Yes, more cooking. My life is pretty stagnant in a lot of ways, but since we got the new smoker/grill, we’ve had a ball on weekends making stuff we’ve never tried before. Today’s specialty: Grilled chicken.
If you try to direct-grill chicken — which means putting the raw, bone-in, skin-on chicken right over the hot coals — you’re generally going to have chicken which cooks too fast on the outside and is raw on the inside, and carries the distinct flavor of lighter fluid. Or, you’ll get charred, blackened sauce-caked chicken with something like cat food on the interior. At least, that’s my experience with it. The chicken is one of America’s favorite backyard barbecue foods, but is seldom done successfully, because of the challenges it presents.
- For one thing, it has to be cooked all the way through. Unlike beef, you can’t have rare or medium-rare chicken. You really can’t have medium chicken — not without taking your life in your hands. The chicken has to be cooked to a temperature of 170 degrees farenheit in the deepest part of the thigh, near the bone. On the other hand, if you over-cook the breast meat, you’ll get chalky, crumbly meat that will be so dry you could gag on it. A tough combination. An easy solution is to cook thighs and breasts separately, but what if you’re addressing an entire chicken?
- None of those pieces of meat — wings, breasts, thighs and drumsticks — cook at the same rate.
- Most chicken grilled in backyards ’round the country are pretty bland. If you put the sauce on too soon, it’ll burn and char to a charcoal crust. You may as well lick the briquettes instead of eating the skin.
A simple, easy way to fix this is to smoke the bird. If you have a grill capable of smoking (all of them are, btw), that’s great, you can do that. But if you do, be prepared for a leathery skin. The meat will be moist and juicy, even when the thigh reaches that Nirvana 170, but the skin will be weird. Another easy solution is to cook it over indirect heat, meaning the coals aren’t directly under the chicken. This is akin to roasting it in your oven, but you get a nicer flavor (IMO) and you can crackle the skin to a crisp. If you’re problem’s not having juicy enough birds when you’re finished, try either spit-roasting or even more guaranteed, brining.
Another great technique is to spatchcock the bird. Sounds kinky, don’t it?
It’s not, it’s disgusting. But soooo cool.
What I decided to do today was to spatchcock the bird, then cook it over indirect heat. If you’re going to brine the chicken, you need to do that 24 hours ahead of time and have sufficient room in the refrigerator to accommodate the brining container overnight. I had neither of those things in place, so decided not to do it.
Spatchcocking’s easy. I mean, it’s some effort, but it’s not difficult. If you don’t know what it is, it’s a way of taking a sort of round bird and making it flat. This does a few things to help you. It makes the meat more easily, readily and evenly (how many adverbs can YOU cram in one statement??) exposed to the marinade if you use one, and the fire. This imparts a fantastic flavor you’re never going to forget.
If you do marinade, try to give yourself four to six hours, or overnight. I didn’t have that luxury, again, so I opted for a simple rub instead.
Yes, that’s right — I rubbed my chicken today. Didn’t you? If not, you’re missing out.
How do you do it? Well, I started with brown sugar, paprika, parsley flakes, onion and garlic powder, salt and pepper, chili powder, and if there was anything else I tossed in, I don’t remember it. I worked those together by hand, using my fingers to break up any lumps in the sugar.
Once that was done, I spatchcocked the chicken. So, what’s that, and how do you do it?
I’m glad you asked. It’s not as much fun as it sounds, though. Fun, but not that much fun.
If you’ve got a small serial killer streak in you, this is easier to do.
Here’s the process:
- Take a pair of poultry shears (and you’ll want good quality poultry shears for this, not a knife or anything cheap, if you value your fingers), and cut out the spine of the bird. Snip, snip, snip.
- Once the backbone’s gone, open the carcass up, and take the point of a sturdy, sharp knife and poke it into the breast bone. The bone will split a little. Then take your fingers, and just sort of worm them behind the bone and pull out the sternum and the big piece of cartilage attached. Yum.
- Next, spread the bird open even farther, and in the flaps of skin below the thighs, make a slit with a sharp knife, one for each leg. Manipulate the drumstick so you poke the end through the slits, which will hold the drumsticks in place. Yep, that’s right — poke your bones in the slits, people. Feels good.
- Now, the optional parts. I took the poultry shears and cut away the excess fat and skin around the tail end of the bird. I took the de-boning a step farther, too, and removed the ribs. A couple of snips from the shears and I was able to tug them out. You could also use a sharp knife and sort of fillet the meat away from them. In the end, I also pulled out the split breast bone pieces, and had only the thigh and leg bones and the wing bones left in the bird. Really feeling ambitious? It probably wouldn’t have been hard to remove the thigh bones, either, and the upper part of the wing bones would’ve come out if I’d yanked with a paper towel for traction on the slick, oozy bones. No big, but it’s up to you.
