Grilling: Rotisserie Chicken
There are few delights that rival the skin of a rotisserie chicken. Sure the juicy, flavorful meat is great, too, but the thin, browned skin that's crisped up in the bird's own slowly rendering fat is something I live for—it's the reason I got a rotisserie attachment for my grill in the first place. But three years after receiving that gift, I realized I was too hung up on specialty birds like Peruvian and mojo chickens; shamefully, I'd never cooked a single standard rotisserie chicken. I decided it was high time to right that wrong and set out to perfect the basics.
Not So Good Rotisserie Chicken
I figured the best way to start was with the simplest possible approach: I bought a medium-size four-pound bird, unwrapped it, patted it dry with paper towels, and threw it on the spit. I usually brine my chickens before cooking, but given that the bird would be be basting in its own juices, I thought it might wind up being an unnecessary step.
I set up the chicken to slowly rotate over an indirect fire, with one full chimney of charcoal split into two equal piles on each side of the grill grate. With a bit of windchill going on, this left the temperature inside the grill only around 350-375°F, taking the chicken just about an hour to reach 160°F in the breast.
Even with the long cook, this bird looked pretty sorry. The skin only turned a pale, light brown and lacked flavor, with a texture that was too thick and chewy. The meat, slightly dry and tasteless, suffered a similar fate.
Okay Rotisserie Chicken
While that lackluster bird was cooking, I also readied another, using a few bits of chicken know-how that I've used and developed over the last year.
First, I brined the bird for an hour in a saltwater solution to help enhance its internal moisture. Then, after I removed it from the brine, I patted it dry, set it on a wire rack, and placed it in the fridge to air-dry overnight. Drying out the skin is part of what makes my grilled wings work so well, and I suspected it would work similarly for a rotisserie bird.
But that ended up being only partly true. The brine did help the meat stay juicy, and the outside it brown more, but it still didn't come close to reaching the intensity of flavor I was shooting for. There was a little streak of hope, though.
A sole line of darker skin had formed, where the fat poured out from a hole I'd made when taking the bird's temperature with a probe thermometer. That strip of skin provided a little taste of what I was after, and gave me a clear direction to follow.
Pretty Damn Good Rotisserie Chicken
The brine and air-dry method seemed to be working out, so I followed that procedure again, but added a few extra steps this time around.
I knew I needed more heat to get better browning, so I added an extra half chimney of charcoal on top of what I'd used before, which brought the grill temp into the 425-450°F range. Then, noticing that holes in the skin provided a portal for the fat to escape and baste the skin, I poked holes all over the bird using a skewer, especially in fattier thigh areas. Finally, to jumpstart the browning, I brushed the chicken with butter when it first went on the rotisserie.
These all added up to make a pretty damn juicy, tender, and flavorful chicken. It was certainly a great home attempt, but yet another version eclipsed this one.
Really Excellent Rotisserie Chicken
I have yet to fully jump on the dry salting bandwagon—a few previous attempts have left my chickens and turkeys too salty for my taste—but I gave it another shot here.
Instead of brining the bird in saltwater, I coated it inside and out with a couple tablespoons of kosher salt before letting it air dry. The rest of the steps were the same as my previous recipe.
This was by far the best chicken to come off my rotisserie. Fears that the bird would wind up too salty proved unfounded, and the extra salt was exactly what I'd needed to concentrate the flavor of the skin and meat. It also browned better and was just as moist as a regularly brined chicken.
I didn't finish the whole bird that day, but I couldn't help but peel off all the skin and eat it while it was still warm and at its best (I pulled the leftover skinless chicken and made it into enchiladas later in the week). As good as this was, I was left thinking that even more heat might do the rotisserie bird more justice. You could get that effect with lump charcoal—which burns hotter than briquettes—or direct heat, although fatty flare-ups could make that problematic. I'm sure I'll give it yet another shot, but for now, I've found a method that is sure to cook up one truly excellent rotisserie chicken.
About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment every other Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every other Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.