Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lou's Most Excellent Kitchen Tips: Grilling Chicken

Grilling chicken is, in fact, rocket science. Too many people blow grilling the bird by steering from some basic principles and all rocket science is based on one simple principle: F=ma*. I hope these help in you obtaining legendary grilled chicken that turn an ordinary tasteless piece of meat into something folks will crave.

The bird matters, period. Where the bird came from, kind of bird, what it ate growing up, how it was processed and how it finally arrived on your door is the biggest factor to great chicken. Chicken is the main ingredient in “chicken,” after all.

Purdue and Tyson are good for feeding a crowd cheaply; store brands even more so. But if you’re looking for chicken that tastes like chicken, you’ll need to spring a few bucks. Small organic producers, such as Eberly here in the upper mid-Atlantic, are wonderful. A bit costly worth it. Bell & Evans, a national brand, is also good too.

Buying these brands is also “greener” but all that is lost once you fire up the grill and put the chicken over the top of cancer-causing charcoal fumes. So for all you organic best-for-my-body types you should think about that.

But why?

Prepare your chicken. Prior to doing anything with it rinse it under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Try to blot as much moisture off the skin too – this will (marginally) help in achieving a crisp skin.

Whole bird? Quartered? Pieces? No matter what you should consider brining the bird. Brining is pretty simple and has been around as long as Jews have roamed the earth. Seriously. Brining – and in Judaism it’s typically a dry brine – is part of the Kosher process.

A basic brine is just salt and water usually in the proportion of ¼ cup of salt to 1 quart of cold water. Mix the two together (adjust volumes as necessary to cover all the pieces) and add the chicken. Brine for 30 – 50 minutes, pending pieces/amounts. See LME Chicken Brine for more details.

(I hope) It goes without saying you should not brine kosher chicken.

Flavoring the bird. Add any rubs or pastes underneath the skin of the chicken, not on top. Garlic in olive oil + red and black pepper is great. Jerk rubs. Even just herb flavored butters.

You can put flavorings on the outside too but if you have a lot of oil in the flavoring most will just drip off. Dry rubs/seasonings only for the outside.

This may sound counter intuitive but the hotter the fire the better. Reason is that you’re not cooking the chicken on (direct) but next (indirect) to the fire. Chicken is delicate so treat it that way.

Trim the legs. With a sharp knife, cut around the leg right below the ankle of the leg, ensuring you cut through the tendons. As the leg cooks the meat shrinks up to where it looks like you have a meatball on a stick. In this case it’s a very, very tender meatball.

Is it done? Again, many variables here but in general put the fatter ends toward the fire and thinners toward the back.
- Whole chicken. Place legs toward the fire. It’s likely done in about 50 minutes.
- Parts (bones in). If you put your boned-in breasts closer to the fire and quarter parts (legs, thighs) further and you have a pretty hot fire, count on 40 minutes.
- Parts (no bones). Put the boned in pieces (legs, thighs) closer to the fire and the breasts toward the rear. Figure 30 – 40 minutes.
- Boneless breasts alone. 20 minutes, if not sooner (pending thickness).

A thermometer is a must here for beginners. Chicken should be cooked to an internal temp of 160oF. Measuring this is tough since you can’t touch the bone of the chicken so insert the thermometer at angle in the fattest parts of the meat, which are the top of the breast and the upper thighs.

When removing the thermometer the juices should run clear. If somewhat pink it’s not fully ready but getting close.

Right before removing the chicken I place the pieces over the fire (direct side of the grill) for about 3 minutes to sear the skin up a bit more.

Try not to manipulate the chicken too much while cooking it. You should leave it relatively undisturbed on the grill, covered (vents ¼ to ½ open). And NEVER press the pieces into the grill while cooking.

Hickory is a great wood for adding flavor to chicken. Throw a few soaked chips or chunks into it. Applewood and maple are nice too. Mesquite and pecan are a bit strong for chicken and I don’t recommend it. You also only need a handful of chips/chunks to get the flavor in.

BBQ sauce. Mistake 1: putting the sauce on prior to cooking the chicken. Bad idea. Mistake 2: putting the sauce on when your completely done. Add BBQ sauce on to the chicken about 10 minutes before you’re finished. This helps cook the sauce a bit onto the skin.

You can – if desired – add the sauce then place the pieces directly over the fire to caramelize it a bit if you’re into that.

Let grilled chicken cool for about 5 minutes before doing anything to it (10 minutes if it’s a whole bird). This lets the meat relax a little and helps in keeping it tender.

*F=ma, Newton’s Second Law. Force = mass*acceleration where a = dv/dt (which is the acceleration of an object is proportional to the force applied, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object).

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