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.
Bone-in Chicken Breasts on the Grill
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Once done, remove chicken from the grill, cover to keep warm, and allow to rest for 5- 10 minutes before serving.
- 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.
For 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.