Bone-in Chicken Breasts on the Grill

Let’s face it: there are few things more convenient than boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They even come in packages of chicken tenders: no slicing required! So easy. Yet, for me, that’s the basic definition of fast food: what you gain in convenience you sacrifice in flavor, not to mention all of the other good reasons to eat locally; supporting your farming neighbors, keeping open land from development, promoting sustainability.  Most small farmers cannot afford to sell boneless, skinless chicken breasts: the extra processing at the butcher is prohibitively expensive and/or they end up with tons of dark meat that no one wants. So, if you want to eat locally, it makes sense to learn how to cook chicken on the bone. As an added bonus, bone-in chicken is generally much less expensive than boneless chicken and you can reserve the bones to make stock. Tasty, responsible and frugal!

Bone-in chicken thighs are pretty common; most people know how to deal with them, and it’s made a bit easier by the more moist & juicy dark meat.  Bone-in chicken breasts can be tricky though (which is possibly why boneless breasts are so popular); the meat can overcook in the blink of an eye, turning deliciousness into sawdust before you know it.  The cuts are generally thicker, usually including the rib meat, meaning the heat has to be managed such that the outside does not overcook before the middle is cooked through, and there is no leeway of rare-to-well done like there is for red meat: chicken must be fully cooked all the way through in order to destroy potentially harmful bacteria.  All that being said, however, it’s not that difficult, it is just that we are out of practice.

This was truly the easiest dinner I have cooked in months.  A 30-minute marinade from an already-prepared jam, a lazy, read-and-sip-chardonnay-on-the-deck-while-the-grill-heats-up “prep time,” then the slow cooking of the chicken on the grill, with delicious smells tempting our appetites while I pulled the leftovers of a mixed green salad from last night’s dinner out of the fridge.  Voila!  Dinner is served.  The perfect lazy summer weeknight meal.

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Bone-in Chicken Breasts on the Grill

INGREDIENTS

  • about 2 lbs of bone-in chicken breasts, preferably with skin
  • about 1 cup of a thick marinade, jam or preserve, or 2 cups of a thin syrup, teriyaki sauce or dipping sauce

METHODS

  1. If using a thick sauce or jam, in a large, shallow bowl, thin with juice, beer or wine, vinegar, or a combination of watery liquids, until the marinade is the consistency of a thin maple syrup. Add salt & pepper, fresh or dried herbs, chiles; whatever flavors will go well with the base marinade. You may use a thin sauce as is, although I always add salt & pepper.
  2. Rinse chicken and pat dry; add chicken to bowl and coat well, making sure the surfaces are all covered (if not submerged) in marinade.  Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes (or while the grill is heating up), or marinate refrigerated for up to 24 hours.
  3. Light the grill.  For a charcoal grill, pile coals on one side so there will be a hot side and a cool side.  Let the coals burn down until there is little to no active fire, but they are still quite hot (you can hold your hand about 1 foot above the coals). For us this takes about 45 minutes.
  4. Remove the chicken from the marinade and shake off any excess. Place chicken on the hot side of the grill (or, on a gas grill, over high flame), reserving the marinade. Sear meat for 3-5 minutes on each side, allowing the outside to develop some char or grill marks.
  5. Move chicken to cooler side of the grill (or under low flame), baste both sides with reserved marinade (you can either dip the entire chicken breast into the reserved marinade, or use a basting brush and add marinade while the meat is still on the grill), and cover the grill. Tamp the airflow vents down to about half-way, to keep the coals from burning out too soon. Check every 5-10 minutes (depending on the size of the breasts); turn over and baste as necessary.  The easiest way to check for doneness is with an instant-read thermometer (use an oven mitt if the grill is quite hot). Chicken breast should reach 165 – 170 degrees when it is fully cooked.  If you don’t have a thermometer – go buy one!  Really; one side of the breast can be 165 while the other still reads 150 degrees. Especially with the bone in, it can be hard to perform the finger test on hot meat on a hot grill. If you want to ensure safely cooked meat that is still tender, juicy and flavorful: use a thermometer. If you simply cannot; you’ve bought 17 of the damn things and they always break, or you’re really broke, or you are just a contrarian: your only other option is to remove from the grill, make a small slice in the meatiest part of the breast, and look for juices that run clear and white meat with no hint of pink.
  6. Once done, remove chicken from the grill, cover to keep warm, and allow to rest for 5- 10 minutes before serving.

