How to Cook Chicken on the Grill so It's Perfect Every Time
Grilling season is officially upon us, which is fabulous news — unless you have yet to perfect the art of barbecuing up the tenderest, juiciest chicken ever.
Whether you plan on being the neighborhood grill master this summer or just want a tasty alternative to plain old baked chicken, being able to perfectly cook chicken on the grill is a skill that you should take seriously. Here's how to make sure your chicken is always on point.
1. Start with the right tools
It's all about the tools, baby. If you use grilling utensils with long handles, you won't end up barbecuing yourself along with your chicken.
Also, investing in a meat thermometer helps ensure safe internal temperatures of your chicken — chicken breasts should usually check in at 165 to 170 degrees F, with the thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the cut. Nowadays, there are even fancy Bluetooth thermometers that let you monitor temperatures from afar.
2. Clean your grill first
Not only is a clean grill more hygienic, it's also what's going to get you those grill marks that make your chicken look oh so professional. Follow these tips from Real Simple to get your grill all shiny and new-looking:
- Preheat the grill.
- Once it's hot, brush the grate with a long-handled stiff-wire grill brush.
- If you don't have a grill brush, use a ball of crumpled foil held in long-handled tongs.
Don't want to deal with all that scrubbing? The Grill Daddy brush cleans with steam, which is a lot easier — and even safer since you don't have to touch the grill. Not only that, since you don't have to scrub as hard, wire brush parts aren't as likely to end up in your food. (Grill Daddy, $13 and up)
3. Marinate that bird
As we all know, chicken tends to dry out in a hurry, so prepping your meat is key. Always marinate first (check out some of our favorite chicken marinades here), and Kingsford even suggests brining (use a basic brine solution of 1/4 cup salt to 4 cups water) before cooking.
4. Oil it up
You're gonna want to grease that grill up so your chicken doesn't stick to it and turn into a shredded mess. Simply fold a paper towel into a small pad, dip it in a bowl of vegetable or olive oil and rub it over the bars using tongs. Be careful not to let the oil drip on the coals.
You can also use nonstick cooking spray, a chunk of bacon or steak fat to lube up your grill.
5. Don't let the coals get too hot
Grilling your chicken over the perfect medium-high heat is so important. If your grilling heat is too high, you'll end up scorching the outside of the chicken and not cooking the inside. If you are using a grill thermometer, Kingsford recommends a steady 350 degrees F with the lid on.
Speaking of that lid...
6. Keep it under cover
There's nothing really to see while your chicken is cooking, so if your grill has a cover, make sure you cook with the top down. Keeping the cover on makes your grill operate more like an oven and also helps to keep the temperature more consistent and keeps the flames from flaring up.
7. Avoid the flipping temptation
It may seem like you're helping the chicken along when you continually flip it, but you're not. If you're following a recipe that says only flip the chicken once — then only flip the flipping chicken once! Your chicken will cook more evenly and quickly when you let it cook properly on each side. If you follow rule No. 5, this shouldn't be a problem.
8. Don't leave the meat on too long
This is key. While it's obviously better to eat overcooked chicken than undercooked chicken, no one wants their chicken to be so dry you feel like you're eating sawdust. As we mentioned above, as soon as your meat reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, pull it off.
Here are some rules of thumb for how long to leave different cuts of chicken on according to Real Simple:
- Breasts: Direct heat, five minutes per side
- Wings: Indirect heat, 25 to 30 minutes, turn occasionally
- Bone-in breasts, thighs and drumsticks: Indirect heat, 40 to 50 minutes, turn occasionally
9. Dress it up at the last minute
If you're using barbecue sauce on your chicken, brush it on toward the end of your cooking time. Brush each side of the chicken with your sauce on its last turn on the grill. Not only does this keep the extra sauce out of the flames (and thwarts flare-ups) but it also prevents the sauce from burning and tasting bitter.
10. Clean your grill... again
Yeah, we know the first step was to clean your grill, but you're gonna want to make sure you clean off your grill after each use. Scrape the grate with a stiff wire brush while it's still fairly warm, and the gunk will slide off easier. You can also soak your grate in 1/4 cup of grease-cutting dish soap combined with 1/4 cup of baking soda for about an hour. Then scrub it clean with a wire brush or heavy-duty scouring pad.
If you choose to spray any cleaners straight on your grill, opt for something natural and nontoxic. Any chemicals you put on the metal are sure to end up in future meals.
What are your favorite grilling tricks?
Originally published January 2011. Updated June 2017.