Whole chickens are cheap, but require care to grill
By Jim Romanoff
For The Associated Press
The summer barbecue season wouldn’t be complete without the smoky goodness of grilled chicken.
And the best ó and cheapest ó way to do that is using whole chickens. Whole birds often run for under $1 per pound, which is considerably cheaper than prepared cuts, such as boneless, skinless breasts or thighs.
Whole chickens also often fare better on the dry, intense heat of a grill than do individual parts. The breasts, for example, quickly dry out. And even when properly cooked, those smaller cuts spend too little time on the grill to develop much flavor from it.
Because whole chickens are cooked slower at a lower temperature, you get a moist bird and a smoky flavor you could never achieve indoors, “no matter how many times you set off the smoke alarm,” says Bruce Weinstein, co-author of the recent “Cooking Know-How.”
There are a few obstacles, however, to successfully grilling whole chickens.
First, the shape doesn’t lend itself to even cooking. The lean white meat of the breast cooks much faster than the fattier dark meat in the legs and thighs. Second, the skin tends to burn before the chicken is cooked through.
The latter is easily avoided by using indirect grilling, says Weinstein. This involves turning off the gas burner directly under the chicken, keeping only the side burners lit. With charcoal, it means piling the coals to one or both sides of the grill and keeping the center empty.
As for even cooking, there are several ways to address the problem.
Chris Lilly, the pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Ala., and author of “Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book” notes that the football-like shape of the bird requires that the cook spend plenty of time rotating it in order for it to cook evenly.
Lilly recommends “turning an oval problem into a two-sided answer” by cutting out the chicken’s backbone, then opening and spreading the bird out flat. This exposes the entire bird to the heat at the same time.
Butterflying a chicken in this way is best done using a sturdy pair of kitchen shears. On a clean cutting board, cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it, then flip the chicken over and use your hand to flatten out the breastbone. If you like, you can cover the chicken with plastic wrap and use a meat mallet to flatten it to a more uniform thickness, which further ensures even cooking.
Once you have flattened your chicken, consider grilling it under bricks. The weight of two bricks, wrapped in foil, presses the chicken flat onto the grill grates, which helps sear it quickly and seal in the juices.
The hot bricks also promote fast and even cooking, and evenly crispy skin. A 3- to 4-pound bird can be cooked in under 30 minutes.
Another popular method for grilling a whole chicken involves a beer can. Jam a half-full can of beer into the bottom cavity of the bird, then stand the whole thing upright on the grill (using the can as a stand). This keeps the slower-cooking legs closer to the heat than the easily dried out breast meat. As it cooks, the beer simmers and steams, infusing the inside of the chicken with flavorful moisture.
This technique works so well many retailers sell grilling racks that mimic this upright position and have a well in which to pour liquid. But using a can of beer is cheap and works fine.
For even greater control over the cooking process, Lilly suggests cutting a whole chicken into several large pieces. You still get the economy of using a whole bird, but with the speed and ease of smaller parts.
“You no longer have to worry about juggling the internal temperatures of the white and dark meat if you separate the two,” he says. Plus, “it gives the marinade, dry rub or brine better access to the meat, resulting in more flavorful fowl.”
The chicken also can be cut up and partially cooked in the oven before grilling. This is especially useful when using sweet sauces or glazes, which can quickly burn on the grill.
But Weinstein says the downside of a cut up chicken is that the shorter cooking time means less opportunity for the skin to get really crispy and for the meat to get infused with the rich flavor of the bones.
As for seasoning the chicken, consider using methods that also add moisture.
Oil-based marinades are excellent for this. Try olive, vegetable or canola oil blended with fresh herbs and citrus juices or vinegar.
Marinate whole chickens for at least an hour before grilling, but be careful about letting them soak for too long. Especially acidic marinades (anything with plenty of vinegar or citrus juice) can make the meat a bit mushy.
Weinstein recommends his mother’s recipe of equal parts lemon juice, soy sauce and honey.
Flavored brines (salt water with seasonings) also help keep a chicken moist by drawing water into the meat and plumping up the bird.
A basic brine can be made by dissolving 1/3 cup kosher salt and 1/3 cup sugar in a quart of water. Additional flavorings, such as herbs, spices or even juice, can be added.
Whole chickens should be brined in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 hours (much longer and the bird could become unpleasantly salty). Discard the liquid and pat the bird dry before grilling.
Whichever cooking method and seasonings you choose, be sure to start with chickens that are no more than 3 to 4 pounds each. This size bird easily feeds four people but isn’t so large that it will dry out on the grill before it cooks through.
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