An easy guide to making perfect chicken on the grill! Get the best tips, tricks and techniques from a culinary arts educator so you never have dried out chicken again!
There really is nothing exciting about eating a chicken breast, let’s just be clear here. But, the beautiful thing about chicken (white meat in particular) is that it is a great way to add different flavor profiles and really switch things up, taking a pretty bland protein and making it into something unique and delicious.
I’ve been grilling for the past two years plus and eating a variation of a whole 30, paleo, or keto low carb diet for even longer. Chicken is a great staple for any diet or busy weeknight meal prep, but I often hear or see (on social media) way too many overcooked chicken breasts rolling off people’s grills! So no more!
This is a quick and easy guide to all things grilled chicken, marinade, brining, rubs, charcoal and gas grilling, indirect and direct heat methods and more! Grab all the details below to help guide you to being a master on the grill!
Love a good grill guide? Grab this guide for 5 tips to making the best rotisserie chicken too!
Supplies may vary based on the cut of chicken you’re using, but generally you need the following-
- Cutting Board
- Carving/ Boning Knife
- Kitchen Shears (If making a spatchcock chicken)
- Butchers Twine (If grilling a rotisserie chicken)
So, how do you grill chicken without drying it out?
Here is a general break down of the seven major ways to improve or approach grilling chicken (typically boneless skinless chicken breasts) for the grill. These methods pertain to both the prep work and the cooking process, read through and use what you can to help guide you!
Whether you’re cooking with boneless chicken breasts or a whole chicken, I find butterflying or spatchcocking a bird the best way to go for cooking lean meat. Why? Because chicken is a very lean meat, and when you deal with various thicknesses, you often end up with dry and overcooked chicken in order to get the entire thing properly cooked.
Start by using a sharp boning knife and in the thickest part of the chicken breast, slice carefully through the center and down. Leave the sides attached for one large butterflied chicken breast or separate them into cutlets. This makes it easy to manage serving sizes too!
Pro Tip- Have a chicken breast that’s too thick on one end? Use a rolling pin or meat tenderizer to help make it equal in size to promote even grilling.
If you have time to brine, I highly suggest using this method for adding moisture to your chicken and to help keep it juicy! I use pickle juice often (like I did here in these pickle brined pork chops) or a champagne brine (with this spatchcock turkey recipe).
But what actually is brining? How is it different than a marinade?
Brining is the process of combining salt, water, and sometimes sugar and vinegar to meat. This draws moisture out of the meat (in this case chicken) and then draws it back in and then some. Thus, making the chicken juicier.
How do you make a brine?
The basic ratio of salt to water is around one tablespoon of salt to one cup of water. If you are not a lower carb or keto diet you can add the same amount of sugar that you do salt. Pre-made brine like pickle juice is an awesome way to help infuse juice and flavor. Brine for a few hours up to 24 in advance if desired.
While you may not have time or the desire to brine, you can still opt to marinade to add extra flavor and moisture to your cooked chicken. In fact, a lot of my recipes here utilize marinades as a way to tenderize and create different flavor profiles to chicken (like these Greek Chicken Kebabs or these Butter Chicken one’s).
What is a marinade?
Marinades are different from a brine because it is more of a sauce made of oil, spices, and something acidic like vinegar or citrus/ lemon juice (think Mojo Chicken for example). The combination of acidity and olive oil helps with tenderizing, imparting flavor internally into the chicken, and helping it not stick too bad to the grill grates for instance.
How long do I marinade? What’s the best cooking method?
Marinade for a minimum of 30 minutes up to 24 hours in advance. Heavier marinades do better on indirect heat (especially if they contain sugar as it could burn easier) and work well when first “baked” on before finishing cooking and searing over direct heat.
4. Dry Rubs and Spices:
If you’re really in a pinch or you just want more of a dry rub for things like grilled chicken wings, crispy chicken quarters, or these oven baked BBQ chicken drumsticks. then there are a few things to definitely make note of.
First, moisture is your enemy! Remove excess moisture by patting your chicken dry with a paper towel. Toss or coat your chicken with a little olive oil or oil of your choice and seasoning generously with your dry rub of choice or this keto all purpose BBQ rub. Grill your chicken over medium high heat on a gas or charcoal grill to get a nice flavorful cooked chicken breast.
5. Charcoal Grill VS Gas Grill:
Honestly, both are great. This is 100% preference regarding speed of cooking, desired flavor, and the tools you have. General rule of thumb is to utilize two zone cooking (indirect and direct heat). If you master the two concepts below, you can gill on either!
6. Indirect Grilling:
Cooking with lean meat like poultry or fish (even steak to be honest), you can never go wrong with the indirect heat cooking method! This method is a way to essentially bake your food on the grill instead of cooking it directly over the flame.
I prefer this method when cooking a whole chicken, chicken thighs, sometimes even chicken wings. It’s a great way to get crispier chicken skin, and slowly cook a thicker cut piece of poultry.
Finish the chicken off on indirect heat to an internal temperature of 165 F or remove them closer to 145 F and sear them over direct heat, flipping the chicken as needed until you hit that 165 F temp!
7. Direct Grilling:
This is pretty self explanatory, cooking the chicken directly over the flame. The best advice here is to carefully grease your grill grates prior to help prevent the chicken from sticking. Be sure to grill your chicken 2-3 minutes per side and flip when it easily comes away from the grate (don’t rip it off).
Grill with the lid closed in between flips. This helps keep the heat locked in and cooks the bottom as well as circulates the heat over the top. Get the nice grill marks by flipping twice per side, cooking around 7-8 minutes on a medium heat. Use a thermometer to reach that internal temperature of 165F.
Pro Tip- While all chicken needs to be cooked to a minimum temperature of 165 F for it to be safe to eat, darker meat (like wings) actually tend to taste better around the 185-190 F mark.
- 4 Chicken Breasts (boneless/skinless)
- All Purpose BBQ Rub
- Optional- Brine or marinade (see post above)
- Prepare your chicken breasts by carefully butterflying them. Use a sharp knife to slice horizontally through the middle from right to left, leaving the left edge intact so you can fully open the chicken breast.
- Pat it dry with a paper towel and choose to brine, marinade, or just add a dry rub based on time and flavor profile.
- INDIRECT HEAT METHOD: To cook on a charcoal or gas grill using indirect heat at 300 F until the chicken reaches and internal of 145 F and then sear over direct heat for grill marks if desired. The chicken should reach a final temperature of 165 F. This method is best if using marinades (see post above).
- DIRECT HEAT METHOD: To cook on a charcoal or gas grill using direct heat, pre-heat the grill to 400-425 F. Lightly grease and the grill grates with a higher smoke point oil prior to placing the chicken on the grates. Grill the chicken and flip after 2-3 minutes per side or when it easily comes off the grates. Repeat as needed (I usually flip 3-4 times total) and cook roughly 6-8 minutes depending on thickness of your chicken breast. The final resting temperature should be 165 F.
- Pull the chicken from the grill and rest 5-10 minutes tented with foil before slicing into it!