In barbecue circles, chicken might as well be a vegetable. Oh, people like it just fine, but it’s not taken seriously. Not like beef brisket, pulled pork, whole hog or ribs. Chicken is the meat world’s tofu: a blank canvas for flavors, without much of its own.
I grill chicken every two or three weeks, sometimes whole, sometimes in parts. I’m crazy about its mild taste and ability to play well with other flavors. Like a genial friend, chicken should be prized, not derided, for its adaptability.
The problem is that for most people, putting chicken over the fire turns dinnertime into a display of confounding results. The white meat may be perfectly moist, but the dark meat is as underdone as a novel’s first draft. And don’t get me started on the skin, which too often comes out rubbery or burned or every which way but enjoyable.
The key to appreciating grilled chicken as much as I do is in understanding how to treat it. If the heat is too high, the skin will burn before the meat can cook. If too low, the skin ends up flabby. The challenge — which is really no different from that of chicken roasted in the oven — is to not dry out the white meat while waiting for the dark meat to cook through, or, conversely, to not undercook the dark meat when the white meat is done.
The best way to avoid the problem is to butterfly, or spatchcock, the bird (something that works well for Thanksgiving turkey, too). By more or less flattening it, you get the chicken to cook more evenly. You also assure crisped skin.
In his book “Where There’s Smoke” (Sterling Epicure, 2013), chef Barton Seaver says size matters. “Smaller birds are easier to manage on the grill in terms of ensuring doneness,” he writes. A typical fryer weighs about three pounds, which is easy to cook uniformly. But I like a roaster that weighs right around four pounds. It is hefty enough to provide a lot of meat in each part, but small enough to yield uniform results. Anything above five pounds is dicey.
I grill chicken directly over medium heat for a few minutes on an indirect fire to crisp the skin, then move it to the cool side of the grate to gently cook the meat through and let it take on the flavors of the coals. When it’s almost done, I use long-handled tongs to transport the chicken to the hot side for a few more minutes. That finishes crisping the skin and gives it a nice char.
I’ve cooked chicken that way so many times that I can tell when it’s done simply by looking at it. Its glistening skin is blackened and bronzed, and the meat’s juices run clear. When I pick it up with the tongs, the bird surrenders a little, sagging on both sides. I don’t generally use an instant-read thermometer, but until you get it down, I strongly recommend that you do; it should read 165 degrees at the thickest part of the thigh.
Sometimes, to be even more certain that the chicken will come out evenly cooked, I set two foiled-wrapped bricks on its splayed body. The method is typically called, plainly, chicken-under-a-brick. (In Italian, which always sounds better, it’s pollo al mattone, a classic Tuscan recipe.) The bricks flatten the bird, resulting in magnificently brittle skin and succulent meat. Plus, it’s cool to tell your guests, “Tonight we’re having chicken under brick.” Sounds rustic and sophisticated at the same time.
The most foolproof way to grill chicken, of course, is in individual pieces. That way, the breast and thigh get the special attention they deserve. The flavor of skin-on, bone-in chicken breast halves, marinated in lemon and olive oil, is somehow timeless. I often stand at the grill and anxiously anticipate eating the white meat as its blackening skin puffs ever so slightly and rivulets of juice run down its sides.
The most traditional method of grilling chicken is the one that, for the longest time, I used the least: the sauce-slathered style known commonly as barbecue chicken. The more I cooked chicken, the more I appreciated its flavor and wanted only to add some herbs or bathe it in citrus. But over the summer, I placed chicken legs, thighs and breasts over the fire and brushed them with a tangy barbecue sauce. With parts, you can cook to order: Take the white meat off sooner than the dark to assure perfect doneness.
When I took my first bite of them, I was immediately transported back to countless childhood cookouts. There was something so simple and beautifully sloppy about the treatment. It was fun, and I had forgotten how much I loved it. I’ve been adding barbecue chicken to my routine ever since.
The key is to wait until the final few minutes to brush on the sauce. Otherwise, it burns.
It is that kind of detail that matters. It reminds you that a yard bird, when cooked properly, takes on the beguiling aromas of fire and smoke like few other foods — including vegetables.