With the spatchcocking done, I turned the bird onto the skin side and began the rub-down. Yep, this is where you get to rub your chicken. Work the rub into the meat with your fingers. Nice, huh? And your spouse or sig-other won’t mind a bit, believe me.
Then I flipped it skin-side up, and repeated the rub. I’m an insatiable chicken rubber. Rub-a-dub-dub.
With that done, I set the bird aside. Outside, it’s time to prepare the grill for indirect grilling.
If you’re using a kettle grill (like the classic Webber grill), you pile two heaps of charcoal on either side of the lower grate. If you have one, you can use a chimney starter to get the coals going, which is great. I don’t, and can’t, and I don’t have a kettle grill, so meh. Anyway, when the two coal piles are glowing on each side of the grill, put in an aluminum foil drip pan — you know, the kind you make your string bean and onion side dish in on Thanksgiving to take to your aunt Bertha’s. This ensures you have the grill correctly set up, and catches chicken droppings. Sorry, I mean drippings.
All right, for me, I have one of those barrel-shaped smoker/grills with a chimney on the main smoker chamber and an adjacent, lower firebox for the coals. It grills, smokes and does this indirect thing just fine. If I had a brain, I’d have made two piles, one on the left and one on the right, just as I mentioned above. Instead, I put all my coals under one of the two cooking grates, on the left of the main smoker chamber, and I put the aforementioned drip pan under the right grate. It worked. And the meat is below the chimney, so the heat’s drawn up and over it. Works nice, but I’ll try it the other way next time and see what if any the difference is.
Anyway, I digress. So, with the coals going, I need about ten minutes. I use Kingsford MatchLight, because, like I said, I don’t have a chimney starter. So anyway, once the flames die down and the coals are ready (Kingsford says around ten minutes and I’ve no reason to disagree), it’s time to load the chicken.
As a final step, I hacked the bird in half down the center lengthwise, so I have two chicken halves. In retrospect, I only like white meat and LOML only likes dark meat, so I could’ve split the leg/thighs from the breast/wings, but meh. I go out and arrange the chicken over the drip pan skin-side up and shut the lid. I adjust the vents on the firebox and the chimney to obtain a moderate (not low-and-slow) cooking temperature — something like 350 degrees or so. Then I walk away for 45 minutes.
Yep, nothing to do now. LOML made a white barbecue sauce from a web site recipe, including mayo, a splash of white wine vinegar, mustard, parsley, lemon juice, pepper and sugar. Wisk until blended, and thin but not overly running. We’re not going for a mop sauce here, so you want it thick enough to stick to the bird.
Okay, when 45 minutes passes, I go outside and rotate the chicken halves. The one closer to the fire goes to the farther spot and vice versa. I also baste the chicken for the first time. The fat in the mayo immediately starts melting and the meat gets another layer of flavor from the sauce. Yummo.
All right, go ‘way for another 15 minutes. Come back, replenish the coals, baste again, wait for the flames to die, close the lid and go back inside for 15 more. Go back out, turn the chicken over, and now it’s getting tricky, because the meat’s falling off the bone and the floppy things are fork-tender. I rip the skin a little this time, but I do manage to turn them. It’s all right, I’ve got some incredible carmelization of the sugars in the rub and the sauce happening, but nothing’s black or charred yet. Finally, in the last 15 minutes, things get a little bit more detail-oriented.
Indirect grilling’s amazing, but to get that crackin’ crisp skin I mentioned before, you need to put the chicken, skin-side down, over the fire for a couple of minutes. If you’re using a thick, lick-your-fingers sticky barbecue sauce, you would apply that in the last two minutes of cooking only, and would be basting with something like a mop sauce, melted butter, lard, vegetable oil, or what have you. So now, I apply the final baste and struggle to flip the chicken over on the fire.
Guess what happened?
Vesuvian flare-up, that’s what happened.
Did I mention the melting fat in the mayo? Yeah, see … it drips onto the red-hot coals, and a fire breaks out. Know what happened to my perfect, gorgeous chicken? It turned black as the ace of spades and became extensions of the briquettes.
Okay, so, score one for the chicken. After a few seconds of panic, I have them off the fire and onto a plate. The meat has to rest now for about ten minutes, and then you’re ready to eat.
The result? Well, I was able to pull the wings off with my hands and almost no effort. The thigh pulled away from the breast without using a knife or fork. And the juices ran from the meat — dark and light — when you cut it.
God, it was good. Except for that burned bit of skin, it was the most amazing chicken I’ve had in … well, in as long as I can remember.
Oh, I’m liking this new grill and experimenting with it.
What’d you have for dinner?