Chicken has been crowned the most versatile meat to put on the grill or in the smoker. It's capable of taking on almost any flavor and has the added appeal of being lean and low in fat, which makes it a great healthy protein alternative.
Even though chicken is a cookout classic, it can be a little tricky to get right. For instance, how do you know when it’s thoroughly cooked? When should you slather on the sauce? What temperature should you set it?
Here at Fire Food Chef, we’re going to get into all that and more. But If you already consider yourself a fire master, then feel free to skip down below for 9 of the best barbecue chicken breast recipes.
If you don’t, follow the tips below to get perfectly barbecued chicken every time.
There are three distinct ways of preparing chicken for your summer cookout menu. The most common method of cooking chicken is grilling, but there is also smoking and barbecuing. These methods may seem like the same thing, but the process is actually quite different.
Let’s break this down.
The most obvious way to distinguishing between the three is the temperature:
Very low heat
(190 - 300° F)
Don't expect to throw some wet wood chips over hot coals and think that will cook your chicken thoroughly. Though it might add flavor to the outside, it will create a barrier that prevents smoke penetration.
With smoking, there is a certain level of patience required to get the perfect barbecue chicken. Sometimes it can even take a full day to get that optimal smokiness throughout the meat.
With that said, there are two ways to smoke meat:
Cold smoking is a process that works well with chicken. With cold smoking, the meat is carefully cooked between 68° to 86° F and is smoked until the meat has a smoky flavor while maintaining its moisture. This process is used primarily for flavor, (as opposed to hot smoking, which is mainly used for cooking) that’s why cold smoked meat should be fully cured and cooked before eating. Chicken that is cold smoked is often baked, grilled or steamed before eating.
Hot smoking, on the other hand, thoroughly cooks your chicken. During the process of hot smoking, the smoker should reach temperatures between 126° to 176° F. You should avoid having the smoker reach temperatures over 185° F because it can cause your chicken to shrink and buckle. Hot smoking is a very popular method and gives meat perfect moisture and a lota flavor!
If you don’t already own a smoker but are considering purchasing one, your head may be spinning just thinking about all the options out there. To make this process easier for you, we have compiled a list that will help you find the best beginner smoker for your situation.
Electric smokers are great If you'd like your smoked foods to come with a side of convenience. This 2019 best electric smokers guide will help you in deciding which smoker is best for your individual smoking needs.
But for now, here are some things to know about electric smokers.
With an electric smoker, you won't need to depend on flames to generate smoke because electric smokers only use coils to produce heat. You just need to plug in the unit, and you're ready to smoke.
Electric smokers also don't require much experience making them great for beginners. Best of all, they aren't costly. In fact, they are some of the most cost-effective smoking appliances on the market today.
Also knowns as ‘pellet grills” these smokers are outdoor cookers that combine elements of charcoal, gas grills, and ovens all in one. Pellet smokers have risen in popularity because of their ease and versatility of use, as well as tasty results. Our favorite pellet smokers include those intended for novice and experienced grill masters.
Purchasing the best pellet smoker can be confusing because there are literally dozens of brands, and each brand has several different model lines. Trying to compare all their various features is a nightmare, so to help you with this, you can check out our 2019 best pellet smokers guide here. With a bit of prep and patience, each one of these smokers can deliver a delicious meal.
Pellet cookers have a mild smoke profile, they are efficient with their fuel use and run about the cleanest fire you can get. This means that the smoke produced by the burning wood pellets bathes your food in its goodness and helps render the barbecue feast you’re after.
The expression "slow and low" heavily applies to barbecue. This method allows the meat to soak up the smoke and rub while also giving your chicken a chance to become very tender and moist.
Unlike other meats, chicken takes longer to cook. Often, people end up under-cooking, over-charring (or both) their chicken. It's important to remember that this type of meat loves lower cooking temperatures, so you really need to moderate your heat to get the best BBQ chicken.
Grilling is an excellent method for cooking more tender meat like chicken. The grilling method helps char the surface of the meat and seal in the juices by creating a smoky caramelized crust. This method can be done over both charcoal and gas grills.
When grilling chicken breasts, it is essential to work with an evenly thick piece of meat.
The benefits of gas-fired grilling are that it's incredibly convenient. Simply turn the knob, and you're ready to go— liquid propane stored in refillable tanks fuel gas grills.
Charcoal grilling, on the other hand, doesn't offer the same level of convenience as gas. However, it does provide one benefit that stands out above all others: smokey flavor. Charcoal sears meat more quickly which creates a crusty, caramelized exterior and smoky flavor.
