How to Grill Chicken on a Charcoal Grill - Do it the Right Way!
rilled chicken is a summer necessity. No backyard barbecue is complete without delicious grilled chicken, from savory thighs to spicy drumsticks.
If you’re new to grilling, chicken is a great place to start. It’s simple and easy, perfect for casual enthusiasts and pitmasters alike.
Chicken is a canvas for flavor. Its mild taste makes it great for a variety of dishes. You can grill it with a simple salt and pepper blend, cook it with barbecue sauce, or create your own unique spice blend.
Regardless of which seasoning you prefer, you can vastly improve the taste if you know how to grill chicken on a charcoal grill the right way. By going beyond the basics, you can make your next grilled chicken recipe one to remember.
In this guide, we’ll talk about our favorite tips for grilling chicken on a charcoal grill. Whether you’re new to grilling or a seasoned expert, these tips will help you cook juicy, tender chicken your friends and family will love.
Let’s dive in.
How to Grill Chicken on a Charcoal Grill
Grilling chicken is simple. You don’t need to do a lot of preparation to cook delicious grilled chicken, but planning a few steps ahead can make a big difference in your meal.
1. Choose the Right Cuts of Chicken
When you’re grilling chicken, size matters. If you’re grilling large cuts, it’ll take longer to finish. Smaller cuts take less time and require more attention.
Think about how much time you have to cook. Are you grilling for hours at a backyard party or cooking a quick dinner for your family?
If you have a half-hour or less, stick with small cuts of chicken. Boneless chicken breasts, drumsticks, and wings are good options.
Big cuts will grill faster if you cut them up. Consider cutting the chicken into cubes and grilling it on skewers. It’ll take much less time than grilling breasts or thighs whole.
Set aside enough time if you’re grilling a whole or half chicken. On a charcoal grill, it could take over an hour to cook a whole bird.
Consider your recipe when you’re choosing cuts of chicken, too. Depending on which sauces, marinades, and spices you’re using, a recipe may require bone-in cuts or chicken with the skin on. For example, some recipes ask for chicken thighs because they retain moisture better than breasts.
When you buy chicken, you’ll notice options like “free-range” and “organic.” These aren’t required for an exceptional meal, but many pitmasters believe they produce firmer meat. Some pitmasters will tell you free-range birds have a more distinct “chicken taste,” too.
2. Pound Boneless Chicken Breasts Before You Grill
Unless you buy tenderloins, chicken breasts are fairly uneven. When you grill them, the unevenness means one end cooks faster than the other. If you don’t address it, your meat could be dry or stringy in some areas.
If you pound your chicken breasts beforehand, you can avoid uneven cooking. Pounding your chicken breasts will flatten them out, correcting the uneven shape.
When you flatten your chicken, it’ll cook more similarly to a steak. You’ll have more control over the internal temperature and you can avoid drying it out.
3. Butterfly Whole Birds
You’ll never forget the first time you cook a whole chicken on the grill. It’s a fantastic way to satisfy white- and dark-meat eaters alike, perfect for family get-togethers.
If you’re cooking a whole bird, prepare to spend a lot of time at the grill. It can take more than an hour to cook one all the way through, depending on its size.
The uneven shape of whole birds makes them challenging to grill, too. Be careful not to burn the tips of the wings or the drumsticks while you’re cooking.
To avoid the problem altogether, try butterflying your chickens beforehand. Butterflying a chicken (also called “spatchcocking”) involves removing the backbone to split it down the middle. Once you split the chicken, flatten it into two distinct halves.
If you want to learn more about butterflying chickens, we recommend this video for a visual walkthrough. The first time you try it may be challenging, but with practice, you’ll try it during every barbecue.
By butterflying your chicken, you’ll speed up your cooking time and you’ll cook your bird more evenly. As it lays flat on the grill, you can cook it thoroughly without burning the exterior.
4. Marinate Your Chicken
Who doesn’t love flavorful, juicy chicken? When you’re grilling, your primary concern is keeping your bird moist. White meat (like breasts and wings) dry out fast when you expose them to high heat, so preparing them the right way is important.
Marinating chicken is a great way to keep it moist while you cook. Usually, you’ll baste chicken while you’re grilling to give it flavor. Basting also keeps the meat from becoming tough.
If you marinate your chicken, you’ll minimize the need for basting. Marinades will tenderize the meat and inject it with powerful, rich flavor. You’ll taste seasoning from the inside out, taking your grilled chicken to the next level.
You can buy pre-made marinades or make them yourself. Usually, they contain vinegar to soften the meat as it absorbs the flavor.
Timing places a crucial role when you marinate chicken. Some products work in less than an hour, perfect for a quick dinner. Others work better if you let the meat soak overnight.
5. Brine Whole Birds
Marinating chicken is best for breast, thighs, and smaller cuts of meat. If you’re grilling a whole bird, trying brining it for a remarkable taste.
