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Juicy, Tender Grilled Chicken

For the best texture, brine first; for perfectly cooked chicken, keep your eye on the grill

Fine Cooking Issue 52
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Ever since my first hibachi on the roof­top of my Brooklyn apartment many years ago, I’ve loved to grill outdoors in the warm (and sometimes not-so-warm) weather. Over the years, I like to think that I’ve gotten pretty good at grilling just about anything—steaks, chops, ribs, fish, vegetables, sausages, you name it —with one very big exception. I always had trouble grilling bone-in chicken pieces. It seemed that the skin would end up incinerated while the meat would be a combination of overly dry on the outside and too pink near the bone. The easy answer was to stick only to boneless, skinless chicken pieces, but these got boring pretty quickly, and I missed the flavor and juiciness from bone-in chicken.  

So a few summers ago, I decided that it was time to find a better solution. Through a little bit of trial-and-error cooking, I learned how to make tender, moist chicken that’s cooked all the way through on any kind of grill. Whether I used charcoal (my favorite) or gas or even my old hibachi, I learned that brining the chicken first guaranteed juiciness (see the sidebar below). Then I worked out the master method to get juicy, perfectly cooked chicken every time.

Brining is the key to juicy chicken

Taste brined chicken side-by-side with a non-brined piece, and you’ll be converted. An amazing bit of culinary alchemy happens when you soak chicken for a few hours (or even less) in a solution of salt with a bit of sugar; I like to add a few spices to the brine as well. The salt and sugar in the brine make the meat actually absorb some water, which means that it will remain juicier when it’s cooked. The salt also adds a nice savory flavor to the bird that you won’t get by just seasoning the surface. The chicken firms up a bit through the brining process, making it a bit less floppy on the grill. And brined chicken pieces seem to cook more uniformly, meaning fewer problems with pink meat near the bone and dry meat on the outside.

Half the fun of real grilling is that you control the process

If you have time, you can get chicken to cook thoroughly on the grill by closing the lid and cooking the pieces indirectly over a not-too-hot fire. While this certainly works and can be delicious when you take a slow-and-low approach and actually barbecue the chicken, it really can’t be called grilled chicken. If you turn up the heat and leave the lid on to prevent flare-ups, the chicken tends to taste too much like the underside of the grill cover. So I prefer to wrestle with the challenge of real grilling: without a cover over a medium-hot fire.  

Whether you cook over gas or charcoal, you’ll still have to move chicken pieces around. The primary reason that bone-in chicken is so tricky on the grill is that the individual pieces vary in thickness. Chicken breasts, for example, are quite thick near the breastbone and taper to very thin at the ribs and tail end. Likewise, drumsticks have one big fat end and one pretty narrow end. What this means is that a little maneuvering is the key to getting chicken pieces to cook evenly.  

Once your grill is set up, it’s really just a matter of standing by and keeping an eye on the chicken as it cooks. Grilling is not a walk-away enterprise. You need to monitor the chicken, listen to hear that it’s sizzling (but watch to see that it’s not burning), and move the pieces around as necessary, but not too much or you’ll slow down the cooking. And how can you tell when the chicken is done? The quickest way is to cut into a piece and check to see if the juices are clear. This “cut and peek” method is the simplest and most reliable. You can also use an instant-read thermometer in several places (be sure to insert it at least 2 inches) and look for an internal temperature of 170°F. If some pieces are done before the rest, simply slide them to the cooler edges of the grill, tucking them close together to prevent them from overcooking, yet keeping them warm.

Once you get into it, you’ll find that half the fun of grilling is that you control the entire process—the other half of the fun is the eating. The best way I’ve found to grill successfully is to get a chair, something cold to drink, and either a friend to talk to or a good magazine to flip through.

Decide how (and if) you want to add extra flavor to your chicken

The thing about brined and grilled chicken is that you really don’t need any embellishment. The chicken will be remarkably delicious as is, but if you’re a lily-gilder, like me, you can certainly add a good jolt of seasoning just before, during, or after cooking.  

Spice rubs, herb pastes, basting sauces, and, perhaps my favorite—a little finishing sauce—are all great with grilled chicken. With rubs and pastes, put them on the chicken pieces just before you start heating the grill—this will give them 30 to 40 minutes to season the meat as the grill heats up. For extra flavor, smear a little of the seasoning under the skin of the chicken, too.


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