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Barbecued Chicken

THIS SUMMER CLASSIC DOESN’T HAVE TO LEAD TO DISASTER

For something so common, it’s surprising how often this dish is downright awful. Barbecued chicken has many possible pitfalls, including burnt skin, parched meat, meat that is raw at the bone, and a sugary sweet sauce that can be its own abomination. It’s the rare grill master who avoids all of these mistakes.

The problem with this recipe is both the technique (or lack thereof) and the bottled sauce slathered on the chicken parts. While a roaring fire is nice in a fireplace, flare-ups are NOT the goal when grilling. Fat dripping down from chicken skin can turn the occasional flame into a towering inferno. The result is a sooty-tasting exterior that fools many inexperienced cooks into thinking the parts are “done.” Only the meat is still bloody at the bone. Talk about putting a damper on dinner.

Success with this recipe begins with a more nuanced approach to managing heat levels on the grill (see this section). It also requires a more sophisticated method for flavoring the chicken. Bottled barbecue sauce is convenient, but it’s almost as easy to make something much better with pantry staples. Even more important, you shouldn’t marinate chicken parts in any sweet sauce. That just encourages excessive charring. And barbecue sauce doesn’t do much to flavor the meat below the skin anyway.

While we don’t marinate barbecued chicken, we do salt it. Rubbing the parts with salt (and spices) ensures that the meat is well seasoned—and the salt also helps the meat hold on to its natural juices. For the salt to work its magic, you need to plan ahead, which means you can really enjoy the cookout, especially since you know the results will be so good.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Give It a Rub

Salting flavors chicken and helps it stay moist, but for chicken that is well seasoned all the way to the bone, we apply a spice rub 6 hours before grilling. The garlic and onion powders work well with the salt, paprika and cayenne add some heat, and brown sugar adds a touch of sweetness and helps with browning.

Build a Two-Level Fire

A modified two-level or half-grill fire creates two cooking zones with dramatically different heat levels (see this section). One side is intensely hot, and the other side is cooler. This produces perfectly cooked chicken because it browns over the hot side, rendering the fat and crisping the skin, then is moved over the cooler side so it can finish cooking more slowly and gently via indirect heat.

Add a Pan of Water

Placing a disposable aluminum pan opposite the coals and filling it partially with water lowers the temperature inside the grill by about 50 degrees; this ensures that all the chicken pieces cook at a slow, steady rate.

Sharpen the Sauce

Homemade barbecue sauce makes a big difference and is easy to make from everyday ingredients. We smarten the typical ketchup-based sauce with molasses, while cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and Dijon mustard keep the sweetness in check. Grated onion, minced garlic, chili powder, cayenne, and pepper round out the flavors. Grating the onion helps it to break down in the sauce. Also a plus, the sauce can be made up to 1 week ahead.

Hold Off on the Sauce

Waiting to apply the barbecue sauce until after searing prevents the sauce from burning and gives the skin a chance to develop color first. Applying it in stages, rather than all at once, ensures that its bright tanginess isn’t lost.

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Make homemade BBQ sauce but don’t apply it until the chicken is nearly done.

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Sweet and Tangy Barbecued Chicken

SERVES 6 TO 8

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 6 to 24 hours to refrigerate chicken with spice rub
  • 15 minutes to make barbecue sauce (can be done days in advance)
  • 20 minutes to set up grill
  • 1 hour to grill chicken
  • 10 minutes to rest chicken before serving

Essential Tools

  • Box grater (Use large holes to prep onion.)
  • Basting brush
  • Instant-read thermometer

Substitutions & Variations

  • This recipe can be made with all white meat, all dark meat, or a mix. We strongly suggest that you buy chicken parts individually from a butcher, who can select similar-size pieces that will cook at the same rate. If you buy packaged parts (which come from multiple birds), be prepared to check each piece for doneness and remove them one at a time. Why? In our tests, we have found that the same package of split breasts or leg quarters might contain pieces that vary in size by as much as 100 percent—that is, some pieces are twice the size of others.
  • Some leg quarters come with a piece of the backbone still attached. If that’s the case, bend the backbone back to pop out the thigh bone and then cut through the joint to sever the backbone from the thigh. Discard the backbone pieces or save them to make stock.

When browning the chicken over the hotter side of the grill, move it away from any flare-ups.

CHICKEN

  • 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
  • 4½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1½ teaspoons onion powder
  • 1½ teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1½ teaspoons paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 6 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (split breasts and/or leg quarters), trimmed

SAUCE

  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 5 tablespoons molasses
  • 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 large disposable aluminum roasting pan (if using charcoal) or 2 disposable aluminum pie plates (if using gas)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ⅓ cup grated onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  1. For the Chicken : Combine sugar, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne in bowl. Arrange chicken on rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle both sides evenly with spice rub. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.
  2. For the Sauce : Whisk ketchup, molasses, vinegar, Worcestershire, mustard, and pepper together in bowl. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and garlic; cook until onion is softened, 2 to 4 minutes. Add chili powder and cayenne and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Whisk in ketchup mixture and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Set aside ⅔ cup sauce to baste chicken and reserve remaining sauce for serving. (Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.)
  3. 3A. For a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent halfway and place disposable pan filled with 3 cups water on 1 side of grill. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over other half of grill (opposite disposable pan). Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
  4. 3B. For a Gas Grill : Place 2 disposable pie plates, each filled with 1½ cups water, directly on 1 burner of gas grill (opposite primary burner). Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Turn primary burner to medium-high and turn off other burner(s). (Adjust primary burner as needed to maintain grill temperature of 325 to 350 degrees.)
  5. Clean and oil cooking grate. Place chicken, skin side down, over hotter part of grill and cook until browned and blistered in spots, 2 to 5 minutes. Flip chicken and cook until second side is browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Move chicken to cooler part and brush both sides with ⅓ cup sauce. Arrange chicken, skin side up, with leg quarters closest to fire and breasts farthest away. Cover (positioning lid vent over chicken if using charcoal) and cook for 25 minutes.
  6. Brush both sides of chicken with remaining ⅓ cup sauce and continue to cook, covered, until breasts register 160 degrees and leg quarters register 175 degrees, 25 to 35 minutes longer. Serve, passing reserved sauce separately.

A Better Way to Grill Slow-Cooking Foods

A blazing hot fire isn’t really the best for most foods. Foods like bone-in chicken that need to stay on the grill longer require a two-level fire: high heat for browning and lower or indirect heat over which the food can cook through. Here’s how to set up a charcoal grill. If using a gas grill, adjust the dials to create different heat levels before the cooking grate has been cleaned and oiled.

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1). Use chimney starter to light charcoal and get coals hot. (This simple device easily gets all the charcoal ready at once and there’s no need to use lighter fluid, which can impart an off flavor to food.)

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2). For half-grill fire with two heat zones, arrange lit coals in even layer over half of grill. If using disposable pan, put it on charcoal grate first and pour coals next to it.

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3). Once cooking grate is heated, scrub it clean with grill brush and slick it down with vegetable oil using wad of paper towels and tongs. (The oil helps prevent food—like chicken skin—from sticking.)

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4). For foods that require long cooking times, brown on hotter side of grill, then move it to cooler side to finish cooking with indirect heat. Arrange food so that slower-cooking items are closer to fire. (This setup also helps with flare-ups since there is a coal-free area to move food to if necessary.)

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