Chicken is actually one of the trickier foods to barbecue well. People get sick every year from undercooked chicken at picnics and cookouts, and we've all had it cooked to sawdust as well. It is possible to get perfect chicken off the grill with a few tools and your choice of cooking methods.
COOKING METHOD. Choose a cooking method which best suits your life and level of grilling comfort.
- Boiling chicken first -- This is my least favorite way to grill chicken, but it was the standard for many years and some people swear by it. The advantage is that the chicken is completely cooked before it touches the grill and, therefore, the risk of salmonella illness is zero. The drawback is that the chicken has no flavor beyond that top layer of barbecue sauce.
If you choose to go this route, simply skin and boil the chicken pieces for about 20 minutes; drain well. Preheat the grill to low while the chicken boils. Put the chicken on the grill and brush with barbecue sauce. The object here is simply to finish the chicken and caramelize the sauce, which takes about 10 minutes. Because this is virtually fool-proof, I recommend it for those who are new to grilling or particularly afraid of food-borne illness.
- Marinate and roast chicken first -- Again, the chicken is cooked before it hits the grill, so food-borne illness risk is low. The difference is that, in this method, the chicken is marinated or rubbed in the seasoning(s) of your choice (try McCormick GrillMates Mesquite, Emeril's Chicken Rub or Nantucket Rubs) and then baked to pre-cook before finishing and saucing on the grill. This gives it more flavor than it could ever possibly get from boiling! Marinate it for 48 hours at the most, refrigerated, or up to 60 minutes at room temperature. Bake chicken at 350 degrees until done and then finish and sauce on the grill as in the boiling method.
- Cooking on a foil-covered grill -- More difficult than the first two options, this requires wrapping the grill grate well in heavy-duty aluminum foil to help prevent excessive charring and flare-ups from dripping fat. Lightly oil or spray the foil to prevent sticking. I recommend removing excess skin, if not all of it, before seasoning. Marinate or rub the chicken as above and pre-heat the barbeque grill to medium as directed by the manufacturer. Let chicken cook for 30 minutes, turning every 8 minutes, and begin checking with a meat thermometer after 25 minutes. When it reaches 174 degrees Fahrenheit (79 Celsius), it's done.
Do not put a barbecue sauce or grilling glaze on the chicken until the chicken is close to done, then let cook about 10 minutes more to finish and caramelize the glaze.
- Cooking directly on the grill -- Lightly oil or spray a clean grill rack. Marinate or rub chicken as above. Remove the skin before seasoning. Dripping fat causes flare-ups that can be dangerous and cause severely burned spots on the food. Place the chicken on the grill once it has pre-heated to medium. (Keep a spray or squirt bottle of plain water handy to extinguish any flare-ups that do occur!) Cook the chicken for 30 minutes, turning every five, and rotating as needed to balance hot and cool spots on your grill. After 25 minutes, check with a meat thermometer. Brush with sauce or glaze of your choice about 10 minutes before removing the chicken from the grill.
SEASONINGS AND SAUCES
- Marinades, whether they pair with standard barbecue sauces or not, are the perfect way to keep chicken juicy and flavorful on the grill. Caribbean, Cajun or Creole, Mesquite, Southwestern -- the choices are as varied as your tastes. Mix and marinate according to package directions. Italian, Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette and raspberry vinaigrette salad dressings make great marinades as well.
- Rubs are the current trendy choice for seasoning foods for the grill. Emeril's Chicken Rub has great flavor and his Rib Rub gives more of a smoky barbecue taste to chicken (even though it's meant for pork). Nantucket Rubs come in a variety of flavors, and a new line of coffee-based rubs from Kaleuka Lake Coffee Roasters come in Sicilian Citrus, Six-Spice, and more.
- Sauces shouldn't be used until the chicken is close to done. Their sugar contents make them burn and that is how we get chicken that is black outside and raw inside. If you marinate or rub, use a sauce that complements those flavors. To pair with classic bbq sauces, use a mesquite or other "smoky" rub/marinade. There are amazing options in sauces and glazes now, including wonderful ones from Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Emeril Lagasse and a lot more. Check your nearest specialty store to find unique options for your bbq chicken recipe.
CHOOSING YOUR GRILL. The gas versus charcoal debate will not be resolved in this or any other lifetime; use the best one for your neighborhood, your lifestyle and how you like to cook. For novice grillers, gas is most reliable and easier to control, but on holidays, it can be impossible to fill the tank (which is, you know, when it is guaranteed to be empty!).
Enjoy! Potato and pasta salads, cole slaw, three-bean salads, baked beans, cornbread and biscuits make great sides for grilled and barbecued chicken.