City Palate

City Palate - The Flavour of Calgary's Food Scene since 1993

THE HARVEST ISSUE - September October Issue 2018

How to NOT Screw Up Chicken on the Grill

story and photos by grill-master Rockin’ Ron Shewchuk

It hurts my heart to think about the millions of boneless, skinless chicken breasts that are ruined on backyard grills every day. I mourn for the hapless spouses and children who have to choke down the dry, mealy protein while disingenuously praising the proud cook, who will continue to badly barbecue birds for the rest of his or her grilling career.

I’m here to change all that, for humanity’s sake. Read on, and never ruin chicken on the grill again. Let’s start with the most important thing: for perfect grilled chicken, cook to the right internal temperature, not to an exact time. If you don’t already have one, get yourself a good instant-read thermometer. A cheap old-fashioned one costs about 15 bucks, or you can drop a bill-and-a-half on the super-fancy, super-fast Thermapen. The idea is to carefully monitor the internal temperature of your chicken, at the thickest part, and take it off the grill when it gets to a little bit shy of 160°F, which is the minimum temperature needed to maintain food safety. (The temp will rise a bit as you let the meat rest.)

Unless, like me, you enjoy chicken heart kebabs, there are four choices for grilling chicken. Here are the best techniques for each:

THE BREAST First of all, say it out loud: “boneless, skinless chicken breasts.” Rhymes with “soulless, joyless food for guests.” Chicken breast meat has almost no fat. As we all know, fat equals flavour. If you’re going to grill chicken breasts, there are two ways to go: Bone-in, skin-on will give you more flavour, and the mass of the bone will help prevent over-cooking. The key to grilling this cut is to keep the temperature of your grill low, to allow gentle, more even cooking. Cook it over high heat and the narrow end will overcook before the thick part is ready, and the skin will drip fat and cause flare-ups. If you insist on going boneless and skinless, this little trick will get you to the best result: flatten the breasts to about 3/4-inch thickness by putting them between two sheets of plastic and pounding them with a rubber hammer or meat mallet. Pound gently for better control. Once they’re flat like a schnitzel, you can treat them with a quick rub or marinade, lay them on a hot grill for a minute or two per side, and you’ve got evenly cooked, perfectly juicy chicken every time. Make more than you need; they’re great for sammies the next day.

THIGHS This is my fave cut, and because they’ve got more fat and connective tissue, they’re more forgiving and therefore harder to overcook. The bone-in, skin-on variety turns out better with slower, lower-temperature cooking. It’s easy to turn up the heat and crisp up the skin at the last minute. I also love boneless skinless thighs, which grill up best when skewered. I like to go with a teriyaki marinade or a shawarma-style dry rub. TIP: use two parallel skewers for each kebab. This allows for much easier turning and faster cooking, because you don’t have to cram the pieces too close together.

WINGS I love cooking up a big mess o’ wings on the grill, but if you start with raw wings, there’s a good chance you’ll get annoying flare-ups because of the high skin-to-meat ratio. Here’s what I do in my old age. Put all the wings into a big pot of cold water and bring them up to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling, turn it down to simmer the wings for maybe five minutes, just so they’re cooked through. Drain, pat dry, and then coat them with a dry rub, or just salt and pepper, and a drizzling of oil. Throw them on a medium grill and cook, turning often, until they’re perfectly crispy. Finish with a light or heavy glaze of your favourite barbecue sauce, or toss with a mixture of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, a melted pat of butter and a splash of white vinegar for perfect Buffalo-style wings.

THE WHOLE BIRD The secret here, folks, is to brine your chicken. Soaking a chicken in brine before cooking does two things. It adds flavour, and because the salt in the brine draws moisture out of the bird, it firms up the flesh, making it perfectly succulent. The basic brine recipe is simple. In a saucepan, combine 1 cup of salt and 3/4 cup of sugar with 2 cups of water. Heat until the sugar and salt are completely dissolved in the water. Add the salt and sugar water to 14 more cups of cold water. That’s your basic brine. Add a couple of bay leaves, some cloves, peppercorns, a couple of peeled and coarsely chopped onions, herbs, a bit of soy sauce – whatever else you want to give the chicken some flavour that matches how you’re going to cook it. Place your raw whole chicken in the brine and refrigerate it for two hours. Remove the chicken, rinse it with cold water, pat it dry and it’s ready for you to rub it and grill it. I like to put a whole chicken on a rotisserie with a pan of water underneath to catch the drippings, or sit it on one of those beer can chicken holders. I love adding some cherry wood or hickory to the charcoal or placing a couple of chunks under the cooking grate of a gas grill for extra flavour. TIP: I recommend an organic or Halal chicken – better treated, better fed, better chicken.

Read entire article in the digital issue of City Palate.