Spatchcocked chicken on a charcoal grill
For this edition of Anne Byrn's bimonthly column, the best-selling cookbook author turns up the heat with advice on how to make amazing grilled chicken. In addition to steering you away from a few common beginner's mistakes we all make — out of habit or lack of expert experience — she offers easy instructions, and a simple recipe for pounding, marinating and perfecting your outdoor-cooked poultry.
My earliest attempt at cooking chicken on the grill was a disaster. Now looking back, I can see that I was doing everything wrong. From the grill to the chicken to the sauce, it was a failure because I didn't really understand how to grill chicken.
Today, things are different.
Not only do I have a few more years on me in the kitchen, I have some experience at the grill. My husband likes to think he commands outdoor cooking, but it's not his passion. He'd rather be working in the garden. So if beautiful weather dictates outdoor meals, it's usually me who grills. And I've done it all — whole chicken, parts, and pounded chicken breasts marinated in a fast and tangy dressing, then seared over charcoal. I've learned that grilling chicken may seem easy and everyday, but it is far more technical to master than cooking a burger. Grilled chicken is an understanding ... a technique.
The Way Things Were... or How Barbecued Chicken Went Wrong
Not too long ago, backyard barbecued chicken began to look like old magazine and TV ads: chicken parts brushed with a sweet, ketchupy sauce. Once that chicken hit the fire, the sauce ignited, and the bird burned up before it was cooked. There wasn't much talk about direct versus indirect heat back then, and probably the only people who knew the truth about grilled chicken were church cooks, caterers and family members who cooked for crowds.
These folks knew to move the chicken pieces away from the high heat so they could cook through and wouldn't burn. And these cooks might swab the chicken with a little seasoned oil and vinegar, but they never used sauces containing sugar over the fire. Those were dipping sauces to be served at the table.
These cooks also knew that different pieces of the chicken took different times to cook, and if you cooked them all at once the breasts were done before the legs and thighs. I wasn't so knowledgeable. I recall having dinner guests the first time I attempted grilled chicken: We consumed far too much beer waiting for dinner, and the chicken was done close to midnight — only because I threw it in the oven.
But I eventually learned, and so did everyone else. It might have been the beer-can-chicken-mania of recent years that turned cooking chicken over fire into mastering the grill. Let's also credit Weber and the barbecue authors of the 1980s and '90s.
We thankfully woke up to the possibilities of successfully cooking a chicken outdoors. It could be whole, in pieces, or boneless breasts, any of which might be marinated ahead to add flavor. And if you were really on your game, the chicken might be slightly flattened (to cook more evenly), and the grill itself could be setup so you could pull the chicken to one side and cover it to cook through without burning.
If you stop and think about it, while supermarkets have been roasting chicken for us, we have been slowly but surely perfecting chicken at home on the grill. Today, no supermarket or restaurant can make better grilled chicken than you can prepare at home. Yes, some barbecue joints add hardwood, to create smoke and add flavor to the chicken. But you can do that at home by placing a foil pan — filled with applewood, pecan or oak chips soaking in water — on the barbecue grate with the chicken. Once the grill is covered, the pan emits smoke, and that smoke perfumes your cooking chicken.
But that's jumping the gun. Let's get the chicken on the grill, first.
Who You Gonna Call: The Grilled Chicken Experts
Grilling chicken is unlike cooking a hamburger, steak or even a pork tenderloin. It is a process, and you must first decide if you're cooking pieces, whole chickens or boneless breasts. Once decided, you need the best technique to get the job done.
So I called two experts - one who knows chicken well, and another who has mastered the grill.
First up is Cynthia Graubart, the James Beard award-winning Atlanta cookbook author who most recently wrote the book on chicken, called (yes, seriously) "Chicken."
Graubart, who was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and whose Southern grandmothers were experts at frying chicken, said the rules for grilling great chicken are specific. Buy the best chicken you can afford, then pound the chicken — whether cooking chicken breasts or thighs — to an even thickness, and use a thermometer to determine doneness.
"People want to know when chicken is done, and it's not done until the thermometer says it's done," she said. That is 165 degrees, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Graubart recommends cooking dark meat (legs and thighs) to between 170 and 175 degrees.
Graubart also likes to marinate her chicken first, before grilling it in an oil and vinegar mixture that isn't sweet. She likes to stash the marinating chicken in a zippered bag in the fridge for about half a day. And whenever she opens the refrigerator, she massages the bag and flips it over, just to get the marinade circulating around all the chicken. If she's really organized at the moment, she will freeze the uncooked chicken right in the marinade.
"One thing I have done is to put chicken breasts in a bag, pour marinade over and seal the bag and put on a sheet pan in the freezer so it freezes flat. This keeps in the freezer for a couple months," she said. She also does this with flank steak.
My second expert, Meathead Goldwyn, whose eponymous book "Meathead" explains the science of grilling based on his enormously popular website Amazing Ribs, says a digital thermometer is crucial to grilling perfect chicken.
