Barbecued chicken needs to be moist, fully cooked, and not burned. The secret to getting it that way is to take your time, use indirect heat, season early and sauce late.
Chicken is a tricky meat to grill. Steak is best when it’s seared on the outside and medium to rare inside. But chicken needs to be fully cooked to the centre, without being dried or charred on the outside. Try to cook it fast, and you’re either going to have charcoal on the outside or raw meat at the centre… or possibly both!
Slow cooking over indirect heat will let the heat penetrate all the way to the centre of the meat, without charring or drying the exterior.
Other than rushing it, the most common mistake with chicken is to slather it with sauce before putting it on the grill. Barbecue sauce adds a lot of flavour, sure, but it’s also high in sugar, which burns even faster than chicken skin.
To get the flavour into the chicken, start by seasoning with a dry rub. Even a simple salt and pepper rub will enhance the flavour, or you can make up a mix of seasonings. Try a mix like this, which can be made in advance, and kept in a jar until you want to use it:
2 tbsp paprika
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp lemon pepper
1 tbsp sage
½ tsp dry basil
½ tsp rosemary
¼ tsp cayenne
4 tbsp salt (a mix of kosher salt, seasoned salt, onion salt, and garlic salt works well)
Most rub recipes have a fair amount of salt. If you really want to get serious about grilling great chicken, though, make your dry rub recipe without any salt, and apply the salt separately from the rub. Instead, start by salting the meat a couple of hours before you cook. This is a technique called “dry brining” and it adds a ton of flavour as well as helping to lock in moisture. If you dry brine, be sure not to use a commercial dry rub, which can be as much as 50 per cent salt.
(If you really want to dive into the science behind dry brining, check out this article, which explains how the positive and negative charges of Hydrogen, Oxygen, Sodium and Chloride help draw salt into the pores of the meat.) But really all you need to know is to sprinkle salt on the meat and let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours. Then apply your seasoning rub, and start cooking.
If you’d like to cook the chicken in under an hour, keep the barbecue around 350 degrees with the chicken off to the side. If you’ve got more time, set the heat closer to 225 and let it slowly roast for a couple of hours, checking it from time to time and rearranging the pieces, but always keeping it on indirect heat. A cooking thermometer is your best friend here, as you get the meat to 160 degrees.
Only then, when it’s just about done, do you apply your favourite sweet sauce. Brush it on, close the barbecue lid again, and let it cook for a few more minutes until the meat reaches 165. The sauce will be slightly carmelized, and the chicken will have rich flavour all the way through, and you’ll be a barbecue hero.