How to barbecue chicken like a pro

Humans have been cooking meat over fire for somewhere between 2 million or 12,000 years, depending on which anthropologist you believe.

No matter which number is right, you'd think we'd all know how to barbecue chicken by now.

Nope. Many enthusiastic grillers get chicken  wrong. You know the kind: It's burnt to ash on the outside and still bloody on the inside.

To be fair, chicken on the bone may have the narrowest window for doneness of any meat you're likely to cook on the grill. Too long and it's dry, too short and you have to put it back on the fire even though everyone's already sitting down and digging into the potato salad.

City Barbeque, the barbecue restaurants headquartered in Columbus, with six locations in Greater Cincinnati, serve half-chickens that are examples of how chicken ought to taste: fully cooked thighs, tender breast, crisped-up skin with a glaze of sweet-tart barbecue sauce.

Steve Fritz, the general manager at the Blue Ash location, said he'd show me how they do barbecue chicken, and how you can reproduce it at home.

It sort of depends on how much time you have, he said.

At City Barbecue, they coat chicken halves with a seasoning rub, then put it in their big commercial smokers, smoking with shagbark hickory for hours, rendering them very tender.  When ordered, they take the fully-cooked chicken and put it on a char-grill, brush it sparingly with sauce, and grill directly until the skin crisps up and the sauce caramelizes and glazes a little.

You can do it at home in an at-home smoker, of course, and a lot of people are buying them. But you can also create nicely grilled, smoky chicken in your regular propane grill.

Here are some tips from Fritz:

  • Buy Amish chicken, or an organic chicken from a farmers market, for best-quality meat without any injected flavor or water. 
  • You can brine, soaking in a salt solution before cooking to get juicier meat. Just remember that if you buy commercial chicken from a grocery store, it can already be pumped with saline solution up to 15 percent, even if it's labeled "natural." 
  • Rub with seasoned salt or a poultry bbq rub. 
  • Don't try to approximate a smoked flavor  with liquid smoke,
  • It takes longer to cook bone-in chicken than boneless. "That bone in there is like an ice cube in the meat," said Fritz.  
  • Buy wood chips. You can find them with the briquettes at grocery stores. A mild wood, like apple, is nice for chicken. Soak in water for 30 minutes, then make an aluminum foil packet of them, with holes poked in. Put it on the back of the grill as you pre-heat it, and leave it on while you cook. It will create some smoke in the grill that will flavor the meat. "Stay away from oak, ash or pine," says Fritz.
  • Grill over direct heat, with the cover closed. If you have plenty of time, you can use indirect heat by turning off one of the grill's burners and moving the chicken to that area. You'll get smokier chicken. 
  • When the chicken is cooked, brush it very lightly with barbecue sauce, turning it several times. "Lots of people put it on too soon. It's just going to burn.  And if you're checking for doneness, the red of the barbecue sauce can be confusing," said Fritz 

Grilled bone-in chicken

The brining is optional, and don't bother if the chicken says it's  "enhanced with chicken broth."    

6 tablespoons kosher salt 

1 quart water 

4 chicken thighs or 2 thigh-leg pieces

2 chicken breast halves 

Barbecue rub or seasoned salt 

1/2 cup barbecue sauce 

Mix the salt and water in a plastic rub or zip-lock bag until dissolved. Add the chicken and let it sit in the refrigerator for 1 1/2 hours.

Drain, pat dry and sprinkle with rub; rub into skin.

Meanwhile, heat a gas grill to high for at least 15 minutes. Turn one or two burners to medium-low. Put the chicken on the high burner and cook, turning for 2-3 minutes per side. Move to the cooler part of the grill. Cook breasts for 10 minutes, then turn and cook for 5 more minutes, until it reaches 160 degrees. The thighs will need a 12-16 minutes, and whole legs up to 20.

In the last two minutes of cooking, brush lightly with barbecue sauce. pass more sauce at the table.