Test Kitchen Tips for Grilled Whole Chicken Recipes
Whole birds spend more time on the grill, which means more grill flavor. But all too often you end up with flabby skin, fierce flare-ups, and bland, unevenly cooked meat. Here’s how to get it right.
FLATTEN IT OUT: A whole chicken needs more time on the grill than chicken parts do. But grilled in its natural shape, a whole bird cooks unevenly, and it is hard to get the skin crispy all over. Butterflying and flattening the bird not only cuts down on cooking time (it’s still longer than parts) but also means all the skin is in contact with the grill at once.
SALT UNDER THE SKIN: Brining chicken seasons the meat and helps keep it moist, but the added water means the skin will not crisp as well. Rubbing salt under the chicken skin seasons the meat deeply and keeps the skin dry so it can more easily render and crisp. We like to add lemon zest to the salt, but herbs and spice rubs also work well.
PREVENT FLARE-UPS: The cause of most flare-ups is fat dripping onto the fire and igniting. Trimming excess fat from the bird is one way to minimize flare-ups, but another culprit can be excess oil or sugar from marinades or sauces. If you marinate your chicken before grilling, make sure to pat it dry thoroughly. Better yet, use dry seasonings or rubs, and add sauce only after grilling. And if you do have flare-ups, just move the chicken to the side of the grill with no coals until the flare-ups die.
GO SLOW TO RENDER: Even when grilled chicken looks pleasantly charred, biting into it can reveal rubbery skin and pockets of fat. Chicken skin needs relatively high heat to crisp, but before this can happen, the fat underneath the skin must render and the moisture must evaporate. Starting the birds on the cooler side of the grill provides moderate heat and ample time for the subcutaneous fat to melt out and for evaporation to occur. Only after the chickens are cooked and the skin is golden and rendered do we slide them over the hot fire to sear.
SHOPPING: PICKING THE RIGHT BIRD
With all the different terms you find on chicken packages, it can be hard to know exactly what you’re buying. Our cheat sheet will help you choose the right bird.
CHOOSE AIR-CHILLED: During water chilling, chickens absorb water and plump, taking on up to 14 percent of their body weight—weight that you’re paying for by the pound. Water chilling can also cause spongy meat and washed-out flavor. Look for air-chilled birds instead; they have a better texture and more flavor.
THE BEST BIRDS? Mary’s Free Range Air Chilled Chicken (also sold as Pitman’s) and Bell & Evans Air Chilled Premium Fresh Chicken were the winners of a recent test kitchen taste test.
AVOID INJECTED OR ENHANCED: These chickens have been injected with a solution of chicken broth, salt, and flavorings that plump the meat but can also make it spongy, and again, inflate cost.
NATURAL CHICKENS? Any claims about antibiotics aren’t strictly regulated, so unless the bird’s organic, take these with a grain of salt. Natural and all-natural just mean that no synthetic substances have been added to the meat.
ESSENTIAL GEAR: KITCHEN SHEARS
Breaking down a chicken is quite easy to do, but a good pair of kitchen shears is essential. A recent testing helped us understand the important features of this tool. The blades should be sharp and strong enough to cut through bones without warping, but precise enough for delicate tasks. High-carbon stainless steel stays sharp for a long time, and microserrations on the blades anchor the shears to whatever you’re cutting, preventing dangerous slips. We also like shears that allow us to adjust the tension. By the end of our testing, we’d found a winning pair that works for both righties and lefties, plus a more affordable pair that doesn’t have adjustable tension but met all our other requirements.