Courtesy of BBQ Guys, bbqguys.com; image Wikimedia Commons, orchidgalore
Chicken comes in several different cuts — not to mention that some are packaged with or without skin — so there’s no single method for grilling them all. But what we can tell you is that dual-zone grilling is the way to go for pieces like wings or breasts, whether skinless or skin-on. As with other meats, this technique gives you both the direct heat needed for caramelization and the indirect heat that helps the chicken finish cooking throughout. Whole chickens, meanwhile, should be placed only in an indirect setup so they can slowly roast away from direct flames that would burn the exterior well before cooking the inside.
Because there’s such a variety of chicken available, grilling it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and a half. Generally, smaller cuts need less time to cook, while whole chickens require the most time in the grill. The only sure way to tell when your chicken (or any meat, for that matter) has finished cooking is to check its internal temperature with a meat thermometer. It is safe to consume when the chicken grilling temp reaches 165ºF. For whole chickens or other large, bone-in pieces, stick the thermometer in multiple areas to make sure the entire bird is cooked properly.
See the chart below for loose guidelines on about how long it should take to grill certain pieces of chicken on medium-to-high heat in gas or charcoal grills.
Approximate cook times are longer in a smoker or pellet grill, which use lower temperatures between 225º – 350º.
Though these cook times are only suggestions, you can use them as a starting point for when to begin checking your chicken with a BBQ thermometer. Remember that internal temperature is the only way to be sure your food is completely done.
How to Season Chicken
The method to season chicken depends on whether it’s a boneless, skinless cut or bone-in, skin-on (whole chickens and individual pieces fall into the latter category). Seasoning skinless chicken is as straightforward as with any other cut of meat. Lightly drizzle olive oil over the chicken to act as a binder, sprinkle your seasoning on top, then gently press it in and let your chicken dry-marinate for about 45 minutes.
Skin-on chicken requires an additional step. Apply seasoning to the exterior and then pull back the skin and spread seasoning blend underneath as well. Chicken skin acts as a protective covering that can’t be penetrated by seasoning. The meat won’t receive any of those delicious flavors unless you put them there yourself. Be sure to straighten the skin and pull it back into place. Scrunched-up skin doesn’t cook evenly, so you’d end up with a soggy clump rather than the crunchy, golden-brown skin every grilled chicken deserves.
You can also kick things up a notch with BBQ Guys Chef Tony’s method: Mix seasoning into a paste with a stick or two of butter, olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Spread the paste below the skin.
Brining is another great way to add flavor to chicken before it goes on the grill. Soak in a saltwater solution (brine) that can be mixed with marinades, herbs, sugar, or spices. In addition to creating moisture and flavor, brining slightly breaks down some of the muscle fibers so it can retain more of its natural juices when exposed to heat.
Aim for a brining solution that features 6% of salt (by weight) relative to the amount of water. For example, 1,000 milliliters of pure water would need 60 grams of water to achieve this ratio (1 milliliter of water weighs exactly 1 gram, so this conversion is fairly easy).
It’s important to use weight when determining how much salt you need because of the differences between types and brands of salt. Large cuts of chicken and whole birds should be brined between 6 and 12 hours. Small cuts like boneless, skinless chicken breasts need only 1–2 hours of brining.
How to Avoid Dry Chicken
Chicken has a reputation for drying out when on the grill, but there are a few steps you can take to preserve its juiciness while still ensuring doneness. The easiest place to start is with a chicken roaster, which allows you to enjoy the juicy tenderness of beer can chicken.
Bone-in chicken can be soaked overnight in a saline solution (brine) and marinade, while boneless chicken calls for a 50-50 mix of buttermilk and water along with whatever marinade you want. Both the salt and buttermilk put your chicken through the process of acid-cooking, meaning they break down the muscle fibers that typically require heat to unwind. By using this technique to shorten cook time, your chicken will retain more of its natural juices because it won’t need to be exposed to as much heat as normal. The marinades and everything you used to season your chicken will also infuse the bird with flavorful juices.
You can also try carryover cooking, a term that describes how meat’s internal temperature continues to rise for a short time after it’s taken off heat. When your meat thermometer reads 160º remove it from the grill and wait a few minutes. The temperature should rise to about 165º before the exterior significantly cools. Check the internal temperature after you’ve let the chicken rest a bit. You can always toss it back on the grill if it’s still a few degrees short of the minimum requirement.
