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Grilled Chicken Thighs Take the Heat

This sure-fire grilling technique will help you get the most out of their succulent, flavorful meat, without the pyrotechnics.

August/September 2019 Issue
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A good friend of mine has developed a not-so-good method for grilling chicken. I call it “turn-and-burn.” His technique varies slightly from time to time, but because he’s motivated primarily by laziness, it always starts with getting the grill raging hot and ends with burned chicken. In the interim, he throws chicken pieces right over the flames, chooses precisely the wrong moment—shortly after the chicken is on the grill and the meat is really, really stuck to the hot bars—and then he rips the pieces off the grate with tongs, releasing enough hot chicken grease from the skins to create an incendiary flare-up and its accompanying sooty flavors. Seeing that the chicken is now blackened, he paints over the dark spots with barbecue sauce—the sugary bottled kind—which then burns as well. Are you getting the dark and bitter picture?

It is, unfortunately, a common scenario.

There’s nothing worse than being served grilled chicken that’s charred on the outside and alarmingly raw in the center. To help you avoid that, I offer a better method, one with little sticking, zero burning, and perfectly cooked meat. I call it the “turn-and-take-a-bow” method. It makes the most of chicken thighs’ inherent merits, giving you justifiable reasons to receive a standing ovation.

Here’s the lowdown: Start with a hot, clean grate. Allow the temperature of the grill to reach 500°F to incinerate remnants of barbecues past and make it easy for you to brush the grill grate clean. A clean grate dramatically lessens the chance of sticking. Then, let the grill’s heat fall into a more moderate range of 350°F to 450°F (on a gas grill, just turn down the dials to medium). Raging heat is fine for steaks, but chicken thighs fare better over moderate heat, which gives the interior time to cook through before the exterior scorches.

Brushing a little oil on all surfaces of the chicken before it hits the grill will also help to minimize sticking. If you have bone-in thighs with skin attached, place the skin side down first. You want the skin to slowly render fat and begin its transformation toward golden-brown crispiness. As the fat renders, you might get some flare-ups, especially if you’re using a charcoal grill. Your first response should be to close the lid. Keeping air from the flames is often all it takes to put them out. However, if flare-ups continue, pry the chicken off the grate gently with a spatula, trying not to tear the skin and flesh. When the flames subside, return the chicken over direct heat, and leave it there until it’s nicely browned, usually four to five minutes on each side.

The next step depends on whether the thighs have bones. If the thighs are boneless, it’s probably time to take them off the grill. If they’re bone-in, move them over indirect heat, and close the lid to gently finish cooking the meat through. See below for doneness tests. Either way, prepare to turn and take your bow.

Grilled Chicken Thighs: The Fundamentals

When are chicken thighs done?

Some chefs judge doneness by the firmness of the meat. They look for a springiness that feels a lot like a peeled soft-boiled egg, but a more accurate test of doneness is a good thermometer. For bone-in thighs, slip the probe into the thickest part of the meat without touching bone. You’re looking for 165°F. For boneless thighs, you’re better off just cutting one open. When the meat is fully cooked, it will look opaque throughout.

When should thighs be brushed with sauce?

Most barbecue sauces are too sweet to brush on chicken until the final few minutes. Brush them on too early, and the sugar in the sauce will probably scorch. Generally speaking, it’s wise to add the sauce while the chicken is finishing gently over indirect heat.

What do direct and indirect cooking mean?

Simply put, direct cooking is performed directly over a flame while indirect occurs off the flame and is a gentler way to cook food. This can be done easily on a gas grill. When lighting the grill, light the outside burners and keep the center burner unlit. If you are cooking on a two-burner grill, light one burner only. Situate the food over the unlit burner for indirect cooking. On a charcoal grill, mound the hot charcoal on one side of the grill. Leave an unlit space (generally with a drip tray under the grate) on the other side of the grill, and place the food there. Close the lid to emulate the heat distribution of a convection oven.

Isn’t all chicken the same?

Not really. Some mass-market brands pump their meat with a saline solution that can mess with grilling times and sodium content. If you’re willing to pay a bit more, buy organic, free-range chicken with no added ingredients. You’ll get better-tasting meat from birds that run around on the farm and forage on wholesome fare.

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  • Sniddy | 09/07/2019

    Thank you so much for explaining this so simply and thoroughly. I will definitely save this in my recipe box

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