Grilled chicken is a mainstay of backyards everywhere, and for excellent reason: it’s a canvas for taking on a wide range of flavors, it’s economical for a crowd, it’s open to endless variation through cut or preparation, and when grilled, it’s downright delectable!
Thankfully, chicken is also straightforward to grill.
Before we get into the cuts, let’s prep and set up the grill!
Always preheat the grill.
No matter the type of chicken on the menu, there is one thing your grill needs before it starts the heavy lifting of cooking dinner: the preheat.
Run the grill on high for at least 15 minutes. Allow the cooking grates to absorb heat so they will have the needed heat to pass on to the chicken.
Does it take longer to ready a charcoal grill than a gas grill? While it does take time to light charcoal briquettes, this only adds a few more minutes to the process. In the end, the setup time for both is almost a wash.
When the grill is lit and preheated, use a grill brush to clean the grates of any leftover food particles.
Create direct and indirect heat zones.
It is always essential when grilling to prepare a two-zone fire. This is especially true with chicken, as the addition of sweet sauces can set the stage for flareups.
A two-zone fire means creating direct and indirect heat sources. This indirect area can function as a safe place for a fiery grill or the roasting position for a whole chicken on a long cook.
To create an indirect heat source on a gas grill, leave a burner or two turned off. To create an indirect heat source on a charcoal grill, leave an area on the fuel grate without any coals.
A recipe calling for direct heat is akin to using a griddle, while a recipe calling for indirect heat is no different than using an oven.
Get a timer and instant-read thermometer.
Grilling chicken requires heavy-duty tongs, grill gloves, a timer, and an instant-read thermometer. While the tongs and gloves are important, the two must-haves are the timer and thermometer.
The mortal enemy of grilled chicken is over-doneness. Last week, a friend asked me how to grill chicken breasts that were not dried out and tough. I told her to go out and buy a thermometer and use the timer on her phone. Her feedback? Instant success!
Grill chicken to an internal temperature of 165º F. Cooked to anything greater robs the meat of its succulent moisture. This is especially true of the lean breasts. The timer keeps you on track, and the thermometer delivers perfectly cooked poultry every time.
Temperature Ranges for Grilled Chicken
Depending on the cut, beef and pork require a wide range of grilling temperatures, but the temperature for grilled chicken is more straightforward.
For the most part, chicken should be grilled at 350º to 450º F over direct or indirect medium heat.
The only exception is when you’re smoking the chicken. Often used with wings or whole chickens, smoking meat involves indirect cooking over very low heat, 225º to 250º F, with the addition of smoldering wood chunks. It’s another temperature range to have in your grilling toolbox, but for the most part, chicken finds itself right in the middle to upper limits of the medium temperature range.
Now, let’s look at the different cuts and get grilling.
How to Grill a Whole Chicken
I love to grill a whole chicken on Sundays. It can be a fantastic dinner to wrap up the weekend or a vehicle for leftovers or meal prep for the week ahead.
Here’s what to do:
- Generously season the chicken inside and out. If you want extra crisp skin, consider salting the chicken overnight, leaving it uncovered in the refrigerator.
- Consider spatchcocking. If you want to grill a whole chicken in the least amount of time, consider spatchcocking. To spatchcock is to remove the chicken’s backbone, allowing it to lie flat on the grate. The increased surface area of the chicken exposed to heat results in a faster cook time with equally tasty results.
- Otherwise, truss the chicken. If you want to just go for it with a whole bird, follow this guide for how to truss a chicken.
- Roast over indirect medium heat (350 to 450º F) for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Chicken is done when the internal temperature of the breast reads 165º F with an instant-read thermometer. A 4- to 5-pound chicken will take no more than an hour and fifteen minutes of grilling time.
- Using a charcoal grill? If grilling on a charcoal grill, be sure to place the chicken on the grill with the legs towards the lit coals. The darker meat of the chicken’s legs and thighs can take on more heat than the lean meat of the breast. This orientation allows the breast meat to come to temperature without worrying about overcooking the rest of the chicken.
How to Grill Chicken Wings
There are several ways to grill wings, but first, let’s look at the wing itself.
Wings can either be left whole or separated into drumettes and flats. With this method, I remove the wingtip, saving them with additional chicken parts for a future batch of chicken stock. Separating the wing creates more work on the grill, but in my opinion, it makes for easier eating one-hand eating – especially when the other hand is clutching a beer.
Now, on to the grilling part!
- Brush the wings with olive oil and season. Before grilling, it’s important to brush the wings with olive oil and season with at least salt and pepper. (But save the sauce for the end!)
- Grill wings continuously over direct medium heat (350 to 450º F). You can also smoke them over direct low heat (250º to 300º F). Flip as needed until the wings are almost cooked through and the inside reads 160º F internal, approximately 20 to 25 minutes.
- Finish over direct high heat (450º to 500º F). Finish the wings over direct high heat to sear and crisp the skin.
- Apply sauce, if using. Adding sauce too soon sets the stage for the sauce to burn. If using a sauce, apply it towards the end of the cook or toss with the wings right before serving.
How to Grill Chicken Breasts
Two ways to ensure a perfectly grilled chicken breast is the proper cook temperature, 165º F, and starting with a uniform thickness breast. The latter is key. If one part of the breast is larger, it will need a longer cooking time meaning the thinner part will cook longer and dry out.
- Pound the chicken: Place a chicken breast on a sturdy surface, smooth skin side down. Cover with plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet, or even a rolling pin, until the breast is an even 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick.
- Grill over direct medium heat (350º to 450º) until the chicken breast reads 165º F with an instant-read thermometer. Flip once. Approximately 10 to 12 minutes.
How to Grill Chicken Thighs and Drumsticks
The frequently used thighs and legs of a chicken result in the succulent fat-laden dark meat thighs and drumsticks. Harder to overcook and, in my opinion, more flavorful than breasts, thighs and drumsticks are among my favorite cuts to grill. Here’s what to do:
- Choose your thigh cut. Thighs can be grilled bone-in, boneless, with skin either on or off. I prefer the bone in place and the skin on for the full chicken thigh experience.
- Quick sear over direct high heat (450º to 500º F) for 3 to 4 minutes. Thighs and drumsticks are a great example of two-zone grilling. To start, do a fast sear on all sides over direct high heat, approximately 3 to 4 minutes.
- Finish cooking over indirect medium heat (350 to 450º F). Move the thighs and drumsticks to the indirect heat spot on your grill. The higher fat content in thighs and drumsticks can lead to flareups, which is why an indirect part of the grill is the best place to finish cooking. Cook to 165º F internal, approximately 25 to 30 minutes. Be careful the temperature probe does not touch the bone!