I can grill up a burger, hot dog or even a swordfish steak with the best. But truth be told, perfecting the chicken breast juicy in the middle, caramelized exterior is a nerve-racking experience.
First, forget the image of Tony Soprano standing at the gas grill, lid open, a stogie in one hand and the other constantly poking at the meat with an oversized fork. Other than the cigar, he's breaking all the rules.
Unlike tossing a burger on the grill for a few minutes, cooking bone-in chicken breasts to a tender finish requires slow cooking (an hour or more) with indirect heat cooking near the flame, not over it.
Why bone-in breasts? I think they are more tender than boneless, especially when grilled slowly over low heat. If you prefer to go boneless, note that the cooking time is significantly less (about 20 minutes) and uses direct heat.
To skin or not? I leave the skin on because it keeps the chicken moist and, frankly, it tastes great, especially when it's crispy and infused with a smoky sweetness from grilling. Plus, once cooked it's easily removed, if desired.
1. Before cooking, clean your cooking grate with a wire brush. It's not a badge of grilling honor to have a caked up grate; it's unhealthy. A clean grill also reduces sticking.
2. Prep the chicken while your grill is heating. And if you're using charcoal, don't use lighter fluid. It will affect the flavor. I prefer using a chimney starter, but all you really need are two pages from a newspaper and a match.
3. While chicken can be marinated hours ahead, it won't be any more succulent if you dry it out on the grill. I prefer a giving the chicken a simple run of oil, salt, pepper and sugar just before grilling. For fans of barbecue sauce: Wait until the final 20 minutes of cooking to apply it; otherwise it will burn.
4. Cover the grill, leaving any vents open, and walk away. If you have that Tony Soprano urge to poke, consider this: Piercing the skin of the chicken allows the juices to run out. Turning the meat too soon causes it to stick. Lifting the lid reduces the temperature and increases cooking time. So I repeat walk away from the grill.5. Depending on the size of the pieces and outdoor temperature, you'll learn to predict how long it'll take the chicken to cook. For now, turn after about 30 minutes. Then 30 minutes later, use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature.
GRILLED CHICKEN BREASTS
Start to finish: 1 hour 30 minutes (15 minutes active)
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
4 teaspoons olive oil
Preheat the grill. If using charcoal, the grill is ready when the coals have a gray-white ash coating. Using a poker, divide the coals into two piles, pushing each to one side of the grill.
If using a gas grill, turn off the middle burner and lower the heat on the side burners to medium. Place a pan between the coals or flames beneath the grate to catch fat drippings and help prevent flare-ups.
While the grill heats, prepare the chicken. In a medium bowl, combine the salt, pepper and sugar. Set aside.
Use paper towels to pat dry the chicken breasts, then rub each with about 1 teaspoon of olive oil. One at a time, place each breast in the bowl with the rub mixture and coat with the seasonings.
Arrange the chicken with the skin side up over the center of the grill so the pieces are not over the flames or hot coals. Cover the grill, leaving any vents open, and cook for 30 minutes.
Turn the chicken, recover the grill and cook for another 30 minutes.
Use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature. Insert the thermometer at the thickest part of the chicken without touching bone. Remove the chicken from the grill when the white meat has reached a temperature of 165 F. Let the breasts rest for 10 minutes before serving and allow the meat to continue cooking (thanks to residual heat) to the federally recommended 170 F. Serves 4.