Meathead, who was born in Sarasota, Florida, but lives in the Chicago area today, says the old visual rules for determining chicken doneness don't work today. Blood is in the bones of chicken, and because modern chickens are raised much faster, the bones don't calcify all the way. So even after cooking to the right temperature and poking a knife into the chicken, a little blood leaks out of the bones and creates juices that may be pink and not run clear. So Meathead determines doneness with a thermometer, not with his eyes.
Also, Meathead is not a big fan of beer can chicken, even though it's the favorite of backyard chefs nationwide. Why? It's because, if chicken cooks to doneness at 165 degrees and beer (a liquid) boils at 212 degrees, the beer in the can never gets hot enough to evaporate and permeate the chicken's interior. "It's mostly hype," Meathead said, and added that you're better off just cutting the chicken into pieces, rubbing it with some poultry seasoning, herbs and salt, and then grilling it. And just drink the beer.
He cuts the chicken into quarters and removes the wings, making six pieces. "The wings cook really quickly over a direct flame, and get nice and crispy," Meathead said. "But the breast meat will dry out over high temperature. So you need two zone temperature controls." You have a place on the grill for cooking the wings right over the coals, and then you have a place with no coals underneath where the rest of the chicken can cook slowly to doneness.
Once the chicken on the side has cooked, Meathead adds his favorite technique: the reverse sear. Cooked chicken is seared over direct heat, skin-side-down first, then turned. This allows the chicken to brown, which means more flavor.
Both Meathead and Graubart like the "spatchcock" method of grilling a whole chicken, which is to cut out the backbone and lay it out flat like an open book. The chicken can then be marinated or seasoned as you like. It can be cooked over indirect heat, covered until cooked through, then moved to direct heat to cook until crisp, browned and flavorful.
Whatever your method of cooking raw breasts, pieces or a butterflied chicken, it's important to wash your hands after handling. And bring the raw chicken out on one platter but serve it separately on a clean platter.
To make this easy, Graubart places two trays together, one under the other. The uncooked chicken goes on the top platter, while the bottom platter is ready and waiting when the chicken is grilled and ready to serve.
My blueprint recipe for fast grilled chicken
Whether using gas or charcoal, one of the simplest parts of chicken to cook on the grill is boneless breasts. You'll place them in a big zipper-locking bag, then pound them out with a heavy rolling pin or cast iron skillet to about 1-inch thickness. Once pounded, place three or four pieces in a fresh gallon bag, and pour in a bottle of your favorite vinaigrette salad dressing.
I like Paul Newman's Caesar (although not the creamy variety), but you can certainly use other brands. You can even make your own vinaigrette, using olive oil, balsamic and garlic, etc. Pour enough dressing over the chicken to coat it well.
If you have lemons, cut one in half and squeeze the juice into the bag (you only need one lemon per bag). Place the two lemon halves in the bag with the marinating chicken, seal the bags and place them in the 'fridge overnight. You can chill them two nights for even more flavor. Once you're ready to cook, drain the pieces and cook them over medium-hot fire until seared, then turn and cook on the second side until the chicken is seared and cooked through. This will take four to five minutes per side, depending on the heat — the flatter you pound the chicken, the faster it will cook. Transfer the cooked chicken to a clean platter, and surround it with slices of lemon and good olives. Be sure to leave room for a side of orzo, basmati rice, taboulleh or some sort of grain that mingles well with the juices from the chicken.
And when you've got a little more time, here is how to easily cook that Spatchcock Chicken, which I call Grilled Chicken for Your Crowd. Serve it with coleslaw, roasted sweet potatoes, fresh cranberry sauce, and braised kale or collards. It's delicious, foolproof, time-tested, and I promise you won't be serving dinner at midnight!
Grilled Chicken for Your Crowd
You can easily double this recipe and cook two chickens at once. Place each chicken in its own bag and divide the marinade evenly between the bags.
Serves: About 6
Hands-on time: 30 minutes
Total time: 8 hours
1 (3- to 3 1/2-pound) chicken
2 lemons, halved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Pat the chicken very dry with paper towels. Place the chicken breast side-down on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife or poultry shears, cut down both sides of the backbone. Discard the bone, or freeze it to make stock later.
Flip the chicken so that it is breast side-up and press down on the breastbone with your hands until the bone cracks and the chicken has slightly flattened. Place the chicken in a large zipper-lock bag or in a glass casserole dish.
Squeeze the lemon juice into a medium bowl. Stir in the rosemary, thyme, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil until the mixture thickens and pulls together. Pour the marinade over the chicken in the bag. Zip the bag to secure it, and massage the chicken to coat it well with the marinade. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to overnight.
When you are ready to grill, set up a grill for indirect cooking: Heat a gas grill to medium-high on one side of the grill and low heat on the other. If using charcoal, place the coals on one side of the grill, light the charcoal, and let it cook down to medium-high. Clean the grates of the grill with a wire brush. The grill should register 325 degrees when covered.
Remove the chicken from the marinade and place skin-side up on the indirect or lower-heat side of the grill. Cover and cook until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Now, cook the chicken on the direct side of the grill to crisp up and brown: Distribute the coals under the chicken as needed. Place the chicken skin-side down over direct or higher-heat side of the grill, and cook until well-browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for at least 20 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve with your favorite sauce.