Here's your complete chicken grilling guide.

By Stacey Ballis
March 22, 2019
Photo: Greg DuPree Food Styling: Rishon Hanners Prop Styling: Thom Driver

If you asked me, truthfully, how I grill chicken, I would say, “I hand it to my husband, and it comes back grilled.” This is not because I am incapable of grilling chicken. I did it successfully for decades before I met my own personal grillmaster. But in the ten years we have been together I have handed over all grilling duties to a man who genuinely loves to grill just about everything and anything and will happily do it in weather from 25 degrees to 105 degrees.

I was a good griller in my own right before I met my husband, albeit one who worked exclusively on a gas grill. He is partial to charcoal, often with a bit of wood thrown in for smoke. This is fancier than I ever got with my own grilling. But he also taught me some tips and tricks that if I were ever faced with a need to grill without him, I would absolutely employ, especially when it comes to chicken.

WATCH: How to Make Grilled Lemon-Rosemary Chicken & Leeks

Chicken on the grill is a complex thing. Different pieces cook at different rates. Bone-in versus boneless brings more variables to the party. The skin really wants to burn before the meat is fully cooked, and it can go from perfectly cooked and juicy to a stringy leathery bit of chicken jerky in no time at all. But a well-grilled piece of chicken is a thing of culinary delight, and so, I am here to assist you in achieving that with some confidence.

Keep the Skin On

First off, please, if you can, try to avoid grilling skinless chicken. The health-conscious may of course choose to remove the skin before eating if they prefer, but the skin provides much needed self-basting of the bird and prevents sticking. The caloric difference between chicken cooked with the skin on and then removed is no different than if you remove the skin before cooking.

Salt Your Chicken

Salting chicken parts at least two hours or up to a day before cooking can help both season the meat and keep it moist. I am personally not a fan of a wet brine, as I find it makes the meat watery, and the skin flabby.

Use a Thermometer

Jennifer Causey

The two things that are musts for cooking any piece of chicken on the grill are an instant-read meat thermometer and a willingness to rest the cooked chicken after grilling. You want your chicken to be 160 degrees internally for white meat and 170 for dark when you remove it from the heat, and then you must tent it with foil and rest it for 10 minutes for boneless pieces, 15 for small bone-in pieces, 20 for large bone-in pieces and 25 for whole chickens. This resting period both finishes the cooking, bringing them up to proper safe temperature for eating, and redistributes the juices so that they don’t all leak out and make your chicken eat dry.

If you are cooking whole chickens, I recommend spatchcocking, both for ease of flipping, and a more consistent cooking time. This recipe for Korean Barbecue Spatchcock Chicken

is a great one for this style. There’s also the ever-popular beer-can chicken.

Bone-In or Boneless?

Basically, you have two methods for chicken on the grill: one for boneless, one for bone-in. The bones, which can help keep chicken moist, require longer cooking times so your methodology is different. But in both cases, you want to have two temperature zones in your grill. A hot zone over direct gas flame or coals, and a cooler side with no fire. This allows you to better control the cooking times and ensure that the meat cooks through without burning the outside.

For Boneless Chicken

Photo: Jen Causey; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

Methods are sort of reversed for the two types of chicken. For boneless pieces, which cook faster, you want to render the skin and fat pretty fully at the early stage of cooking, because it will prevent the meat from drying out during a fast cook time. So you start it skin side down on the hot zone over direct heat with the cover off to get that process started, then once the skin is crispy and rendered, you shift it skin side up to the cool zone and put the lid on to finish the cooking in more of a roasting method, where the skin will help keep things moist until you reach your goal temp before resting.

Get the Recipe: Marinated Grilled Chicken Breasts

For Bone-In Chicken

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Styling: Paige Hicks

For bone-in pieces, which cook longer, you want the reverse method. You need the skin to render more slowly, so you start your pieces on the cool indirect side, skin-up, lid closed, until you get to about 5 to 8 degrees shy of your desired temperature, and then you move them skin-down to the hot zone to finish crisping the skin and getting those last few degrees before removing them to rest.

In all cases, remove chicken pieces as they individually come to temp, especially if you are grilling both dark and light meat. And be sure to use the thermometer on each individual piece, just because one is done does not mean they all are, and as we know, no one wants to eat the medium-rare chicken.

Sauces and glazes should be added and cooked on the cool zone, as they will burn and flare up over direct flame.

Get the Recipe: Spiced Grilled Chicken Thighs with Creamy Chile-Herb Sauce

OK, If You Really Have to Take the Skin Off

If you must grill skinless chicken, as with lemon-grilled chicken breasts (which you could do with boneless skin-on chicken breasts and I won’t tell if you won’t) a couple of tips:

Be sure your grill is clean and well-oiled before you put your chicken on, since it has no skin to protect it.

Cook them completely on the cool zone, you don’t need the direct heat to render the skin, and you will still get those good grill marks on the indirect side, and much less chance of burning or getting that tough outer layer.

Let the breasts sear on the first side until they release naturally, about 2 minutes, then flip and do the same, then flip every minute until they hit temp to keep them cooking evenly and hopefully prevent the outside from getting leathery.

Temp the chicken early and often, boneless skinless breasts are the quickest to dry out and become less than delicious, so you want to be sure to pull them the moment they hit 160.

Chicken breast grill times are entirely dependent on thickness, so if you have thin ones of about 4 to 5 ounces each, they will likely take 4 to 5 minutes per side total, thicker ones closer to 6 to 8 ounces might take as much as 7 to 8 minutes per side. Add one minute for skin-on boneless, and double these for bone-in breasts.

Get the Recipe: Mojo Grilled Chicken Breasts

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