hands) in hot, soapy water. Never simply wipe off the platter you took the chicken out to the grill with and put the cooked chicken back on it!
When brushing chicken with sauce, reserve some of the sauce for serving and place it in a separate bowl. Brush the chicken with the rest of the sauce, and if you have some brushing sauce left after the chicken is cooked, bring it to a full boil before serving it.
Chef Pete’s Favorite Grilled Chicken
For more seasonal grilling inspiration and recipes, check out Chef Pete's book, Paleo By Season