The Best Barbecue Chicken Recipe

Smoky barbecue chicken with perfectly juicy meat and a sweet, sticky glaze.

A butterflied chicken positioned in the center of a kettle-style grill. Its deeply charred skin has been lacquered with barbecue sauce.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Why It Works

  • Butterflying the chicken ensures that the legs will cook through before the breast meat becomes overcooked and dry.
  • Starting the chicken on the cooler side of a two-zone grill fire promotes even cooking and renders fat from the skin without causing flare-ups.
  • Choosing a larger chicken extends the cooking time, which allows the bird to absorb more smoke flavors on the grill.
  • Applying several coatings of sauce as the chicken cooks creates a thick, savory glaze on its surface.

The term "barbecue chicken," is somewhat a misnomer, as barbecued chicken does not follow any of the normal conventions that, say, barbecue ribs or brisket do.

The confusion arises from two different definitions of the word "slow," and two different definitions of the word "barbecue."

Southern barbecue is a method of "slow" cooking, but it doesn't simply mean that the cooking takes a long time. It does, but there's more to slow cooking (definition one) than that. At the molecular level, it's a process similar to say, braising or stewing. Meats high in connective tissue are cooked until that connective tissue breaks down into rich gelatin, causing the meat to tenderize. Southern barbecue is, by definition, cooked to a degree well beyond well done. It's only because of the magical lubricating powers of gelatin that the meat still tastes moist and succulent. That's what's meant by slow cooking.

"Southern barbecue is, by definition, cooked to a degree well beyond well done. It's only because of the magical lubricating powers of gelatin that the meat still tastes moist and succulent."

Meats low in connective tissue—say a beef tenderloin—make poor barbecue (or braising) choices, because once they're overcooked, they have no gelatin to rescue them from dryness. They benefit much more from "fast" cooking—methods in which you bring it up to a final temperature, and serve it pretty much straight away. No waiting around for connective tissues to break down, no gelatin to help things along. Think grilled steaks, roasted chicken, or seared duck breasts.

The confusing part is that even fast cooking methods can be done very slowly. A chicken roasted in a 150°F (65°C) oven, for instance, may take five hours to get to its final serving temperature, but because very limited connective tissue breakdown is taking place, it's still technically a fast cooking method.

Confusing, right? Why am I telling you this? No reason other than I think it's interesting, and that barbecue chicken is a perfect example of slow-cooking fast cooked food.

Barbecue chicken doesn't fall under the strict definition of the Southern term "barbecue," as it is not cooked hot or long enough for connective tissue to break down the way it does in ribs or a pork butt (indeed, there isn't really any connective tissue to break down in the first place), but it does fall under the wider umbrella of "barbecue" which includes any foods cooked slowly (not to be confused with slow-cooked) with the addition of smoke and a barbecue sauce.

Phew!

So how do we not-barbecue-but-barbecue chicken? The key is to start with a very large bird. You want a bird big enough that it can sit in the smoky environment of the closed grill for a good chunk of time to absorb flavor. A 6- to 8-pound roaster is what you're going for. It'll take a good 45 minutes to an hour to cook, start to finish—plenty of time to absorb smoke from the couple of soaked wood chunks you throw on the fire.

Using a two-level indirect fire is the best way to ensure gentle cooking without burning the exterior of the bird. After giving them a rubdown with a simple rub of sugar, salt, and a few spices, I start my chickens skin-side-up on the cooler side of the grill with the legs pointed towards the hotter side and cook it covered until it comes up to around 120°F (49°C).

From there it gets a few coats of barbecue sauce. You can use your favorite bottled sauce or homemade recipe, but I used Josh's Kansas city-style sauce for this bird. The key is to apply sauce in layers, painting it on, covering and cooking, and letting it dry out to a tacky stage before applying the next coat. In this way, you build up a nice lacquered layer that develops some really nice caramelized notes.

Butterflied chicken lying breast-side down on the grill grate. Its back has been liberally brushed with barbecue sauce.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

I flip the chicken over and cook directly over the hot side of the grill just for the last few minutes to crisp and char the skin. The result is a richly seasoned, sweet-and-tangy chicken with deep smokiness and ultra-tender and juicy meat.

All conversation about whether or not it's proper to call it barbecue will end once you all agree that it's delicious.

For more on the basics of this cooking method, check out my primer on grilling whole chicken.

August 2012

Recipe Facts

Active: 30 mins
Total: 75 mins
Serves: 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • 1 whole large chicken, about 6 to 8 pounds

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon chile powder

  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced on a Microplane grater

  • 2 cups Kansas city-style barbecue sauce, or your favorite barbecue sauce

  • 2 chunks hardwood, soaked in water for 30 minutes

Directions

  1. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and place breast-side-down on a large cutting board. Using sharp kitchen shears, remove the backbone by cutting along either side of it. Turn chicken over and lay out flat. Press firmly on breast to flatten the chicken. For added stability, run a metal or wooden skewer horizontally, entering through one thigh, going through both breast halves, and exiting through the other thigh. Tuck wing tips behind back. Season generously with salt and pepper.

  2. Combine salt, brown sugar, black pepper, chile powder, ground coriander seeds, and garlic in a small bowl and massage with fingertips until homogenous. Spread mixture evenly over all surfaces of chicken.

  3. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over half of coal grate. Alternatively, set half the burners of a gas grill to high heat. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. If using charcoal, place hardwood chunks directly on coal. If using gas, place on grate above lit burners.

  4. Place chicken skin side up over cooler side of grill with legs pointed towards hotter side. Close grill and cook until center of thickest part of chicken registers 120°F (49°C) on an instant-read thermometer, 35 to 45 minutes. Brush top of chicken with barbecue sauce. Cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes until sauce is beginning to dry. Brush with more sauce, cover, and continue to cook until thickest part of breast registers 135°F (57°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 minutes longer. Using tongs and a flexible metal spatula, carefully flip the bird and place it skin side down directly over the coals. Brush back of chicken with more sauce. Continue to cook, covered, until brown, crisp, charred in spots, and thickest part of breast registers 150°F (66°C) on an instant-read thermometer, 7 to 10 minutes longer. If bird threatens to burn before temperature is achieved, carefully slide to cooler side of grill, cover, and cook until done. Remove from grill, let rest 10 minutes, carve, and serve.

    Butterflied chicken on the grate of a kettle-style grill, faced breast-side up, glistening with a fresh coat of barbecue sauce.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Special Equipment

Charcoal grill, chimney starter, instant-read thermometer, skewer

Notes

This recipe calls for a large chicken. Do not try it with a smaller chicken, as it will dry out too much while cooking.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
1140 Calories
71g Fat
42g Carbs
78g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 6
Amount per serving
Calories 1140
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 71g 91%
Saturated Fat 20g 100%
Cholesterol 390mg 130%
Sodium 1923mg 84%
Total Carbohydrate 42g 15%
Dietary Fiber 1g 4%
Total Sugars 33g
Protein 78g
Vitamin C 12mg 59%
Calcium 85mg 7%
Iron 7mg 39%
Potassium 1131mg 24%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)