Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Temperature and the Art of Grilling Chicken

I am good at grilling chicken. That statement sounds simple, but for those of you who regularly grill food, you know what it means. It means that you have mastered the task of cooking chicken from raw to cooked over an open flame. It means that when the chicken hits the table it is cooked through, but still juicy. This is no small feat. The cards are stacked against you: the pieces are usually of different sizes and shapes, they sometimes start off at different temperatures, the fire in your grill may be uneven. This makes the job of getting each piece up the correct temperature, and not too far over, much more difficult. I liken it to hitting the bulls-eye; even an inexperienced griller can hit very near the bulls-eye occasionally, it is not impossible. The trick is consistency, can you hit the mark every time you take a shot?
In order to get better at anything you need to practice. Many people ask me how I am able to cook chicken so well. I usually shrug or respond with a quick answer, but if they press, I tell them the following: experience, technique and a few simple tools.

Like almost anything, cooking on a grill takes practice. This is especially true for all types of grilled chicken. Chicken is hard to grill because there is such a small window of time between where the meat is cooked and before it becomes dried out. Most people end up with terribly dried out chicken, or even worse, under-cooked chicken. Lots of factors can influence how long it takes for a given piece of chicken to be perfectly done; the starting temperature, the sizes of the pieces, bone-in or boneless, the use of a marinade; the use of a baste, etc. I always use a marinade and a baste, the marinade helps the meat end up juicy because it will start out with more moisture. I also always use a baste because it helps the meat to cook more slowly and adds flavor. Of course, I use Uncle Matt's Marinade for both, but any marinade based on vinegar, salt, spices and oil will work.

With all these variables, how could anyone get consistent results when grilling chicken? Use a thermometer every time you cook. And let's get specific here, I do not mean one of those big analog dial jobs that you bore into a 5 lb beef roast or a Thanksgiving turkey, I mean an instrument. An instant read thermometer specifically meant for reading the temperature of food. You can pick them up at almost any store. Wally World, Target, Lowe's, and most outdoor stores sell them. Pick one up that has an easy to read digital display and is well constructed. I own several different types and I have found that the key features are: accuracy, size of the probe and speed. A thin probe helps to take a reading faster and does not leave a giant hole in the meat. Open flames can be hot and if you have to hold the probe in place for more that a few moments, you could burn yourself, so get one that reads temperatures fast.

Of all the thermometers I have ever used there is one, by far, that is the best for this task. It is expensive but worth every penny. Get yourself a Thermopen by Thermo-works. They cost about $100 and will save you twice that amount in ruined food. They read exceptionally fast, have a thin probe tip and use a thermocouple for fast and accurate readings. It shuts itself off when you close it, but will also do an auto shutoff if you leave it open by mistake. Since it is meant for commercial kitchens, they offer it in a variety of colors (most commercial kitchens use a color coding system for prevent cross contamination of raw and cooked food). Get one, you will not be sorry.

Remove chicken from the grill when the temperature of the white meat is 165 ° F and the dark meat is 175 ° F. Always measure at the center of the thickest part, and if cooking bone in pieces, make sure you also test near, but not touching, the bones. There should be no part of the chicken that is cooler than the target temperature. As soon as each piece reaches this point, remove it from the grill and place in a heat proof bowl and cover with foil. When all the pieces are in the bowl, let them rest for at least 10 more minutes. This gives the meat time to finish cooking, cool a little bit and for the juices to redistribute.

As you use the thermometer while cooking, you will get better and better at determining when the meat is approaching the proper "donness". It is good to get used to noticing these signs but to insure a bulls-eye every time, I always use an instant read thermometer.

Uncle Matt


  1. Any opinions on vacuum-sealing and marinades? Now that there are vacuum storage systems that are relatively cheap and meant for home use, I wonder whether marinades can be made to penetrate more deeply if the meat and liquid is vacuum-packed, say the night before.

  2. Drew, I think vacuum sealing is an excellent way to make a marinade more effective. I am still not convinced that the marinade penetrates very far into the meat, though. Anytime you can take air out of the equation, you get better results. I usually like to marinade in a zip lock bag, and recently I have been using the ones that I can seal with my vacuum sealer...