Just looking at the picture is making me salivate. I love BBQ chicken….like really, really love it. It seems everyone has their own technique for making it, I’ve probably tried half a dozen techniques myself, but aside from using a smoker the following is my preferred technique. In case you missed the past few posts, I’ve been recounting my mother’s post-graduation celebration BBQ. We started with a refreshing Watermelon Salad, followed with Grilled Sausage, Peppers, Onions and Fennel, and went over some time-tested techniques for grilling vegetables.
As I mentioned above, everyone has their own technique for making BBQ chicken, but not everyone has a good technique. We’ve all had it before, the charcoal-coated cardboard covered in extra sauce in a vain attempt at disguising the taste of pure carbon. Working in restaurants, I’ve always made my own BBQ sauce, but while cooking at home there’s absolutely no shame in buying a bottle of your favorite sauce. I’m a big fan of Stubb’s and Sweet Baby Ray’s brand, and usually go for one of their hickory smoked varieties.
Unless your plan is to just make BBQ chicken breasts for sandwiches, I suggest buying your chickens whole and cutting them up yourself. Not only will it save you some cash at the grocery store, but you get a nice assortment of pieces that you don’t always find with prepackaged cuts. Grilled chicken still attached to the bone also leaves you with a juicier and more flavorful result. You can check out my post on breaking down whole chickens for one method, but I would make one change when grilling. Instead of carefully removing the breast from the breastbone, use a big heavy knife to cut the chicken in half, leaving the breastbone attached. You can then cut the breast into two or three evenly sized pieces, each with some bone and skin attached. This allows more portions, more BBQ sauce and less dry white meat.
The most important thing to recognize while cooking with BBQ sauce is that it contains a lot of sugars, and sugars burn very easily. I’ve seen a lot of people marinate their chicken directly in BBQ sauce, but the sauce doesn’t really penetrate the meat, and it becomes difficult to cook without burning. So instead of going straight to the BBQ, I season the chicken with salt, pepper and ____________(insert favorite spice mix here- i.e. cajun, jerk, lemon-pepper), which you can do up to a day ahead of time. About an hour before cooking, I douse the chicken with cider vinegar and a drop or two of oil.
As with the sausage and peppers, I utilize two cooking methods to both clear up the grill and cook the chicken evenly. The trick is to cook the outside of the chicken on the grill and then transfer it to a roasting pan to finish cooking in the oven. Just don’t forget to preheat the oven to around 350° F (175° C).
As always, if you are using a charcoal or wood fired grill, make sure to let the flames die down and cook over hot coals. You want a nice hot flame, but keep an eye on things and make sure your chicken doesn’t burn. Start by grilling the chicken on both sides so that the skin gets crispy and you get a nice golden color on each side.
Once one side has been seared and you flip, you can go in with the good stuff. Pour a good amount of BBQ sauce in a bowl and use a pastry brush to paint the chicken with a healthy coating of goodness*. Flip once more to brush the other side and allow the sauce to thicken and caramelize. Flip once more to get the other side and then transfer to a roasting pan, layering the chicken evenly.
Leave the chicken uncovered and allow to cook the rest of the way through in the oven. This method actually makes it pretty difficult to overcook the chicken, as it’s in a fairly low-temp oven and sitting in a delicious pool of BBQ sauce and its own succulent juices. If you’re unsure whether the chicken is done, use a thermometer to test a thick piece at the center of the pan (it should reach an internal temperature of 165° F [74° C]). I like to slice some chives to garnish the chicken, not only does it look really nice, but it adds a fresh element and good flavor.
*Always make sure you keep the sauce and brush used for the raw chicken separate from any cooked or ready to eat food.
Photos courtesy of Brian Boulos