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Chef shares best secrets for making perfect grilled chicken

  • As a chef, I’ve learned the best tricks for grilling perfectly cooked, juicy chicken every time.
  • Read the labels on your chicken when you buy it and be sure to add flavor through a rub or brine.
  • Adding your sauce too early in the grilling process can char your chicken, so wait until the end.

Whether you have people visiting or taking a meal to a potluck, grilled chicken is always a crowd pleaser.

As a restaurant chef, I’ve smashed so many whole birds that I could probably do it blindfolded, so I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to making the most delicious grilled chicken around.

Buy high quality chicken from a trusted source

Five raw chicken breasts in a white container on a wooden counter

It is important to read the labels on your chicken.

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First of all, buy a good quality chicken from a trusted source. Terms like “organic” and “free-range” are often vague and don’t always indicate what you think they do, so look for the USDA label first.

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An A grade means there is a good fat to skin ratio and no discoloration and B and C grades are mostly used for ground meat.

From there, look for cage-free, antibiotic-free, and kosher, all of which refer to how the chickens are raised and processed. Those factors, individually or combined, make for a chicken that is always tasty.

Decide if you want your chicken with bone

Boneless meat tastes better because this extra layer of fat provides the chicken with flavor and moisture during cooking.

Experiment with grilling a spatchcock style with a whole bird — without the spinal cord. This way the bird stays flush with the grill so it cooks evenly over the fire and everyone can still eat their favorite pieces.

Grilled wings are a great way to feed a crowd, and their small size means they cook quickly. Chicken breast is also popular for a reason, but it’s uneven thickness, so cut those cutlets in half or flat for even cooking results.

Don’t underestimate the power of marinades, cures and brine

Five golden brown chicken fillets on the grill

A good marinade or brine can give a chicken even more flavor.

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The whole point of marinating meat is to break down tissue and flavor it with acid and salt. Your acids can be lemons, limes, oranges, vinegar and even wine or beer. You can even mix a marinade with some leftover salad dressing or pickle juice.

Brining isn’t just for turkeys, and bathing overnight in a salt and spice mixture can do wonders for flavor and texture. The salt breaks down the proteins and draws in the seasonings, essentially curing the meat.

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You can also experiment with curing with dry rubs and salt spice blends, which don’t use water. The salt draws the moisture out of the meat and then absorbs it again. Just sprinkle a thin layer over your meat and plan on brining or curing at least a day before cooking.

For best results, marinate for a few hours or the night before cooking.

There are several ways to tell if a chicken is done

A fully cooked piece of chicken is 165 degrees Fahrenheit at the thickest part. While this may seem intimidating, there are also plenty of signs that indicate when a bird is cooked.

If there are bones, they should be able to wiggle easily in their sockets. If there are no bones, pierce with a knife and any juices – there should always be juices – should be clear.

If you haven’t cooked your chicken, you can easily return the bird to the grill for a few more minutes with the lid on to allow the residual heat to continue cooking.

Don’t add your sauce too early

chicken barbecue grill

Add any sauce at the end of the cooking process.

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A good BBQ sauce can make your chicken finger licking good, but don’t add it too quickly.

As with toasted marshmallows, a sauce made with sugar will burn over an open flame and can turn into a black char if it gets too close to the fire.

Instead, spread on your sauce when the meat is mostly cooked through. BBQ sauce is best used as a basting aid right before serving so you can get all that flavor without turning your chicken into a hockey puck.

Grill on indirect or direct heat, but keep the lid closed

Most grills have a large grid directly above the flame and a smaller raised grid with indirect heat. If you’re cooking a larger or thicker piece of chicken breast, grill on indirect heat before or after charring, especially if you want to make sure it’s cooked all the way through.

You can add some wood chips to your gas or charcoal grill for extra flavor, but keep the lid closed – any grill will stay hotter with the lid on.

It’s fine to check the meat every few minutes, but try to lift the grill lid sparingly to keep the heat in.