Grilled chicken is ubiquitous but rarely sublime.
It’s not our fault: The window between raw and dry, pale and burned, is unfairly narrow, and somehow it’s also possible for grilled chicken to be both raw and burned at the same time.
On the stove or in the oven, chicken lets us be lazy. Last-minute seasoning, a knob of butter and half a lemon make all cuts delicious. Dry meat only needs a little more cooking and liquid added to the pan to become fall-off-the-bone tender — a different but equally satisfying direction.
Grilled chicken is trickier. Cooked over the direct heat of coals, without easy temperature control, it requires us to be more agile.
Still, the challenge of charred yet juicy chicken beckons. When I succeed, attaining succulent meat with a golden, fire-freckled crust, I forget my allegiance to the roast. Here are the basic principles I keep in mind as I cook.
Basic butchery should be your starting point.
I even out the thickness of the chicken, so it’s less likely that some parts will parch while others cook. Boneless breasts are best when leveled with a rolling pin. For whole chickens, dense with breast and bone, I spatchcock, flatten and slash the meat for heat to penetrate uniformly. (Similar to butterflying, spatchcocking means removing the backbone and opening the chicken up like a book.) Slashing provides bonus “Is it done?” peepholes at the stubborn areas by the joints.
Seasoning in advance is often your ally.
Salting bigger cuts — generously and ahead of time — locks in moisture and drags flavor to the bone. But thinner, quick-cooking cuts cure with the same treatment: A butterflied breast will become jerky with too much salt and time. Recently, I’ve developed a “stop, drop and season” protocol for any whole birds as I move them from shopping bag to refrigerator. I can apply a marinade later, when I’ve planned the meal.
Temper the chicken before cooking.
A small step for a big advantage: A bird that has been allowed to come to room temperature will cook through faster and more evenly than a cold one, and can do so over less extreme heat. I take my chicken out of the refrigerator before I scrub my grate and light my coals.
Match the cut of the bird to the temperature of the grill.
This is essential, and missing this nuance is a common error cooks make. Thin cuts like it hot so they can char before they become dry; thick cuts prefer it low and slow so they can cook through and brown evenly. A grill with both a hot spot and a cooler area makes it easier to balance surface char and internal cooking.
Don’t fiddle at first.
A smoky, richly flavored crust is the very reason we grill, and allowing it to form requires initial restraint. The chicken’s first contact with the clean grill determines the quality of the crust, or char: Tug the meat too soon and you’ll leave its flavorful crust behind and dirty the grates, sullying subsequent attempts. Instead, I fulfill an urge to snoop by lifting the entire grate, which allows me to preview my chicken from below. Once a crust has formed, the chicken will readily release and can be flipped with impunity.
I let thin cuts cook two-thirds of the way through before moving them, and leave larger cuts cooking over lower temperatures for longer before flipping.
Then be sure to flip and baste.
Those two actions — flipping and basting — make char delicious and help you avoid zebra stripes and burned blisters. They reinforce and develop the flavors from the marinade, ensuring deep sighs of delight. Citrus and honey, vinegar and wine mellow as they meet the flame. Sour acids sweeten, and sweet things become more complex.
If I’m being cautious about browning the skin on thicker cuts, I don’t baste with fat because it flares and causes surface heat to surge. I use this to my advantage when I’m trying to dial up the color on a thin cut: A lean breast barded with bacon drips fat onto the coals, creating flames, flavor and char quickly.
Trust your intuition.
So when is it cooked? My tongs, my choice. Char has misled many friends at my barbecues to a consensus: “The chicken is cooked!” But it’s not a poll.
In order to catch the bird when it is just cooked, I poke it with my forefinger regularly, waiting for flab to firm. When it feels like a ripe peach, I use the tip of a knife to do a sharp, close inspection of thigh joints and breasts by the bone: Clear juices, opaque meat and the temperature of the knife tip (it should be hot) tell me the chicken is ready. Herb cosmetics can cover my trail.
Faulty or poorly calibrated thermometers have undermined my better instincts before. If I use a thermometer, I do so only after my inspection and asking a kind friend to tune my instrument first. (You can do this with a dial thermometer — as opposed to a digital thermometer — by holding its tip in iced or boiling water and adjusting the gauge so it accurately reads the appropriate temperature for either: 32 or 212 degrees.) The chicken is done once the thermometer reads 165 degrees when it is inserted into the thickest part of the bird. Most skewers and boneless cuts cook in the time it takes for them to develop a come-hither char; there’s no need to check their temperature.
Rest the chicken with conviction.
Do this for at least a quarter of the time it spent on the grill, requiring you to swat away the sticky fingers of friends. Some of the juices will run out as the bird sits, so I rest mine on bread or beans to save every drop.
Condiments and comms are the best smoke screens.
Your communications strategy, along with a luscious sauce, can mask any chicken shortfalls. Even when I’ve ceremoniously carved a raw bird, floundered at developing a crust over too-cool coals, or outright forgotten thighs under the lid of the grill, a few carefully chosen words and a good sauce get the meal back on track.
If it’s undercooked when people are gathering with plates, I’ll confidently mutter about “resting” and throw the bird back on the grill under something heavy to hurry it up. If it’s overcooked, I’ll fish some Greek yogurt out of the fridge and stir through olive oil, a citrus squeeze and salt.