Barbecued chicken – my favorite kind with the skin and bone attached — is one of the more abused foods on the grill. (Blackened skin and raw flesh — yuck!) Sugary sauces and chicken fat are the main culprits behind flare-ups, charring your bird long before it’s done.
The following five-step program for cooking whole pieces of chicken may take longer on the grill, but it’s easy and tastes better. Bonus: You don’t have to stand vigil around the fire hosing down flare-ups!
This is one of my “noRecipe Recipes.” Loosely follow five basic rules, and blackened chicken will be a distant memory. Ingredients that never vary are cut chicken pieces — skin and bone attached, a rub, barbecue sauce and grill.
You’ll need charcoal and/or wood chips for a charcoal grill, and a grill box and hard wood chips for a gas grill. Using wood chips are not essential, but they lend a great smoky flavor to the chicken. Hickory, cherry or applewood are my favorites. Mesquite is delicious, but be cautious: I’ve over-amped the mesquite flavor one too many times.
Another essential ingredient is time: it’s essential to keep a watchful eye on the chicken for several hours as it barbecues.
1. Select your chicken. You may buy whole broiler-fryers and cut them up yourself, but cut chicken is the most convenient. Mix and match your favorite parts as desired. If there’s a sale on cut chicken — particularly air-chilled (available at Whole Foods) — you know what will be on my menu. Trim excess skin and fat from chicken, particularly thighs. Rinse your chicken pieces well, then pat dry.
2. Season, don’t sauce, initially. Purchase a ready-made poultry rub or make your own*. 1 cup of rub seasons about 7-8 pounds of meat. Apply rub by hand and rub into chicken and under skin if loose. Cover, but do not coat the meat. (Homemade rubs are a great way to use up dry spices.)
3. Barbecue your chicken over a slow fire — the chicken will take 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours to cook. Using charcoal or gas, the temperature of your grill should be 230-250 degrees. For charcoal: Begin with lighting at least 6 cups of charcoal and burn the coal down until it reaches a temperature of 230-250 degrees. You’ll need to check the fire every 45 minutes, occasionally adding coals to keep the temperature of the grill between 230-250 degrees. For gas:Set your burners to low heat, cover and heat until thermometer registers desired temperature.(If your grill is not equipped with a thermometer, measuring heat is easy with the “palm method.” Place the palm of your hand an inch or two above the heat. If you can keep it there for six seconds, the heat is at the right temperature. Maintain this temperature by opening or closing the vents and adding charcoal as needed. It is a slow fire but that’s what keeps the chicken from burning!) For gas, you may need to maintain a low heat by turning off one or two burners. Remember, white meat chicken cooks faster than dark meat, so keep watch.
4. Keep your smoke. If you’re smoking with wood chips, you should keep as much smoke around the chicken as possible. Therefore you must keep the lid on. Again — do not let the temperature of your heat exceed 230 degrees. You want as much smoke as possible, at a very low heat — especially in the first hour of the barbecue. (Remember that small wood chips should be soaked 30 minutes before using — the larger chunks up to 2 hours). If using a charcoal grill, toss the soaked chips on every time you add additional charcoal,then close the grill. If using a grill box , change the wood at least once. The grill boxes are blazing hot — I have a second box at the ready to switch off.
5.Sauce when your chicken is cooked. You may skip the sauce altogether — the rub and smoke may be plenty of flavor for you. But if saucing, wait until the end. The sauce only needs 5 minutes to adhere to cooked chicken. And this is the time to be vigilant. If the fire has gotten hot, it can make the sauce burn. Be ready with tongs to remove the chicken at the first signs of burning. Your chicken is done when the thigh juices run clear.
* Quick and easy rub: Combine equal parts kosher salt and brown sugar; season to taste with paprika and pepper. I often use smoked Spanish paprika, especially if I’m not smoking with wood chips. Chipotle, garlic and onion powder are savory additions. If I’ve dried herbs that are fading, I will use these as well. Taste often — it’s fun to develop your own signature seasoning rub.