Brining a chicken is easier than it sounds. You can try a wet brine or use a salt-rub alternative. Each method is effective, injecting moisture and flavor into the bird evenly.
Traditional brining uses water and salt to maximize moisture. The salt draws water out of the meat, letting it absorb more fluids in the process.
Salt-rubs achieve the same goal with half the mess. By rubbing coarse salt between the skin and the meat, you’ll draw moisture to the surface. The bird re-absorbs the moisture with the salt, creating full-bodied flavor.
Brining is one of the best ways to prepare chicken before grilling. It’s great for any cuts of meat, but we highly recommend it for whole birds. We love brining turkeys, too!
6. Prepare and Maintain Your Grill
If you want delicious grilled chicken every time, grill maintenance is key. Like any other kitchen appliance, you need to clean charcoal grills for maximum performance.
Improper cleaning can affect chicken’s taste and make food stick to the grates. Before you start grilling, be sure to:
- Clean the inside of the bowl
- Wipe down your cooking grates
- Clean out the ash catcher
Once you clean your grill, make sure you’ve got enough charcoal to do the job. You don’t want to run out of fuel halfway through your barbecue!Finally, prepare your grates before you place any chicken. A lot of new grill masters forget to oil their grates before they cook. Oiling makes it easier to flip your meat when you need to, minimizing frustrations while you cook.
7. Get the Temperature Right
Finding the right temperature is important when you grill anything. It’s especially vital when you grill chicken, compared to beef or pork.
When you grill red meat, you need high temperatures to sear the outside. Then you’ll lower the heat to cook it through until your preferred level of “doneness.”
Chicken cooks differently than red meat. It’ll sear at lower temperatures. Instead of cooking chicken over high heat for a few minutes, you’ll cook it over medium heat until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
When you cook chicken with exceptionally high temperatures, you’ll risk drying it out. You’ll burn the skin if it’s too hot, making the texture uneven.
To make sure you have the right temperature, pay attention to your coals. What color are they?
Coals burning at medium-high heat will have a faint coat of ash. Cooler coals have a more noticeable ash coating.
Use your vents and dampers as necessary to keep the temperature where you want it. We recommend covering the grill when you’re making chicken so you don’t lose any heat.
Creating a two-zone fire is another great way to manage the heat with a charcoal grill. Place all of your charcoal briquettes on one side of your grill, making one side much hotter than the other.
Once you create a “hot zone,” use it for searing and browning. When you brown your chicken to your liking, move it to the cooler area to cook all the way through.
It’s important to pre-heat your grill, too. Let the coals heat up for 10-15 minutes before you start cooking. If you don’t pre-heat your grill, your chicken will cook unevenly and create undesirable tough spots.
A reliable temperature probe is a great investment if you own a charcoal grill. It’ll take the guesswork out of grilling, helping you get the perfect texture every time.
If you’re cooking larger cuts of meat, consider higher temperatures. Smaller cuts (like drumsticks and wings) will cook more evenly at cooler temperatures.
8. Save Basting for the End
Basting your chicken on the grill can create a delicious caramelized coating. But if you baste your chicken, make sure you time it right to avoid burning.
If you baste the meat too early, it’s more likely to burn than carmelize. We recommend basting no sooner than 15 minutes before the chicken is done, maximizing the flavor and eliminating burnt spots.
Make sure you baste often. Doing it once or twice won’t create a noticeable change. Try basting your meat all over, every few minutes until it’s done.
If you marinated your chicken (like we recommend in earlier in this guide), basting is an excellent way to double up on flavor. To learn more about basting, we suggest watching this video for some hands-on advice.
9. Pay Attention to Internal Temperature
You can’t tell when chicken is done by looking at it. The traditional way of cutting it open and looking at the inside isn’t reliable either. You have to use a thermometer to know when you’re finished cooking meat on a grill.
Eating raw chicken is a hazard. If you serve undercooked chicken at a barbecue, don’t be surprised if at least one guest contracts a foodborne illness.
Chicken is ready to eat when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. You need a quality meat thermometer to make sure it’s ready.
There are dozens of meat thermometers to choose from, include convenient instant-read models. We know it’s tempting to judge your chicken by its appearance, but it’s worth your health to double-check.
Grilling chicken on a charcoal grill can be a fun way to make dinner or serve food at a family event. With limitless spice rubs and marinades to choose from, your options are virtually limitless when you craft grilled chicken recipes.
The great thing about grilling chicken is its simplicity. Whether it’s a simple salt and pepper rub or a complex three-day brine, chicken is a perfect canvas to absorb other flavors.
Preparing chicken the right way is the key to a delicious barbecued meal. By marinating, splitting, and tenderizing it, you’re setting yourself up for a memorable dish.
What are your favorite tips for barbecuing chicken on a charcoal grill? Do you have any suggestions for adding flavor, controlling the cooking temperature, or keeping it moist? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!