It’s that time of year when carnivorous, vegetarian, and vegan minds alike turn to the beautiful grill. Whether you’re a steak person, an asparagus person, or a peach person (if you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it), grills have something for everyone. And there’s a reason chicken dishes are perennially popular. (I mean, have you seen all our fabulous recipes?)
Here are our Test Kitchen best tips for juicier chicken, every time. (If you’re hungry for more grilling tips, buy the book!)
1. Consider Chicken Thighs
A lot of folks will go for chicken breasts because they’re a bit leaner and because of their uniformity of texture, says Inken, but she’s a thigh or whole bird gal. “I always prefer chicken thighs, especially for grilling. They have a little more fat, so they’re more forgiving.” In addition to them having a wider margin for error in cooking time, says Inken, they’re ready quickly because they’re thin. “You can get a nice sear on the outside and get them cooked all the way through without them drying out.”
2. Get the Grill Hot, but Not Too Hot
You want to get your grill up to temperature, but you don’t want it piping-hot, as you would for a steak. “You’re not just searing its outside; you also need to cook it through,” says Inken. “Use a medium-high temperature on the grill. If you have a [gas] grill with a temperature gauge, 375 to 400 degrees is perfect.” Alternatively, she suggests the 5-inch, 5-second rule: “It’ll vary based on the grill, but if you hold your hand 5 inches above the grate, after 5 seconds it should feel really hot, and you’ll want to pull your hand away.”
3. Close the Lid
“A lot of people stand and watch with the lid open,” says Inken, “but you want to use the benefit of trapping heat in there. Closing the lid actually helps the chicken cook through faster. Open it, flip it, shut the grill again.” She does about 3 to 4 minutes per side for boneless thighs and 4 to 6 minutes per side for breasts, depending on their size. The best way to tell that it’s done? An instant-read thermometer, which should come up to 165 degrees before you eat the chicken.
4. Let it Rest
A cardinal sin of grilling? Not letting the meat rest when it gets off the heat. Let those juices redistribute and let the muscle relax a bit. You’ll have a juicier, more tender piece of meat if you let it rest for at least 10 minutes, says Inken.
5. Consider “Beer Can” or Bourbon Chicken
This funny-looking contraption is the fantastic “convertible chicken roaster,” so you can make your own whole chicken on the grill, helping it perch upright. That center module can hold lemon, garlic, sherry, beer or bourbon, which will flavor the whole bird. Inken is a big fan of this technique, which produces crispy chicken skin, to boot.
6. Salt in Advance and Let It Come to Room Temperature
“Because chicken needs to be cooked all the way through,” says Inken, “if you take it right out of the fridge [and put it on the grill], the center will be really cold, it’ll take longer to cook through to its center, and by that time outside will be dried out.” So remove your chicken from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes and up to an hour before you cook it, and season it with salt and pepper when you do so. The seasoning will absorb into the bird and you’ll have more evenly salted meat.
7. Get the Marinade Right
Tempted to empty the whole package of chicken into a bowl of oil and vinegar, then set it and forget it for a day or two? Don’t. “With any marinade, you don’t want to marinade for too long, since it makes the outside of the meat kind of mealy,” says Inken. She suggests a minimum of an hour and a maximum of overnight or 24 hours, tops. “After that,” she says, “you start to change the texture of the meat.”
Consider a 1:1 oil to vinegar marinade flavored with aromatics, so you don’t alter the texture of the meat too much or “have a greasy marinade that drips down and creates flare-up.” She is, of course, a big fan of grill rubs, and recommends those on our site. So get grilling!