Charcoal grills are also less costly than gas grills, and more portable than gas grills. A bag of charcoal can easily be chucked into the car and taken to the park or beach.
To learn more about charcoal grilling you can check out our 2019 best charcoal grills guide here.
The REC TEC Grill takes the guesswork out of grilling, making the novice an instant grill master. This grill has been regarded as even "easier to use than gas" while delivering the best taste. You can literally grill, smoke, sear, bake, dehydrate, do just about everything with it. It provides the flavor of a wood smoker.
The pellets are comprised of 7% moisture, which gives humidity in the cooking chamber. This advantage lets you grill a moist, juicy piece of meat, every time. For more information about REC-TEC grills, you can check out our 2020 Edition of the best REC-TEC grills here.
For the best results, we recommend brining your chicken for a few hours before you smoke it. That's because the brine infuses the chicken with flavor and also keeps it from drying out in the smoker — more on brining later on in this article.
After the brining process, the chicken then gets coated in BBQ rub and goes into the smoker for roughly 60-90 minutes (or longer) depending on the size of the breasts. Using a thermometer is the best way to gauge whether your chicken is cooked, it's also very helpful when checking if the thickest part of the chicken breast is done.
Make sure your chicken breasts are around the same size so that they cook evenly and are all done at the same time. Homemade barbecue chicken rub and homemade barbecue sauce taste best. But if you opt for store-bought, that works just as well too.
Tip: Applewood for smoked chicken is great because it gives the meat a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Other great choices are cherry wood, hickory or maple wood.
What’s better than barbecue chicken that’s moist, tender and has pleasantly smoky skin?
There are two secrets for cooking perfect barbecued chicken every time:
Low heat levels and basting the sauce AT THE END.
Don't worry about basting your chicken prior or during the barbecuing process, as all the flavor will come from the spice rub that's been on the meat beforehand and from the smoke of the fire - both of which fully penetrate the meat.
Here are the steps for perfect bbq chicken every time:
Tip: Total cooking time will take 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Make sure to check the fire every 30 to 45 minutes and add coals from time to time to keep the temperature of the grill between 230° and 250°F.
Before getting your chicken on the grill, you’ll want to keep these tips in mind:
1. Bigger isn't necessarily better
When it comes to chicken, and more specifically chicken breasts, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Large breast halves can take forever to cook, leaving grillers with potentially dry, stringy meat.
Instead, choose pieces that are between 5 and 8 ounces — they'll cook more quickly and retain more moisture.
2. Start pounding
Pounding (or butterflying) is the best way to get pieces of meat evenly.
To pound your chicken breasts, dip your chicken breasts lightly in water, then set it in a zippered bag and pound gently with a meat pounder.
The butterflying method works great for breasts that are too large to pound. To do this, use a knife and make a horizontal cut from one side, nearly cutting through to the other. Afterwards, open up the chicken like a book and gently pound the seam and thicker end to even it out.
3. Make shallow gashes
Making shallow gashes into the flesh allows the marinade to penetrate through the meat. This method works great with chicken on the bone, but boneless chicken breasts benefit as well. After this step, rub the marinade into the cuts.
4. Marinade, dry rub, or brine
All three of these act as a meat tenderizer. Let us break them down:
This is typically any highly seasoned liquid, such as herb or spice pastes, wines, spiced oils, vinaigrettes, yogurt/buttermilk, etc. If a marinade consists of something very acidic, keep the marinating time quick and cut it with a little olive oil.
Less acidic liquids like yogurt and buttermilk can stand longer marinating times (2 to 6 hours) depending upon the chicken's thickness.
This is usually a blend of dried spices, herbs, salt, pepper and even sugar. Chicken rubbed with dry spices should be cooked over indirect heat. Otherwise, the sugar and spices will burn.
This is a mixture of salt, water, aromatics and sugar. Not a marinade per se, but brining is a wonderful way to infuse flavor and moisture into meat, especially boneless, skinless chicken breast.
Tip: Depending upon the salt/sugar/water ratio, boneless chicken can brine for 2 to 4 hours, while bone-in can go overnight.
5. Cheat the marinade
Pickle juice mixed with a little oil makes a great instant marinade. Leftover vinaigrette or even bottled vinaigrettes are delicious, too. Just be sure to read the labels, (sugar can burn quickly) so pay attention when grilling.
6. Leave the skin on!
Grilled chicken breast with the skin intact is delightful since the crispy skin, and juicy meat is irresistible. Since it's almost impossible to find skin-on boneless breasts at a supermarket, the closest things are split chicken breasts on the bone. You can also ask a butcher to debone them or better yet, practice some knife skills and do it at home!
