The Grilling Issue: Treat chicken right

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

With the advent of grill season comes the inevitable spike in one of the most common of all cooking crimes: chicken abuse. Signs can include dryness, charred skin, raw flesh, wanton disregard for safety and the onset of depression brought on by a total lack of flavor.

It's time to break the cycle of violence.

The entertainment factor of grilling for company -- that there might be mirthful, expectant guests watching your every move -- has to do with you, moving with such grace and sure-handedness that they hardly notice you putting forth any effort at all.

Let's start with barbecued chicken. It is not a good plan to slather raw pieces with bottled sauce, throw them directly over hot charcoals, freak out when the skin catches fire and try to salvage the operation by finishing the job in the oven, which defeats the purpose of grilling in the first place.

It will be helpful to remember two axioms: Indirect cooking, in which the pieces are moved to the side of the grill, away from the direct, intense heat of the coals, is your friend. And avoid open-flame cooking, especially in public, as much as possible.

To barbecue chicken, use indirect heat to finish cooking the pieces through and direct heat after the sauce has been applied, near the end, to achieve a caramelized char. Do that, and you will not have to worry about guests cutting into meat that is underdone.

The goal is to optimize flavor, whether you are using boneless, skinless breasts or bone-in parts or Cornish hens or whole chickens. (If it's kebabs you're looking for, check out my column of May 20, 2009.) So consider the variables: the quality of the raw materials and the methods of seasoning, flavoring and preparation.

I cannot overstate the efficacy of brining to bring out the best in a chicken's flavor. With the exception of kosher chicken (which is already brined), brining is useful whether you are using the best free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free poultry or factory-farmed birds.

Salt, a few garlic cloves, a bay leaf, some peppercorns and water; that's all you need. (For barbecued chicken, I like to add smoky chipotle peppers to the brine.) Soak the poultry for a few hours, pat it dry and proceed directly to seasoning.

Although good flavor comes from within, seasoning is applied to the outside. To that end, it's good to have a mix of favorite chopped herbs, a rub of dry spices and a kickin' barbecue sauce on hand. For a grill-roasted chicken, gravy made from the contents of a drip pan provides a solid, effortless accompaniment.

Back to the methodology: Any piece of grilled chicken that requires more than 10 minutes of total cooking time should be done over indirect heat; otherwise, burning and undercooking can occur. If you have a flat, perforated grill pan, searing and blackening over direct heat are simple. (Of course, you can cook boneless chicken directly on the grill rack.)

Indirect methods include grill-roasting and rotisserie cooking. To grill-roast a chicken, you can stand it up on a metal can filled with flavored liquid and herbs, or simply truss it, then place it on the grill rack with a drip pan underneath it. Standing the bird up or using a rotisserie attachment allows for browning on all sides. The rotisserie, farther away from the heat source, provides nonstop basting and even cooking.

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