Chicken (sometimes called “yard bird” in grilling and smoking circles) is the dish grill jockeys love and hate. They love it because there’s nothing like grilling to crisp the skin, smoke the meat, and turn out a chicken that’s tender and juicy.
They hate it because all too often, the skin turns out flabby or scorched, the meat is undercooked near the bone, and the flames from the dripping fat cause trouble almost the moment you put the bird on the grill. Well, if you have encountered these pitfalls, here’s a grilled chicken that’s guaranteed foolproof. In fact, you couldn’t burn it if you tried.
I’ve taken all the risk out of the recipe by moving the fire to the sides of the grill—away from where the chicken cooks. You still get that smoky live-fire flavor, but without the risk of the bird burning. Pit masters will recognize this technique as indirect grilling, and it produces some of the tastiest barbecued chicken this side of Memphis. And to make you feel like a pro, I’ve included a mop sauce (a thin vinegar mixture you apply to the chicken with a barbecue mop), so you can hold your own with the big boys on the barbecue circuit. The barbecue sauce is applied the last few minutes of grilling, then sizzled directly over the fire to set the sauce.
Foolproof Barbecued Chicken
- Advance Prep: 1 to 2 hours for curing the chicken
- Method: Indirect grilling
- Equipment: 2 cups wood chips or chunks (preferably hickory), soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained; poultry shears
For the Chicken and Rub
- 1 chicken (3 ½ to 4 pounds)
- 1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
- 1 ½ teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1 ½ teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon celery seed
For the Mop Sauce
- ½ cup distilled white vinegar
- ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon rub reserved from above
- 2 cups Dr Pepper Barbecue Sauce or your favorite commercial sauce
1: Remove the packet of giblets from the body cavity of the chicken and set aside for making stock or another use. Remove and discard the fat just inside the body and neck cavities. Rinse the chicken, inside and out, under cold running water, then drain and blot dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Place the chicken on its breast. Using poultry shears and starting at the neck end, make a lengthwise cut along one side of the backbone to the tail. Make a second lengthwise cut along the other side of the backbone. Discard the backbone or set aside for another use. Open the chicken like a book, skin side up, and lay it flat. Using the poultry shears, cut the chicken in half through the breastbone. This will give you two chicken halves, which will lie flat on the grill. Place the chicken halves in a baking dish.
2: Make the rub: Combine the salt, paprika, brown sugar, pepper, onion and garlic powders, and celery seed in a small bowl and stir to mix. (Actually, your fingers work better for mixing a rub than a spoon or whisk does.) Set aside 1 tablespoon of the rub for the mop sauce. Sprinkle the remaining rub over the chicken on both sides, patting it onto the meat with your fingertips. Let the chicken cure in the refrigerator, covered, for 1 to 2 hours.
3: Make the Mop Sauce: Combine the vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and remaining 1 tablespoon of rub with l/2 cup water in a nonreactive mixing bowl and stir until the salt and brown sugar in the rub dissolve.
4: Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. If using a gas grill, place all of the wood chips or chunks in the smoker box or in a smoker pouch and run the grill on high until you see smoke, then reduce the heat to medium. If using a charcoal grill, place a large drip pan in the center, preheat the grill to medium, then toss all of the wood chips or chunks on the coals.
5: When ready to cook, place the chicken halves in the center of the hot grate, skin side up, over the drip pan and away from the heat. Cover the grill and grill the chicken until cooked through, 40 to 60 minutes. To test for doneness, use an instant-read meat thermometer: Insert it into the thickest part of a thigh but not so that it touches the bone. The internal temperature should be about 165°F. After the first 20 minutes of grilling, using a barbecue mop or basting brush, baste the chicken with the mop sauce every 10 minutes while it cooks. Be sure to baste both sides of the chicken halves.
6: During the last 3 minutes, brush the chicken with about 1/2 cup of the barbecue sauce. Move the chicken pieces directly over the fire to sizzle and brown the sauce on both sides.
7: Transfer the grilled chicken halves to a platter or plates and let rest for 3 minutes. Serve the chicken with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.
This recipe calls for half chickens, but you could also use chicken quarters or chicken pieces, or even chicken breasts (you’ll have to reduce the cooking time accordingly).