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How to Barbecue Chicken Without Burning It

Keep the heat low, and brush on the sauce at the last minute

Fine Cooking Issue 39
Photos: Scott Phillips
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In my experience, the food I see most abused when I go to a cookout is chicken. The combination of fatty skin, sweet barbecue sauce, and high heat results in what often looks like chunks of cinder. You can try scraping off that bitter, black coating, but its flavor and aroma—what I call “eau d’ashtray”—flavors the meat.

The secret to great barbecued chicken, one with moist, tender meat and sticky, pleasantly smoky skin, is to lower the heat of the fire and leave the sauce off until the last minutes of cooking. Most of the flavor comes from a spice rub that’s been on the bird from the get-go and from the smoke of the fire, both of which fully permeate the meat during the long, slow cooking.

My method (Get the recipe: Classic Barbecued Chicken) may take longer than most recipes for barbecued chicken, but there’s less work involved (If it’s speed you’re after, try this recipe for Fastest Barbecued Chicken, using boneless thighs). Because you’re cooking over a low fire, and because the sauce (the real culprit behind cinder-chicken) doesn’t go on until late in the game, you don’t have to stand vigil, moving chicken pieces around a hot fire and trying in vain to stave off the inevitable flare-ups.

The chicken is seasoned, but not sauced, for most of the cooking

I usually buy whole broiler-fryers and cut them up myself. You save a little money buying a whole chicken, and you can use the neck, back, and wing tips to make broth. But chicken that’s already cut up is very convenient, so go ahead and buy your favorite parts for the grill.

The spice rub and the sauce recipes (choose from Memphis-Style, Kansas City-Style, or Georgia Peach) make enough for at least eight pounds of chicken, more than you may even be able to fit on a single grill. You can save any extra spice mix in an airtight container for a couple of months. Any extra sauce can go right in the freezer. Just keep the sauce that you plan to save separate from the sauce you plan to brush onto the chicken so that it doesn’t get contaminated.

You can pretty much ignore the chicken as it cooks. The chicken will take 2-1/2 to 3 hours to cook. You’ll need to check the fire, adding coals now and then to keep the temperature of the grill between 230° and 250°F, but that’s only about every 30 to 45 minutes. I also baste the chicken at least once with apple juice, but you don’t even have to do that. At first, you won’t believe that the fire is hot enough to cook the chicken, and you’ll wonder if anything is happening at all. But just give it time.

Slather on the sauce when the chicken is cooked. The sauce needs only five minutes to adhere nicely to the chicken. Since the fire isn’t really hot, the chicken won’t get that charred look, just a nice shine. But this is the time to be vigilant; if the fire has gotten hot, it can make the sauce burn even at this late juncture. Be armed with tongs to remove the chicken at the first sign of charring.


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