Rendered skin without flare-ups
Chicken that is tasty and attractive
Chicken breasts have been the most popular part of the chicken for decades, thighs are currently trendy, and wings are a sports-bar standby. Drumsticks, on the other hand, have been neglected. Maybe that’s because when you eat them as part of a whole chicken, they don’t seem that special. In fact, they can be chewy and tough. Nevertheless, with their built-in handles and conveniently small size, they are tailor-made for a cookout. They also happen to be the most economical part of the bird.
I decided to devise a foolproof way to grill drumsticks to perfection. In my book, that means fully rendered, nicely browned skin and moist, flavorful meat. And if I really wanted to start a drumstick fad, I’d have to make sure my method was easy, even for grill novices.
An Indirect Approach
There aren’t a lot of drumstick-specific recipes out there; most just lump them under the heading “parts.” And most of the recipes I managed to find followed a similar pattern: Soak chicken in a marinade for a few hours or simply dust it with a spice rub and then grill it over a medium fire until it’s done. If a final internal temperature was specified, it was usually 165 degrees.
I decided to put off dealing with marinades and spice rubs until I had figured out the best grilling strategy. My first stop was the popular grill-over-medium-fire-until-done approach, which took only about 25 minutes, but speed turned out to be its only virtue. Fat from the drumsticks dripped onto the coals, causing flames to shoot up, so I was frantically moving the pieces around to avoid scorching, which was difficult because the chicken skin was still stuck to the grate. Because the drumsticks cooked pretty quickly, the skin, though inevitably scorched (and torn in spots), was still blubbery and soft underneath. Meanwhile, the meat was tough and even a bit dry.
I had a pretty good idea of how to fix that last problem. All parts of the chicken are food-safe at 165 degrees. Taking white meat any higher dries it out, but dark meat is different. We’ve found that it benefits from being cooked to as high as 190 degrees, especially if it’s brought to that temperature slowly. That’s because the legs and thighs have a lot of connective tissue, which is made up of a sturdy protein called collagen. This can work to the smart cook’s advantage because, given time, that collagen transforms into rich gelatin, which lubricates the muscle fibers so the meat is juicy and tender. At 140 degrees, collagen begins to break down. The more time the meat spends between 140 degrees and its final temperature, the more collagen will be converted into gelatin and the more tender and juicy the meat will be.
Slowing down the cooking was imperative. On a grill, that means cooking over indirect heat. I lit a full chimney of charcoal, and when it was partially covered with ash, I poured it over half the grill. I placed the chicken, skin side down, on the cooler side; covered the grill; and settled in to enjoy one of my favorite features of indirect grilling: doing nothing.
Except for one moment when I rearranged the pieces so that they all had equal time close to the coals, I carried on doing nothing for a full 50 minutes. But in that time, good things were happening inside the grill. The drumsticks were shedding their excess fat, but without any coals beneath them, there were no flare-ups to contend with. This meant I didn’t need to frantically move them around to avoid scorching—they clung lightly to the grill grate but were easily dislodged. Once the drumsticks reached 185 degrees, they easily released from the grate, so I moved them over to the hotter side to char and crisp up a bit, which took only about 5 minutes.
Chicken Leg Two-Step
To ensure that all the drumsticks are done at the same time, we rearrange them halfway through cooking, moving those closer to the heat to the outside and those on the outside closer to the heat.
This batch was a big improvement over the previous one. The skin was rendered, not rubbery, and the meat was tender and reasonably juicy. I wondered if adding one step to my ultrasimple process might be worthwhile.
I almost always brine or salt white meat (and whole birds) before cooking. It seasons the meat, but more important, it changes the meat’s proteins in such a way that they hold on to more of their moisture when cooked. This extra step usually isn’t necessary when cooking fattier dark meat because it is not as easily overcooked. But I was cooking the drumsticks for an unusually long time in the grill’s dry heat, so I figured some kind of salt treatment might be advantageous.
Salting takes at least 6 hours, but brining takes only 30 minutes, so I opted for brining. Sure enough, the saltwater soak plus my mostly hands-off cooking method produced the juiciest drumsticks I had ever eaten. If only the flavor were a bit more interesting.
Science: Brining Dark Meat
We typically don’t brine dark meat because it has enough fat to keep it moist when cooked to 175 degrees. But in this recipe, we cook the drumsticks to between 185 and 190 degrees to ensure that most of the collagen converts to gelatin, making what can be a chewy cut tender. And since the long cooking time needed to get the drumsticks to 190 degrees (plus the dry heat of the grill) can compromise dark meat’s juiciness, we brine the drumsticks to dissolve some of their proteins, making them better able to hold on to moisture. The upshot: ultratender drumsticks that are also wonderfully juicy.
In the test kitchen, we often avoid marinating. The oil tends to drip and cause flare-ups on the grill (admittedly, this would be less of a problem with my indirect cooking strategy), and the acid turns the exterior of the meat mealy and mushy. Glazes can add interest, but they make eating chicken out of hand a messy proposition. I opted for a spice rub instead.
I started with sugar, which would melt and turn tacky to help the spices stick. I then added paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, cayenne, salt, and pepper. After brining the chicken, I patted it dry and coated it with the rub. One hour later I had chicken that would be the star of any cookout. I also developed two more spice rubs: a barbecue spice rub and a jerk-style spice rub. After all, a single flavor profile might not be enough to sustain a new drumstick-eating trend, and I wanted this craze to have legs.