OK, I'm going to say it: I love cooking chicken on the grill.
You don't hear that from most people, but you will from me. And here's why: I know the secret to moist, juicy meat and dark crisp skin. It’s called dry brining.
Dry brining is similar to water-based brining, just without the water. You’ll want to plan ahead for this process, but I can tell you most of the work is just waiting and using time to your advantage. Let’s get right into it.
First, we’ll start off with a whole chicken. Remove the neck and giblets from the body cavity. Make sure you set aside those parts in a zip lock bag and put in your freezer for the next time you want to make some homemade chicken stock.
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Next, rinse the chicken thoroughly, inside and out, and pat dry with paper towels. Place the chicken on a rack over a cookie sheet and cover, inside and out, with about 1/3 cup of kosher salt. That may seem like a lot of salt, but don’t worry about it. We’ll end up washing most of the salt off later.
Now that the chicken looks like it got a visit from the Snow Queen, lightly cover it in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Take the chicken out of the fridge and wash off all the salt and pat completely dry with paper towels. Put the dried chicken back in the refrigerator (still on the rack and pan), but this time leave the chicken uncovered for an additional 2 to 12 hours. Overnight works well. You can even let the chicken dry up to three days in the refrigerator (this is ideal). We want the skin really dry out. This will help it to crisp up on the grill.
I told you there would be a bit of planning ahead with this method. But as usual, it is completely worth it.
When you’re ready to fire up the grill, take the chicken out of the fridge, leaving it on the rack and pan, to let it get up to room temperature. This helps for even cooking. Tip: Get a portable household fan, turn it to high and have it “blow dry” the chicken. The drier chicken skin, the crispier it will become.
Now let’s talk about the grill. We’re going to cook the chicken in two steps. The first will be lower heat to evenly cook the chicken. In the second step, we’ll crank up the heat to make the skin crispy.
Set up the grill for a two-zone, low temperature fire, about 250 to 300. A two-zone fire means having the heat on one side and no heat on the other side. If using a charcoal grill, put your lit charcoal, about half a chimney of charcoal, on one side and an empty drip pan on the other side.
Be sure to replenish the charcoal every hour with 8 to 10 new briquettes. If using a gas grill, just ignite one side. Some gas grills light front to back versus side to side. In that case, light the back half of the grill and keep the front half off. Remember, we want low heat for this process.
Next, let’s kiss this chicken with a little smoke for flavor. If using a charcoal grill, add a chunk of smoking wood or chips (that have soaked in water for 30 minutes and then drained) directly onto the lit charcoal and place the lid back on the grill, ensuring that the vents are placed directly over the empty drip pan, where the food will be). If you have a gas grill with a smoker box, follow the manufacturer’s directions and then close the lid.
After the grill has heated up for at least 10 minutes and the grates are cleaned, place the chicken, breast side up, on the side of the grill without the fire — the indirect cooking method — with the legs facing the fire.
Why? You want the dark meat to reach a higher final internal temperature before the breast meat. This technique ensures that the legs get cooked without drying the breast out first. If you have a thermometer probe, place the probe in the thickest part of the breast without piercing the skin.
For charcoal grillers: When the breast reaches a 130 degrees internal temperature, light a full chimney of charcoal. We’ll use this for the second step of the cooking process. Gas grill users can just relax.
Keep cooking the chicken until the internal probe in the breast reads 144 degrees, about 1 1/4 to 2 hours, depending on your actual cooking temperature. If your cooking time is on the longer side, that’s OK. The longer cooking time allows for the chicken to cook more evenly. Remove the chicken from grill and let it rest on a rack over a pan, still breast side up.
In the meantime, we now want to crank up the heat on the grill. If using a charcoal grill, dump the now fully lit chimney of charcoals on top of the charcoal that’s in the grill already. Still keeping a two-zone fire, bank the coals as far away from the “cooking side” as possible and put the lid back on, vents over the side of the grill that you had the chicken on.
If you are using a gas grill, turn up the heat on the side that you already had heated. Your grill should get up to the 500 to 550 range. After the grill is hot, place the chicken back on the grill, breast side up and legs toward the heat, on the side of the grill without the fire beneath it. Close the lid, and let the chicken to continue to cook.
Cooking time can vary from 10 to 15 minutes, but basically, you want to cook the chicken until the internal temperature in the thickest part of the legs reaches 175 degrees and the breast reaches at least 165 degrees. At that point, remove the chicken from the grill. Rest it on a rack over a pan, breast side up, for at least 10 minutes so the juices can redistribute into the moist meat.
Before you carve the chicken, just take some time to admire it. Look at the golden, shiny-crisp skin. The plump meat. The glistening juices oozing from the bird. Your mouth is watering just thinking about it, isn’t it? OK, go ahead and cut the chicken into its individual parts to serve. At this time, feel free to add some fresh ground pepper.
Sure, there was some planning involved with this method. But as that first moist and tender bite will tell you, the planning was completely worth the time invested. And there was hardly any real work on your part.
I hope that I’ve inspired you try this different-but-easy technique for making magnificent chicken. Surprise your friends. Surprise yourself. And who knows, after trying this one time, I bet you’ll be converted to dry brining, too. Keep on grilling.
Like I always say, “Cooking outside tastes better and, of course, it’s a heck of a lot more fun. So keep on grillin’.”
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.