7. Clean the grill
Dirty grates are not only unappetizing, but they also make foods stick. To clean the grill:
8. Oil your grates
Once the grates are clean and hot, you can gently rub them with a lightly-oiled paper towel by holding them with tongs. Great tip: oiled grates release food much better than oiled chicken alone.
9. Preheat the grill
For gas grills, you'll want to allow 10 minutes for the grill to heat up and for a charcoal grill, you'll want to preheat for about 30 minutes.
Tip: Don't add chicken to an under-heated grill as it's guaranteed to stick.
10. The Right Heat Levels
Since skinless chicken breast is so lean (and thin when pounded), it should be grilled quickly over high heat to hold as much moisture as possible.
So that the outside doesn't burn, chicken on the bone or even large (un-pounded) breasts, should be grilled more slowly over medium-high heat, while reaching an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
11. Be mindful when opening and closing the grill
Closing the grill will help heat everything more evenly all around. By leaving the lid open, it concentrates the heat only at the bottom.
12. Watch the clock
Timing is everything when grilling chicken.
You'll want to cook boneless skinless breasts (pounded 3/4-inch thick) on high heat for 10-12 minutes. For bone-in chicken, you'll want to grill on medium heat for 20-25 minutes to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
13. Glazing time
Brush your glaze on about 2-3 minutes before the chicken is done to prevent the breast meat from overcooking and the glaze burning.
Do NOT to rush this final step. Otherwise, the sauce will burn on the grill.
So now that we understand the differences between grilling, smoking and barbecuing chicken, here are some things to keep in mind when preparing BBQ chicken at your summer cookout:
1. Marinate & season beforehand
Chicken is like a sponge, absorbing whatever flavors you slather at it. To start, season the raw chicken and give it time to absorb the seasoning. You can try experimenting with different marinades and brines.
2. Don’t cook cold chicken
While you'll want to keep chicken in the fridge for marinating, what you don't want is to take it straight from the cold and slap it on the grill. You want your chicken to come to room temperature before you start cooking. This will allow for even cooking throughout.
3. Get a good sear
Searing chicken gives it those beautiful grill marks and adds that mouthwatering barbecue char. A hot grill will give your chicken that good sear, but If you have thicker cuts, sear them on both sides then move the pieces to indirect heat until cooked through.
Note: cleaning and oiling the grates before cooking is essential if you want to prevent sticking and tearing. Chicken is quite delicate. It would be a real shame if you lost the beautiful skin to the grill, or worse, tore your meat.
4. Stop opening the lid
If you're barbecuing and you want to check your chicken, resist the urge to keep opening your lid. The barbecue retains heat better when the lid is closed, helping the chicken cook more evenly.
5. Get Saucy at the End
If BBQ sauce is applied to the chicken too early, they'll burn. The secret here is to apply a couple of minutes (2-3 minutes) before cooking is complete. Add more liberally after it’s been taken off the grill.
6. Use a Thermometer!
It can be hard determining whether not your chicken is cooked thoroughly. To avoid the guessing games, use a meat thermometer.
7. Let it Rest (Zzz)
You'll want to let your chicken rest for 10-15 minutes after it has been cooked so that the juices can transfer throughout the meat, resulting in perfectly juicy chicken breast every time. If you cut your chicken right away, you’ll lose all those lovely juices and flavours you've locked in.
1. Starting with a bad bird
For the ultimate summer cookout, you want to get meat that is antibiotic and hormone-free at the very least. If it was raised right, then the chances are that it will taste that much better.
2. Forgetting the seasoning
This one is pretty self-explanatory.
3. Cooking it at very high heat levels
You' don't want your chicken to burn before the flesh cooks. For best results, medium-low is suitable for charcoal grills, and medium on gas grills.
4. Drying it out
For skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cook them on medium for a charcoal grill and medium-high for a gas grill.
5. Not keeping a close eye
Again, pretty self-explanatory.
6. Not Using a Meat Thermometer
A thermometer is the most accurate way of telling if the chicken is done. If you don't have one, you can always do a little cut into the middle to check.
In terms of bone-in pieces, if you insert a small knife to the bone and juices run clear, you are in the clear.
7. Slathering On the Sauce Too Soon
We said it before and will repeat it: baste last.
Apply any sugary glazes towards the end of cooking as putting it on too soon, and it will burn.
Well, there you have it novice fire masters. We’ve gone over all the many tips and tricks to get perfect bbq chicken every time. But now for the best part, let’s get firing! Here are 9 of the best barbecue chicken breast recipes to add to your cookout menu this summer.