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It's easy to see why chicken gets a bad rap in the grilling world. Most of the time it's dry, bland, or stringy with burnt skin. But when I visit my mom or head to family reunion cookouts, chicken is what she asks for. Not out of masochism, but because after spending years grilling hundreds of chickens, I've learned how to do it right.
Provided you grill chicken right—and that means making sure you hit that 150°F mark in the breasts, no more, no less, and cooking them in a way that optimizes smoky flavor and crisp skin—it can be the showstopping-est, most-sought-after dish on the block.
Here are five of my favorite ways to do it from around the world. Each one is different but fantastic, your Justice League of grilled chicken. And they each feature unique techniques that are guaranteed to bring you perfect results.
The term "barbecue chicken" is a bit of a misnomer, as chicken is generally not barbecued in the same sense that, say, pork shoulder or beef brisket is. It's slow cooked, but there isn't much breakdown of connective tissue or anything like that. That said, it's still delicious and smoky provided it's done right. The key here is to start with a butterflied chicken and cook it over smoky, indirect heat with the legs facing towards the heat source. This ensures that the legs finish cooking before the breast meat has a chance to dry out all while giving the whole bird a rich, smoky flavor.
And ferchrissakes, make sure you apply that barbecue sauce only at the end. Unless you like carbonized chicken, that is.
Traditionally, Jamaican jerk chicken is made with pieces of chicken that are soaked overnight in a heavily seasoned marinade flavored with fiery Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice—the dried berries native to Jamaica that give jerked foods their characteristic warm spice aroma. The chicken is then slow-cooked over green logs of pimento wood under a metal lid. The unique smoky, steamy environment gives the chicken a deeply spiced aroma.
To replicate this process at home, I marinate a split chicken before slow-cooking it on a bed of soaked bay leaves and allspice berries, adding bay leaves directly to the heat source in my grill to create a similar moist, smoky environment. If you can't get to Jamaica, just bring Jamaica to you.
Peruvian-style grilled chicken is relatively simple on its own: butterflied chicken rubbed in a vinegary marinade with a touch of cumin, garlic, paprika, and black pepper. Its the details of the process (make sure to use a thermometer!) and the green sauce. THE GREEN SAUCE. That creamy, spicy, bright stuff on the side right there? Yeah, that's the stuff dreams are made of. Dip your chicken, dip your vegetables, dip your finger, dip whatever the heck you want in and the sauce will make it better. Promise.
Thai cooks are experts at grilling all manner of meats, but nowhere does that proficiency shine more brightly than with chicken. Gai yang originated in Isan, Thailand's Northeastern region, populated largely by Thai Lao people, but it's one of those dishes that's so good it's spread to all corners of the country. Crisp, golden skin coated in a richly charred marinade of toasted spices and herbs seasoned with fish sauce and sugar, the chicken is butterflied, flattened, and threaded onto bamboo skewers before slowly grilling over charcoal. It's tasty enough on its own, but when dipped into a sweet and spicy chili sauce, it becomes mind-blowingly delicious.
To make this dish at home, I replace tough-to-find cilantro roots with a marinade made of plenty of cilantro stems along with white pepper, coriander seed, fish sauce, sugar, and chilies. The sweet chili dipping sauce served on the side is fantastic with any grilled meat or vegetables and is worth making even if you don't ever make the chicken itself. But you will.
There are few things more awesome than seeing bright red hunks of raw marinated chicken threaded onto massive four-foot long metal skewers, seeing those skewers lowered down into the fiery inferno of a 900°F clay tandoor oven, then emerging 15 minutes later charred, smoky, tender, and juicy. This recipe will get you results that are just as tasty on your grill. The key is coating a skinned, scored, and butterflied whole chicken with a five hour marinade of yogurt, lemon, spices mixture, then grilling it directly over the coals for intense charring and flavor.
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