Grilling is one of the great joys of summer. There’s that distinctive smoky flavor, that primal connection to the live fire outside, drink in hand. Not to mention no hot oven and easy cleanup. Grilling burgers, hot dogs, and steaks is straightforward. But add chicken to the spread and things can go off the rails. Bone dry or burned, chicken can be the Debbie Downer of a party.
If at the last minute you’ve had to rewrite your menu to feature “blackened chicken,” I feel your pain. I’ve been there. So, a few years ago I committed to solving the chicken problem.
I found some head-scratching fixes out there, like the idea of poaching the bird before passing it over to the grill. They all felt too fussy — which misses the whole point of grilling.
A first strategy I tried required maniacally moving the chicken throughout the cooking, like I was doing a quickstep dance routine around the grill grate. The idea was to avoid flare-ups, but the effort didn’t allow the ease that summer cookouts promise. I tried using a spray bottle of water to douse the flames, but this kicked up so much ash that, even after brushing it off each bite, eating a drumstick felt like licking an ash tray. Later in the game, I realized if the bird was placed skin-side-up on the grate, that helped prevent the skin from rendering and dripping onto the coals and producing flames that singed the meat before it was cooked. Browning the skin only at the end, after the coals are tempered, does help reduce scorching.
The real epiphany was the cue I took from pit masters. What they do is indirect live-fire cooking, which simply means grilling with the coals off to the side. In a covered kettle grill this replicates an oven, perfect for cooking poultry. By placing the bird “fire adjacent” you avoid the fatty flare ups that can char it.
Inspired by the sound of Johnny Cash singing “Ring of Fire,” I came up with a particular way of readying my grill for chicken and I’ve never looked back.
Light a chimney full to the brim with briquettes. When they ash over, turn them into the grill and push them to the edges to make a ring, leaving the center free of coals. If the ring is thin in spots, simply add more briquettes. I have used this technique with Cornish hens and turkey and consistently have moist meat and crispy golden skin — and it all still has the requisite kiss of smoke. Depending on the size of your grill, you can cook multiple birds this way.
A note about the charcoal. There are advantages to both the natural lump hardwood kind and the familiar briquettes. While hardwood burns faster and hotter with a clean smoky flavor, briquettes provide a steadier medium-high heat. I like to combine the two for consistent heat with great flavor. The main thing is, if you’re using briquettes, don’t use the acrid-tasting lighter fluid-soaked kind. A chimney makes starting a fire easy.
If you’re using gas, all of this translates into simply lighting half the burners, placing the chicken so it’s not in their direct flames, and cooking it covered.
Cooking chicken on the bone keeps it moist. I am a fan of spatchcocked (a.k.a. butterflied) chicken. To prepare it, you remove the backbone so the bird lays flat. You can buy split chickens and grill halves for a similar effect. I suggest “dry brining” the bird to boost its flavor and juiciness.
For classic barbecue flavor, I like to finish the chicken with a sauce — but only after it’s just about done. Turn it skin side up, mop on some sauce, and cover the grill for a couple of minutes to give the meat a glaze. Don’t sauce the chicken sooner. Most barbecue sauces contain sugars that burn easily on the grill.
In summer, I like a variation on mojo sauce best. The version I use combines potent garlic flavor with lots of fresh herbs from my garden. It’s simple and fresh. And if it’s a date night you can temper the raw garlic’s heat by warming the cloves until the oil bubbles and set it aside until cool and soft.
‘Ring of Fire’ Grilled Chicken
Serves 2 to 4
2 chicken halves, about 1¾ pounds each
Extra-virgin olive oil
To dry brine the chicken: 4 to 24 hours before cooking, rub 1¼ teaspoons kosher salt all over each chicken half. Make sure to get some of the salt under the skin. Put the chicken on a rack over a pan in the refrigerator, uncovered.
About 30 minutes before cooking, get the chicken out of the fridge and set up the “ring of fire.” Light a full chimney of briquets. When they ash all over, turn the coals out into the grill. Push the coals to the edge of the grill to make a ring with the center free of coals. Add some hardwood lumps or more charcoal over the lit coals. Set the grill in place.
Pat the chicken dry, then brush it lightly with olive oil. Place the chicken bone side down in the center of the grill; cover the grill. Cook until the skin is golden and the meat is about 3/4 of the way done, about 20 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook uncovered until the skin is crisp and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thigh registers 160 degrees, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a platter and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with the mojo sauce.
4 to 6 cloves garlic
Generous pinch red pepper flakes
1 cup mixed soft, leafy herbs, such as oregano, mint, cilantro, or parsley
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (about 1 large orange)
¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 2 juicy limes)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Halve the garlic and, if needed, remove any sprout shoots — they are bitter. Put all the sauce ingredients except the oil in a blender and puree until smooth. Then, with the machine running, slowly add the oil to the herb base. Add salt to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve with grilled chicken.