Outdoor cooking 101: How to make the very best grilled chicken, fast

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

A whole chicken is one of the most indulgent meals you can make for a reasonable price. Taking it outside to the grill adds another layer of flavor and, not for nothing, keeps your house from smelling like a chicken restaurant.

There's also no disputing that cooking a whole chicken on the grill takes your meal into project territory. Enter spatchcocking, a term for removing the spine of and then butterflying your bird to help it cook quicker and easier over the grill grates.

Using this method, your cooking time should be approximately 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your bird. I've been known to grill my chicken for 30 minutes or so and finish it in a hot oven until it reaches 165 in the thickest part of the thigh.

Here's how to make the best grilled chicken you've ever made in an hour or less.

Spatchcock 101

First, prepare your work surface. A plastic cutting board with a towel under it to prevent it from moving should work well.

Remove any gizzards or other detritus from the cavity of your chicken. You can freeze these random parts for later use for stock or gravy if you'd like. Make sure the cavity is well drained. Pat the bird dry. Do not rinse it. That's the best way to send chicken juices flying all over the sink and kitchen. No one wants that.

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Next, place your bird, breast side down, on your work surface. Using strong kitchen shears, cut along each side of the backbone from one end of the cavity to the other to remove the spine. Again, save the spine for stock or discard. Score the meat along the keel bone, or the dark bone in the center of the breast, to make flattening your bird easier.

Next, flip the bird breast side up. Place the heel of your hand on the breastbone and press firmly until you hear a crack. You may choose to trim the tips of the chicken wings with your shears at this point since they almost always burn, or leave them on. Dealer's choice. Now you're ready for seasoning. 

Make your chicken

Buxton Chicken Rub, made by the Asheville, North Carolina-based Spicewalla spice brand, is my go-to. It's made with sugar, salt, white pepper, cayenne, garlic, onion, cumin, coriander and some sage and oregano. You can replicate those flavors at home, or go your own way. Just make sure to season liberally, as most of the flavor is concentrated on the very outside of the chicken. 

A hot grill can crisp up a skin nicely, and a spatchcocked, or butterflied chicken "under a brick," cuts cooking time and helps your bird roast more evenly.

I like to grill my chicken "under a brick," which means putting something clean, hot and heavy over the top of the bird as it cooks. In my case, I use a preheated skillet.

Here's how to do it: Prepare your grill for medium-high indirect heat. On a charcoal grill, that means banking your coals to one side. On a gas grill, turn all the burners on medium-high, then turn off the burner where you'll be cooking your bird once the grill is nice and hot, or around 500 degrees.

Put the skillet on the hot grill surface for 5-10 minutes to preheat it. 

Next, put the chicken, skin side down, on the indirect heat side of your grill. Reduce the heat of the burners that remain on to medium.

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Carefully, using tongs or a heavy-duty grill glove, place the skillet on top of the chicken. Grill this way for about 10 minutes, or until the breast browns and the skin releases easily from the grill without tearing. Remove the skillet, flip the chicken over with tongs and replace the skillet. 

Watch for flare-ups and make sure your chicken does not overly blacken. Adjust the heat and turn the chicken as needed. Your chicken is done when the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160-165 degrees. Rest on a room-temperature platter for at least 10 minutes. 

You may serve this with any sauce. I like a fresh, bright chimichurri. Or, you can try this apricot mostarda, which will take you into fall with its concentrated stone fruit flavors. 

Apricot mostarda

This stewed fruit jam is liberally spiked with mustard, making it great with grilled meat with a nice, smoky char. 

Apricot Mostarda

The sugar and the natural pectin from the fruit will thicken the sauce as it cools, meaning you'll end up with a texture similar to preserves. 

Total time: 1 hour

Ingredients

1 pound apricots, pitted and diced

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons dry mustard powder

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

In a medium saucepan, combine apricots, sugar, vinegar, mustard powder and mustard seeds. Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until apricots have broken down and the mixture is syrupy enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon, 45 to 60 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat. Serve warm, chilled or at room temperature. Once chilled, seal it and keep it in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. 

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com