OPTIONS

  1. Marinade options are nearly endless. I find that for a really thick sauce, like a Texas-style BBQ or straight-up soft-set preserve, advance marinating does not add much flavor (the sauce is too thick to be absorbed into the chicken, so there is no brining action) and the sugars in the thick sauce tend to burn excessively before the meat is fully cooked. To baste with a thick sauce, skip the marinade (or do a dry-spice rub) and baste the meat with the thick sauce in the last 10 minutes of cooking.

STORE

For 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.

SEASON

Grilling season!

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5 comments

  1. We have a slightly more complete version of the “finger test” for steaks on our website that you might check out. Comments are always welcome. http://www.germangrill.com/How-can-I-tell-if-my-steak-is-done-.html.

    Also: I have to disagree on the “nicely blackened” part. My rule is basically, no sugar on the grill. First it caramelizes, then it quickly burns. It won’t matter what glaze you started with because all burned sugar pretty much tastes the same.

    If I was doing this recipe, I’d tweak it a little:

    Only use bone in breasts, without the skin.
    Marinate them in the sauce overnight, then wipe it all off before they go on the grill.

    Water down the jam/marinade until it’s a thin syrup. Use wine or beer if you’re fussy.

    Start the breasts bone side down until they brown slightly.

    With your tongs, dip them in the marinade and flip them over.

    Continue to “dip and flip” every minute or so until you’ve got a nice glaze. This really works with Terryaki sauces.

    Now move them to the indirect side until the thermometer reads 160 in the center.

    Don’t serve the remaining marinade uncooked. It could be tainted.

    A little more work, true, but still very simple, a lot prettier, and less burnt flavor.

    Thanks. We enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

  2. localkitchen

    Hi Ron,

    Thanks for the detailed comment. Your method is often how I cook boneless breasts, which cook must faster and don’t seem to need a thick glaze to preserve juiciness. I usually reduce the remaining marinade to serve over the chicken.

    I don’t agree with you that all burnt sugar tastes the same; if so, then a chicken breast dipped in corn syrup would taste the same on the grill as a chicken breast dipped in strawberry marinade; not true, IMO. But, that’s why there are as many recipes as there are cooks in the world – we all have different tastes! Personally I enjoy both the appearance and the taste of the blackened char you get from the grill, (despite the carcinogens).

    Kaela

  3. I have to agree with the comment about the burnt part, burnt don’t taste good. Check out my blog where I cooked some chicken (thighs) on my charcoal grill last night and see the difference between the two.

    I use charcoal on both sides of the grill with a water pan in the center. The chicken stays in the center, never over the coals. A chunk of Pecan wood is added for smoke.

    I use a simple rub recipe and cook turning every 15 mins. until done. Chicken breast are Marinated in Newman’s Own Family Italian dressing for an hour and cooked the same as the thighs in the center of the grill until the instant-read thermometer reads 170-175 for the breast and 180 for the thighs.

    Remove from the grill and I stick them (on a pan) inside the microwave and shut the door to let the chicken rest for 12 mins.

    this is very important, to let any meat rest for some time after coming off the grill.

    Thanks.

    That’s just my two cents…

  4. Dan Carter

    As I’m writing this I am trying this recipe but you don’t give a time frame for when you put the chicken on indirect side.
    Is it when you see the jucies and yes i’m one of those people that don’t own a thermometer.

    THanks for the reipe I will tell you how it went ( If there are any survivors )

  5. Hi Dan,

    In step 4 above, you get some nice char on the outside of the chicken over the hot side of the grill, about 3 – 5 minutes/side. Then move to the cooler side of the grill for, well, however long it takes. It can vary wildy depending on how big your chicken parts are. Without a thermometer, all I can tell you is to use the finger test and check often; my guess for the breasts in the picture above is that, in total, they took about 20 – 25 minutes to cook through.

    Good luck!
    Kaela

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