Grilled chicken is an incredibly versatile food. I am a huge fan of the flavor and protein boost that grilled chicken can add to just about any meal, from salad to stir fry to sandwiches, creating an incredible meal.
However, there’s an issue with grilled chicken: it’s often incredibly dry. Overdry, stringy chicken is far from incredible–more like barely edible. Not exactly the stuff of culinary dreams.
Luckily, attaining perfectly moist, evenly cooked, flavorful grilled chicken is within reach for chefs at any level. By following some simple kitchen wisdom in the ways of grilling chicken, you’ll be guaranteed great results every time.
14 Tips for How to Grill Chicken without Drying It Out. Armed with these 14 simple tips, you’ll be well on your way to concocting perfectly moist grilled chicken dishes.
- Start with good quality chicken. Perhaps this tip sounds like common sense, but it’s well worth a mention, because poor quality chicken is a key cause of dried-out, poorly cooked grilled chicken. If a chicken hasn’t been properly fed or taken care of, it will reflect poorly on the flavor of the meat.
Buy the best chicken you can, from a trusted and ideally local source. The better the quality of the chicken you start with, the better the quality of your finished results. This guide is a helpful resource on how to buy the best chicken.
- Let your chicken thaw before grilling. Don’t toss chicken straight from the refrigerator to the grill. If you put cold chicken on the grill, it can cook unevenly, becoming dried and overcooked on the outside before it is even warm on the interior.
While you don’t want to leave chicken at room temperature for too long before cooking, it’s acceptable to let it sit for up to 30 minutes before cooking. This time is invaluable in letting the chicken come to an even temperature, which will help ensure even cooking. It’s worth the extra time.
- If the chicken has an irregular thickness, pound your meat. One of the most commonly grilled cuts of chicken is the chicken breast. However, the average chicken breast has an irregular height which is not well-suited to even grilling; the tapered edges will cook long before the thicker middle, giving you burnt, dried-out, blackened edges.
Luckily, the solution to this problem is easy: pound the meat to an even height. This post details the perfect method for pounding chicken to the ideal consistency. This method can be applied to any boneless cut of chicken that does not have an even height.
- Make sure your chicken is uniform in size. This is especially important if cooking cut pieces of chicken, such as on skewers: make sure that the chicken is cut in uniform portions. This will help the chicken cook evenly, and ensure that some pieces don’t cook faster than others.
If you are grilling multiple cuts of chicken at the same time, such as wings, drumsticks, and chicken breasts, keep similar cuts together, and keep in mind that the cook time for each cut may differ slightly.
- Salt is your friend. Salt doesn’t only impart flavor to your grilled chicken: it helps seal in moisture, too! Before you cook your chicken, generously coat the entire surface with salt. The extreme saltiness will fade during the cooking, ensuring that your dinner doesn’t taste like a salt lick. But the salt will impart plenty of flavor and seal in moisture before the cooking process is done, helping you cook your chicken to perfection without overdoing it.
- Brine your bird. If salting your chicken is good for retaining moisture, brining is even better. A brine is a wet, salty, lightly sweetened mixture in which you soak your chicken (or other meats) before cooking.
The salt combined with sugar reacts with the protein in your chicken, allowing it to retain moisture. It aids in making your chicken more forgiving to slight overcooking: even if slightly overdone, the brine forms a protective moisture-retaining shield, keeping the chicken from drying out.
- Skinless chicken should not be treated the same as chicken with skin. Chicken with skin and/or bones should not be treated exactly the same as chicken without. The chicken with skin is far more insulated than its skinless counterpart.
This means that if you’re cooking a boneless, skinless chicken breast, it will need to cook for slightly less time than with-skin chicken cuts, or it will dry out. The with-skin cuts will need a little more time to cook, and will be a little more forgiving with cook time.
- Prep your grill properly. Whether you’re grilling indoors or out, on a stovetop or a charcoal grill, be sure that your surface is set up for success. This means it should be completely clean, free of debris, and lightly oiled with a vegetable oil or an oil with a high smoke point.
A clean, prepped grill will discourage the chicken from sticking, and ensure that the flavor is “clean”–nobody wants their chicken to taste like remnants of the last grilling adventure.
- Don’t set the heat too high. Steak requires a high heat to sear and quickly cook on a grill. Chicken, on the other hand, will not cook well under such circumstances. If the heat is too high, chicken will burn on the outside while not fully cooking on the inside. Chicken will cook more evenly and thoroughly with a lower temperature.
So where should you set the temperature? Medium-low on a charcoal grill, or medium on a gas grill, are ideal settings for letting your chicken cook at the appropriate pace.
- Don’t walk away from the grill. True, the “low and slow” method of cooking chicken on the grill might be less flashy than a quick, high-heat grilling session. All the same, don’t get bored and walk away from the grill. The difference between just right and overdone, meaning dry and stringy chicken, can be mere moments.
Stay nearby the grill. By keeping an eye on the grill at all times while you cook your chicken, you will be better able to monitor the progress of the grilling chicken, so that you’ll know when to flip or shift the chicken before it scorches or dries out.
- Don’t overcook. Overcooking chicken is one of the major ways in which it becomes dried out. But how long do they need to cook? For a medium sized, pounded chicken breast, about 3-5 minutes, give or take, on either side. Once the chicken has browned (you can lift it lightly to check), flip it. Usually, if the chicken “resists” being flipped, it is not finished cooking on that side.
- Use a meat thermometer. Some chefs claim that they don’t need a thermometer, and can tell by sight or texture when chicken is done grilling. For those who have not attained “chicken grilling whisperer” status, please use a thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of your chicken so that you know when it’s done cooking.
The FDA suggests attaining an internal temperature of 165 degrees F for your chicken. The key to attaining this temperature is to remove the chicken from the grill when the internal temperature registers about 160 degrees–the chicken will continue to cook slightly after being removed from the heat, putting it right in the safe zone without becoming dried out.
- Don’t add bbq sauce to your chicken too soon. Season your chicken before cooking, but be sure to add barbecue sauce toward the end of the cooking process.
The reason is simple: barbecue sauces usually contain sugar, which browns way more rapidly than meat. If your chicken is slathered with sauce from the get-go, the rapid browning of the sugar can give a false indication of doneness. The chicken will look done on the outside, but on the inside, it may still be raw and undercooked. By the time the inside cooks, the exterior has become charred and dried-out.
Instead of saucing your chicken before cooking, add the sauce when the chicken has a minute or so left to go on the grill. This will allow the flavor to infuse a bit while the chicken cooks and rests, so that you can be guaranteed a flavorful and non-charred result.
- Let the chicken rest. I know, I know. You’re hungry. But resist the urge to tear into the chicken right off the grill. Letting it rest for a few minutes before serving will help ensure the optimal eating experience.
The chicken will continue cooking internally for several minutes after it is taken off heat, so this resting period will allow the cooking process to complete. This will also help seal in the juices, so that your chicken remains moist and juicy when it’s time to eat.
Conclusion: Making grilled chicken that is perfectly cooked yet remains moist and flavorful is completely within your reach. These easy tips will help ensure delicious results every time you grill.
What is your favorite tip for keeping grilled chicken from drying out?