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As I travel around the country, I notice there’s one major grilling dilemma that consistently confounds outdoor cooks: how to keep boneless chicken breasts from drying out on the grill. You can blame it on the grill’s dry high heat, which gives food an intense flavor but also has a tendency to dry out lean cuts of meat. Fortunately, there’s more than one solution to this problem. My strategies include coating the chicken breasts with rubs and glazes, soaking them in a quick brine, pounding them thinly, or grilling them under a brick—a real conversation starter. Each method will help keep your grilled chicken moist and flavorful and make it the star of your summer barbecues.
The three rules of great grilling
Whenever I grill chicken breasts (or anything else, for that matter), I use the following guidelines to minimize sticking and maximize flavor and grill marks:
Keep it hot. Heat your gas grill to high or build a “three Mississippi” fire in a charcoal grill. For the latter, hold your hand about four inches above the grate. Start counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…” and by “three Mississippi,” the intense heat should force you to snatch your hand away.
Keep it clean. Scrub the hot grate thoroughly with a stiff wire brush. This dislodges any debris and minimizes sticking. If you don’t have a grill brush, use a crumpled ball of aluminum foil and hold it with tongs.
Keep it lubricated. Roll a paper towel into a small ball, dip it in vegetable or olive oil, and using tongs, rub it over the bars of the grill grate. Oiling the grill helps prevent sticking, and it helps you get great grill marks.
1. Rubs and glazes add flavor fast
A rub is a mix of herbs and spices that gives meat a savory crust. It can be “dry” (made with dried or powdered seasonings) or “wet” (with vinegar, oil, beer, or other liquid added). A rub is a handy way to add flavor quickly, since it can be patted on just before grilling. For richer, more complex flavor, I’ll let the rub season the meat for an hour or two before grilling.
A glaze is usually a syrupy mixture of butter or oil, a sweetener (like brown sugar or honey), and often a spirit (like bourbon or rum). I like to apply glazes to chicken halfway through grilling. They serve a dual purpose: They add an extra layer of flavor, and they give the finished chicken a shiny, browned appearance.
2. Brines keep the meat juicy
A brine is a salt and water solution that helps keep chicken breasts moist through the process of osmosis. The basic formula for a brine is 1 Tbs. salt and an optional 1 Tbs. sugar or other sweetener for every 1 cup water. Other possible flavorings include herbs, garlic, spirits, and— for an interesting but subtle twist— coffee. The typical brining time for boneless chicken breasts is 2 to 3 hours. Don’t brine them for much longer, as overbrining will give the chicken a rubbery texture and make it overly salty.
3. Pounding thinly gets reliable results
Paillard (pronounced pie-YARD) is the French term for a boneless chicken breast or other cut of meat that’s been pounded into broad, thin sheets about 1/4 inch thick. This process minimizes the cooking time to about 1 minute per side, so the chicken doesn’t have time to dry out. And since the thickness is consistent, the breast cooks evenly. I tend to keep the seasonings simple when making paillards: salt, pepper or hot chile flakes, garlic, herbs, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and most important, olive oil, which adds flavor and moistness and keeps the chicken from sticking to the grill.
4. A brick helps cook the chicken evenly
Cooking chicken under a brick is a technique I learned in Italy, where it goes by the name of pollo al matone. The basic method is to wrap a brick in aluminum foil (shiny side out for aesthetics) and put it on top of the chicken breasts during grilling. The brick does three things: I compacts the meat so that it cooks more evenly, it presses the meat against the grill grate so you get good grill marks, and it keeps the breaasts partially covered, hellping to keep them from drying out. If you don’t have a brick handy, you can use a heavy cast-iron or steel skilled. Just wrap the underside with foil.