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Editor's Note: This post was originally published in 2012. It has been updated with new information based on further testing.
I'm in my fourth year of writing the grilling column here on Serious Eats, and, with well over 200 recipes posted and 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, cardboard-y breasts. This is all correctable, though, and chicken breasts can be fantastic on the grill; it just takes a little know-how.
Chicken breast is a very unforgiving meat. As soon as it tips over its ideal temperature, it will almost immediately begin 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 the thinner portions of the meat overcooking first.
There's an 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 it's safely in a bag, I go at it with a heavy skillet 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 three-quarters of an inch. A breast that's pounded out too thin will be more susceptible to drying out over high heat.
A Fine Brine
Brining is the next important step to avoid horribly dry chicken. You can catch up with Kenji's explanation of the science behind brining here, but for our purposes, you just need to know that salt alters the proteins in the meat in such a way that they retain moisture better when cooked.
That retaining-moisture part is key, as it provides some assurance that the meat will remain juicy even if it's a tad overdone, and it'll 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 needs only about 30 minutes of brining, which just happens to be about the amount of time it takes to get a charcoal grill going.
The thing with brining, though, is there are two primary ways to do it: wet and dry. A wet brine involves dissolving salt (and sometimes sugar) in water or other liquid, then soaking the meat in it. A dry brine is as simple as sprinkling salt all over the meat and letting it rest long enough for the salt to penetrate the meat and work its magic. It's best to dry-brine meat uncovered, on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet, to allow for good air circulation all around the meat. Each method of brining has its advantages.
A wet brine plumps the meat up more, for juicier results. But that plumpness is due to the water that's absorbed by the breast, which means the chicken is juicier but less flavorful. That added moisture also impedes browning, even if you've dried the meat well after taking it out of the brine, which means it's more difficult to get a good sear.
A dry brine doesn't introduce water into the meat the way wet brining does, but it still helps the chicken retain what moisture it does have. It won't be as plump and juicy as a wet-brined breast, but it'll still be nicely moist (assuming it hasn't been cooked to death), and it will have a more deeply chicken-y flavor. Plus, it'll brown better, thanks to surface drying during the dry-brining phase.
You can brine your chicken breasts either way, depending on your preference. We tend to prefer dry brining for its better browning and flavor results, but either way works.
Before you add it to the grill, remember that 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 means they'll easily stick to the grill, a problem that a clean and oiled grill grate alleviates.
With an even thickness, a brine, and a clean grill, the chicken is ready to face the hot fire. You don't want to go too hot here, since the 500°F+ temperature (above 260°C) of a new fire can dry out the breasts too quickly. On the opposite end, you don't want to go too low, either, because then there will be no browning, and you'll end up with pale, unappetizing chicken. A medium-high fire, 375 to 450°F (190 to 230°C), is just about perfect, creating a golden crust without overdoing the meat.
In my experience, it takes chicken breasts only a few minutes per side over direct, medium-high heat to both brown and get cooked through at the same time. That being said, it's a good idea to always use 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, if need be, you can finish the chicken up on the cool side of the grill, covered, and avoid burning the breasts.
We almost always recommend using an instant-read thermometer when cooking meat to judge doneness perfectly each time. You can try to use one here, too, but the truth is that with thin cutlets like pounded chicken breasts, it's very difficult to get an accurate measurement of the temperature at the coolest part: Mere millimeters away from that part, the chicken can be much hotter.
A better way is to determine doneness by sight. If you're unsure, just make a small incision in a breast, allowing you to peek into the center to see if it's cooked through or not.
If you do want to try to take the temp, 150°F (66°C) is your goal. That's a bit lower than the 165°F (74°C) recommended by the FDA, but if you go as high as the FDA says, you'll be guaranteed dry chicken breast. The thing to remember is that rendering food safe to eat is a factor of both temperature and time. That means that if your chicken reaches 150°F and stays at that temperature for just three minutes, it's as safe to eat as chicken cooked to 165°F, a temperature that renders the chicken instantly safe to eat. (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.
No matter how you gussy up your chicken, all of it will do little to help a poorly grilled breast—which should be something we no longer have to tolerate, ever.