I'm in my fourth year of writing the grilling column here on Serious Eats, and with well over 200 recipes posted with no end in sight, I'm always trying to keep it fresh and creative. The constant quest for the best of the best to deliver each week has just now brought around a glaring omission of some grilling basics that are long overdue.
This is an effort to build some grilling fundamentals to make your flame roasted meats as great as they can be.
For the first installment: chicken breasts, arguably one of the most difficult of the standard meats to grill. It's all too common of an occurrence to get dry, chewy, cardboardy breasts. This is all correctable though, and chicken breasts can be fantastic on the grill, it just takes a little know-how.
The chicken breast is a very unforgiving meat, anything over its ideal temperature will almost immediately equate to drying out. The physical shape of the breast isn't kind in this respect, as its uneven height means the bulky center cannot be cooked through without overcooking the thinner portions of the meat.
Easy solution to this problem: even out the height. This involves giving the chicken a nice beating, which is also great for relieving any pent up aggression.
I like to put the chicken in a resealable plastic bag for the pounding—the thick plastic doesn't break when whacked, and the sealed bag ensures chicken juice doesn't splatter all over the kitchen. Once safely in a bag, I go at it with my rolling pin or a meat pounder, bashing the thicker parts of the breast until they match the height of the thinnest part. Don't go too thin here; keep the height around 3/4-inch. A breast pounded out too much will be more subject to drying out over high-heat.
A Fine Brine
Brining is the next important step taken to avoid horrid dry chicken. You can catch up with Kenji's science behind brining, but for our purposes here, you just need to know that soaking the chicken in a salty brine reshapes the proteins in the meat in such a way that they retain moisture better when cooking.
That retaining moisture part is key, as it provides some assurance that the meat will remain juicy even if a tad overdone, and be even better if cooked correctly. You really want this added protection when cooking chicken breasts and there's really no reason to skip it since the brine takes just a minute to put together, and the chicken only needs about 30 minutes of soaking, which just happens to be about the amount of time it takes to get a charcoal grill going.
Before hitting the grill, the chicken will like you much better if you start with a clean and oiled grate. The skinless breasts have no fat to protect them from the heat, which equates to them easily sticking to a grate, a problem a clean and oiled grill grate alleviates.
With an even thickness, a juicy brine, and clean grill, the chicken is just ready to face the hot fire. You don't want to go too hot here, since the 500+°F of a new fire can too quickly dry out the breasts. On the opposite end, you don't want to go too low either because then there will no browning and you'll end with pale, unappetizing chicken. A medium-high fire, 375-450°F, is just about perfect, creating a golden crust without overdoing the meat.
In my experience, it only takes chicken breasts a few minutes per side over direct medium-high heat to both brown and be cooked through at the same time. That being said, it's a good idea to always have a two-zone fire—with all the coals piled on one side of the charcoal grate—in case the chicken browns before it's done cooking through. This way you can finish the chicken up on the cool side of the grill, covered, and avoid burning the the breasts if need be.
Insert an instant-read thermometer in the middle of the breast—you know the chicken is done when it hits 160°F. Upon a mandatory rest off the grill, the meat temperature will continue to rise to 165°F approved by the FDA. This is all good and well if you like to play by the rules, but I personally pull the chicken even sooner, at 150°F, which results in a juicier and more flavorful breast. I happily can say I haven't experienced any ill effects from this yet, and overall I've been a far happier chicken eater. (You can read more about the safety of 150°F chicken here.)
So now we have beautifully moist and evenly cooked chicken breasts—no small achievement. But for all of this work, in my opinion, chicken is still rather dull on its own, so let's pull out the sauces.
For these particular breasts, I smothered them in an arugula pesto, which added a nutty, peppery kick. Some other flavorful toppers to consider: Mango-habanero barbecue sauce, cilantro pesto, or chimichurri.
No matter how you gussy up your chicken, all of it will do little to help a poorly grilled breasts, which should be something we no longer have to tolerate, ever.
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