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 not a good plan to slather raw pieces of chicken 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.
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.
To barbecue chicken, use indirect heat to cook the pieces through, then move the chicken to 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.
I cannot overstate the efficacy of brining to bring out the best in a chicken's flavor and consistency. (Soak the poultry for a few hours in salt, a few garlic cloves, a bay leaf, some peppercorns and water; that's all you need.) With the exception of kosher chicken, which is already brined, brining is useful whether you are using the best free-range, antibiotic-free and hormone-free poultry or factory-farmed birds.
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.
These are the hallmarks of a successful grill master. The timing of all the steps must be thought through. Starting a fire and obtaining the proper temperature will take about 25 minutes.
Don't skimp on equipment. Use instant-read and remote thermometers to reduce guesswork. Have extra-long grill mitts and regular and extra-long tongs on hand. Set a waste bucket near the grill, along with a bottle of water for flare-ups, plenty of aluminum foil, paper towels and rimmed baking sheets. Once the cooking has started, you don't want to leave your post.
HANDLE FOOD SAFELY
Over the years, I've become more and more manic about handling poultry. I go through many pairs of disposable food-safe gloves. I keep antibacterial spray at the ready for surface cleaning and discard the foil on a baking sheet immediately after I have used it to transport raw chicken to the grill.
As usual, it's good to clean as you go, then retrace your steps after you're done, wiping down everything that you have come in contact with: doorknobs, spice containers, cutting boards, mixing bowls, storage items and more. Wipe the sink and countertops often. Wash tongs between their raw and cooked tasks.
BARBECUED CHICKEN PIECES
You will need a grill thermometer to measure the temperature inside your grill, and an instant-read thermometer to check the chicken for doneness.
5 pounds (12 to 16 pieces) brined chicken pieces, bones in, skin on
1 1/2 cups prepared BBQ sauce, plus more for serving
1. Combine chicken pieces and 1 cup barbecue sauce in a jumbo (2 1/2-gallon) resealable plastic food-storage bag. Seal and massage to coat evenly; marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature.
2. Prepare the grill for indirect grilling: If using charcoal, light the charcoal in a chimney starter and let the briquettes burn until the flames subside and a light layer of ash covers the briquettes (20 to 25 minutes). Open the grill's bottom vents. Dump the lighted coals into 2 mounds (or into 2 half-moon-shaped briquette baskets) on opposite sides of the grill.
If using gas, with a two-burner grill, set one burner to medium-low and leave the other unlit; with three or more burners, set the outside or front and rear burners to medium-low and leave the center burners unlit.
3. Just before grilling, oil the rack. For a charcoal grill, lightly spray the grill rack with nonstick cooking oil spray before placing it over the hot briquettes. For a gas grill, fold a few paper towels into a small packet, oil the packet and use a pair of tongs to rub oil onto the grates.
4. Remove the chicken from the bags; discard any leftover sauce. Place each piece skin side up on an area of the grill that is not directly above the briquettes or a lit burner.
5. Cover and maintain the temperature inside the grill between 300 and 350 degrees. Cook for 35 to 40 minutes, until the chicken's internal temperature reaches 155 degrees for white meat and 165 degrees for dark meat. (Chicken is not cooked through at this point.) Baste chicken with 1/4 cup of barbecue sauce, cover and cook for 10 minutes over indirect heat.
6. Move the chicken pieces over direct heat, baste with the remaining 1/4 cup of sauce and cook uncovered for 1 to 2 minutes, until the internal temperature has reached 165 degrees for white meat and 175 degrees for dark meat, turning the pieces often to avoid flame-ups.
7. Transfer the pieces to a platter and cover loosely with aluminum foil; let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 8 servings.
BLACKENED CHICKEN BREASTS
A flat-perforated pan is useful for searing and blackening. The pan is preheated over direct heat and provides a stable surface that acts as a buffer against the flames. After the chicken is seared, it is finished over indirect heat.
Large (8-ounce) breast halves are preferable to smaller ones, which can dry out more readily.
6 (8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (tenders removed), preferably brined for 2 hours (see accompanying recipe)
7 tablespoons of your preferred spice rub
1. Rinse the breast halves in cold water and blot them dry with paper towels. If you have not brined them, season them lightly with salt.
2. Coat both sides of the breast halves with the rub; cover with plastic wrap. Let them sit at room temperature (no more than 30 minutes) while you prepare the grill.
3. Prepare the grill for direct heat: If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the briquettes. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 6 to 8 seconds. Position a flat perforated grill pan on the rack directly over the briquettes or fire for 15 minutes so it gets nice and hot.
4. Carefully spray the grill pan with nonstick cooking oil spray.
5. Place the breast halves on the pan, discarding any excess rub. Sear for 5 minutes; turn over the chicken and sear for 5 minutes, then transfer to a shallow plate.
6. Use oven or heatproof mitts to remove the grill pan from the grill. If using a charcoal grill, remove the rack and use tongs to move the briquette holders to the outside of the grill; return the rack to the grill and place the chicken in the center of the grill, away from the coals. If using a gas grill, turn the burners off in one area of the grill and place the chicken in that area.
7. Cover and cook for 6 to 11 minutes, until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Transfer to a serving platter, cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.