Hey Dad, if you're like most guys, you've sacrificed a drumstick or two to the incendiary powers of a backyard grill. And if you've tried to convince yourself that "black and crusty" is how you like your barbecued chicken, then you know, firsthand, the ambiguous blessings of cooking over an open flame.
We all can agree that a subtly smoky barbecued chicken is infinitely more tasty than its electrically broiled counterpart; at the same time, we must also admit that consistently achieving such perfection -- without first incinerating dinner -- is a feat beyond the grasp of most of us.
The problem is not just a lack of skill. It might be a lack of understanding. Most of us operate under the delusion that outdoor cooking is little more than throwing the desired number of edible items over a blaze and sitting back until they heat through. To the contrary, cooking without high-tech benefits of thermostats and heavy gauge saucepans requires greater vigilance and artistry than anything demanded from indoor cooking.
The first step in mastering the open fire is the knowledge that there are two forms of cooking that can take place on it -- grilling and barbecuing. Grilling is a quick-dry method of cooking that creates a crisped brown skin in a matter of minutes, but can do little to soften tough fibers or tenderize anything thicker than a sheet of vellum without scorching its surface. Thinly pounded boneless chicken breast can be grilled; whole breasts on the bone cannot.
Barbecuing is a method of braising thick or tough meats over an open fire. The fire must either be quite low or the food must be placed far away from the flame. Throughout the cooking time, food is basted with sauce. In this way, tough fibers are softened in simmering liquid as the meat is infused with the flavors of the sauce. The result is a pungent meat that literally falls from the bone. However, the technique takes time and can't be rushed; otherwise, the meat will char.
Problems arise when people use the sauce and meat appropriate to a barbecue with a fire fit for grilling. The outcome is always the same -- chickens that are raw at the bone and blushing with the complexion of a charcoal briquette. You can kid yourself into believing that this is the way you like your chicken, but the development of carbon has never been -- and never will be -- a desirable outcome for any cooking technique.
Unfortunately, timing directions for grilled foods can be only approximate, so view most grilling recipes through a liberal window for error. Because most grills do not have a thermostat (although many do have a thermometer), the exact temperature at point of contact is impossible to control.
Fires can flare up or die away without warning, so it is imperative to keep a close watch and check the food regularly. It's even more important that food be cooked through and properly browned than sit over the heat for some prescribed time.
Some Helpful Tips:
· Brining chicken in a 5 percent salt solution can increase its moisture retention by up to 10 percent, but koshered chicken is already brined, so it's naturally moister than nonkosher birds.
· After sectioning the chicken into leg, wing, breast and back pieces, remove any bones that keep the chicken pieces from lying flat, such as the wing-tip joints and backbone sections. This will ensure that each piece cooks as evenly as possible.
· Even when you don't plan to eat the skin of the chicken, do not remove it until after the chicken has been mostly cooked. The skin provides a protective barrier that keeps moisture in. Additionally, fat in the skin helps to baste the chicken during grilling. If fat reduction is a concern, the skin can be removed near the end of cooking or after serving without ill effect; removing it before cooking will yield substantially drier results.
· Before placing bone-in chicken on the grill, make sure the fire is constant and moderately low. Chicken pieces need a minimum of 30 minutes over low heat to ensure minimum doneness. If the fire is too high, it will scorch the skin of the chicken long before the interior is even partially cooked.
· Clean the grill grate with a wire brush and coat it with oil to help prevent sticking.
· Turn chicken pieces frequently during cooking, about every six minutes. After the first three or four turns, you can begin to brush the chicken with sauce at every turn. Do not expect the surface to looked cooked for the first two turns.
· The breast sections of chicken will not take nearly as long to cook as leg sections. Depending on the size of the pieces -- and whether the breast is boned or not -- start cooking the breasts between five and 10 minutes after you begin to cook the legs and wings.
· Be careful about scorching. Go slowly. Keep the fire low and turn the pieces frequently.
· If your barbecue has a cover, use it to help contain the heat and cook the chicken through more evenly.
· Keep a spray bottle of water close by to douse any flare-ups. But first get the chicken out of the way before you spray.
· All grills have hot spots and cooler sections, so move chicken around the grill as you turn them to even out the cooking.
Real Barbecued Chicken
There are countless tricks for dealing with the scorching problems of barbecuing a chicken. Pre-baking, post-baking, steaming and microwaving all will cook a chicken without burning it, but none of them are going to yield results that taste like real barbecued chicken. The only way to get all of the subtlety of cooking over an open flame is to cook over an open flame. Just take it slow, maintain a steady low fire and keep your eye on the cooking.
For the Sauce:
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsps. apple-cider vinegar
3/4 cup ketchup
2 tsps. spicy-brown mustard
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp. molasses
2 tsps. hot-pepper sauce
salt and pepper to taste
For the Chicken
31/2 lbs. chicken pieces
oil for coating grill grate
Mix the onion, garlic, vinegar, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, molasses, hot-pepper sauce, salt and pepper.
Set aside 1/3 of the sauce.
Wash and dry chicken pieces.
Heat a grill until the coals are ashen. Spread out in an even layer. Or preheat a gas grill to medium-low. Brush the grill grate and coat with oil.
Place chicken pieces on the oiled rack, close the cover and grill until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Turn browned-side up; grill covered for another 6 minutes. Turn and brush with a thin layer of the remaining 2/3 of the sauce.
Cover the grill, and cook for another 18 to 20 minutes, brushing with sauce and turning every 4 to 5 minutes until internal temperature of the chicken reaches 165°, about 40 minutes, total.
Be careful that the fire is not too hot, and does not flare-up, which will burn the chicken before it is cooked through. Douse flare-ups with a spray bottle of water.
Makes 4 servings.
Garlic Grilled Butterflied Whole Chickens
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 lb. chicken, washed inside and out, patted dry
salt and pepper to taste
oil for coating grill grate
Combine the garlic and oil; set aside.
Remove the chickens' backbones by cutting up either side of the bone from tail to neck. Open the chickens up flat.
Tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders, and make a small slit in the apron of skin that lies next to the legs on either side of the tapered end the breast. Slip the knob ends of the drumsticks through these slits.
Place chickens skin-side up, and with a meat pounder, pound the thicker sections of meat at the top of the drumsticks and the shoulder-side of the breast, so that the whole chicken is more even in thickness.
Season both side of the chickens with salt and pepper. Rub the garlic oil all over both chickens.
Meanwhile, prepare grill until coals are ashen. If you're using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high. Brush the grill grate clean and coat with oil.
Place chickens skin-side down on the oiled rack, and grill until lightly browned, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Turn chickens over and grill another 10 minutes, basting as needed with the garlic oil reaming on the sheet pan. Turn again, cover the grill and grill another 10 minutes. Stop basting.
Turn skin-side up and grill, uncovered, for another 10 to 15 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165°.
Cut the chicken into serving pieces.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.