I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a call around dinner time that starts with “Dude, I am grilling some chicken, how do I get it to come out juicy?”… or “hey man, I’ve had these on the grill for 20 minutes and they still aren’t at temp. What am I doing wrong?” ie. “How to barbecue chicken”.
What do you want?
This is the first question I ask when someone calls me about barbecuing chicken, and you’d be surprised that most people don’t know. Barbecuing chicken is pretty easy when you know what you are after but they just answer “barbecue chicken”. Not good enough. Here are some better answers…
Ever been to a wing joint and they ask if you want them fried or grilled? Of course you have. These are grilled wings, and to cook the chicken right you want them to be the juiciest they can be, but firm in texture. Nobody likes a floppy or overly hard wing.
How it’s done: Believe it or not, wings are white meat! As such, we want to take advantage of direct heat. Preheat grill to ~400 degrees F (typically medium-high heat). Dump the wings on and make sure there is about 1/2″ of space between them. Flip the wings every few minutes (3-4 minutes) to ensure we aren’t burning but making sure the skin is evenly cooked. After about 20 minutes, give your wings a temp check with a reliable digital thermometer. I recognize there isn’t a lot of meat here to check, but keep the tip away from the bone. When they hit 170 degrees, pull them.
Classic Barbecue Chicken, Thighs and Sticks
So here we are talking about the classic! Dad would get a bunch of thighs and drumsticks, lather them up in sauce, throw them on the grill, and keep saucing as he went with a horsehair brush. Ahh… good memories. Except I’ve come a long way since Dad’s way (sorry Dad), and this time they won’t be burnt or dry. We want juicy chicken, with a slight bit of char, and muddy sauce.
How it’s done: Cook the chicken on the grill (or smoker) on the indirect side. Grill temp ~225-275 degrees F. Lather the sauce on thin, let it sit for 5 minutes, flip everything and repeat. Repeat this until at least 4 layers of sauce are on each side and keep the lid closed. Then move the chicken to the direct heat, and cook for 5 min a side.
Chicken breasts are notorious for going dry during the cook; Especially when it’s a big thick breast. This is because breasts (white meat) are not as forgiving as thighs and drumsticks (dark meat) due to the fat content. Breasts are very lean, so we want juicy with a slightly firm shell.
How it’s done: Direct heat, fast cook. Fattier pieces get the advantage of low and slow while lean just dries out. For normal breasts, I like a medium-high heat setting with a tiny bit of oil coating prior to any salt/rub/sauce, starting with 5 minutes a side. After 10 minutes, I measure the internal temp at the thickest part using a reliable digital thermometer like this one. If it’s not 160 degrees F, I flip it back over (and rotate 90 degrees to get the criss-cross grill marks), and do it again until the internal temp is 160.
I’m talking the whole chicken, grilled (not smoked. That’s another article). Grilling a whole chicken is a pretty cool thing to do if you have the grill real estate. But it should be noted that doing a whole chicken is a lot like a whole hog: Different kinds of meat with different fat contents all being cooked the same. So like the thighs and sticks, we have high fat content with indirect heat and like the breasts we have a low fat content with direct heat.
How it’s done: First you’ll want to spatchcock the chicken. This allows it to lay flat and you get heat from both sides. Place the spatchcocked chicken breasts up on the indirect side (I also like to throw a smoke tube in here if you get a chance) with the direct side at full heat. Cook until the breasts are 140 degrees F internal at the thickest part (I like to put one breast towards direct heat, and then at about 80 degrees turn it around so the other breast faces the direct heat). Rub your sauce at this point to make it muddy or saucy. When the chicken breast temp is 155 degrees F internal, flip it over, breasts side down on the direct heat. Cook until internal temp is 160 degrees F. Pull the chicken and let rest for 10 minutes prior to carving.
A few notes about how to barbecue chicken
I didn’t go into a few things on this quick read. This article is primarily for people wanting a quick reference on techniques to grill chicken and not a recipe. For example, the wings didn’t have sauce… you can add sauce before the cook, right after, or in the middle. All giving a different flavor profile, but does not affect how the chicken was cooked, which is the focus of this article.
There are so many variations to how to barbecue chicken that creates different tastes that if I were to try and cover them all the reader would be overwhelmed. I hope you come back to read my other articles and recipes for many different ways to make chicken. Let me know if you have any comments or if there is something you want to specifically see.