Gloves (for protecting hands when handling habaneros)
Chimney starter (optional)
Heat deflector accessory (optional)
Temperature Probe (optional)
Pat the chicken legs dry with paper towels. This will make them a little easier to handle while trimming.
To trim the chicken legs into a lollipop shape, use a sharp knife to make a cut where the meat hits the bone near the bottom of the leg. Work all the way around the leg, making sure to cut through to the bone.
Once you have the lower portion of skin and tendons separated, peel it down until you can remove it from the end of the bone. If there are any stubborn bits that you can’t remove by hand, scrape a knife over them until they come off. It’s also a good idea to keep a pair of kitchen shears nearby to trim any lingering tendons. The goal is to have totally clean lower leg bones for presentation
Once the lower bone is cleaned to your liking, turn each chicken leg upside down and pull the meat downard and away from the bare bone to form a base. The legs need to sit up vertically while they smoke, so it’s important that they have a solid base. If you’re having trouble getting them to sit upright, just cut off any skin or meat that needs to be flattened.
After trimming the legs, stand them up in a pan or dish and lightly coat with olive oil. Season all sides with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika, being sure to rub in the spices so they can better stick to the meat.
If you have the time, let the seasoned chicken sit in the fridge overnight. This gives your seasoning the chance to act as a dry brine, which will bring out better flavors in the final results.
Making the Mango Habanero Hot Sauce:
Preheat your gas grill to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and include a smoker box if available. Apple wood or your favorite fruit wood chips will add just a touch of smokiness to the peppers.
Roast the habanero peppers for just a couple minutes per side, enough to caramelize slightly. This will bring out the natural sweetness of the peppers and inject a subtle layer of smokiness to the sauce. Set aside when finished.
Place a saucepan on the grill, then toss in the chopped yellow onion with a bit of olive oil. Cook it down until it starts to caramelize, then add the minced garlic.
Saute until the garlic becomes fragrant, at which point it’s time to add the chopped mango. Saute for another minute.
Deglaze the pan with the apple cider vinegar. Follow that with the mango nectar, roasted habaneros, lime juice, brown sugar, and salt.
Let the sauce simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes, then allow to cool.
Using a standard blender or immersion blender, blend the sauce until smooth. Taste and add salt if desired.
If you want a thinner hot sauce, you can pass it through a strainer.
Once you’ve reached your preferred taste and consistency, bottle the sauce and keep it in the fridge until it’s time to be used.
Smoking the Chicken:
When the chicken and sauce are fully prepped, put a base layer of unlit charcoal in the bottom of your grill.
Fill a chimney starter about a quarter of the way with coals. Light the chimney starter, then pour the lit coals over the bed of unlit coals in your grill.
Add 3 or 4 wood chunks of your favorite fruit flavor to the coal bed, placing them in various spots because the charcoal will gradually ignite in different areas.
Arrange for indirect heat in your grill. You can either use a heat deflector between the coals and the cooking surface, or simply bank the coals opposite of where you’ll place your chicken. (For added control, you can place a temperature probe at grate level near where you plan to set the chicken. It’ll help you know when your grill is preheated and if temperatures are consistent while smoking.)
Target a preheat temperature of 275 degrees. Once preheated, place your chicken lollipops on the portion of the grill exposed to indirect heat. Stand them upright, with the clean bone facing upward.
Let the chicken smoke for an hour before checking in. Baste each chicken leg with melted butter.
Let the chicken smoke for another 15 minutes, then place a cup of the mango habanero sauce on the grill alongside the chicken and let warm. We recommend warming the sauce in a tall container like a coffee cup so the chicken will be easier to dunk.
Once the sauce is warm, blend in the diced butter until the mixture is smooth.
When the chicken reaches an internal temperature of about 160 degrees, grab each chicken leg by the exposed bone and dunk it into the sauce one at a time. Ensure all sides are coated before placing the chicken legs back on the grill. When all have been coated, remove the cup and close the grill.
Raise the grill’s temperature to about 325 degrees and let the chicken cook for another 10 minutes or so. This extra bit of cooking time allows the sauce to properly bind with the chicken.
When the internal temperature reaches 175 degrees, remove the chicken legs from the grill and let them rest for at least 5 minutes before serving. Enjoy the chicken lollipops as they are, or serve extra mango habanero sauce on the side for the truly bold!