How To Grill Chicken- Thighs, Breast, Drumsticks and Wings

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The most popular choice of meat in the US is chicken. It’s such versatile meat. You can eat it on the bone, boneless, marinated, bone-in – the options are nearly endless. And where the cut comes from on the bird affects how long to grill chicken. Too long and you’ve got overcooked, dry meat. Too…

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Grilled BBQ Chicken

The most popular choice of meat in the US is chicken. It’s such versatile meat. You can eat it on the bone, boneless, marinated, bone-in – the options are nearly endless. And where the cut comes from on the bird affects how long to grill chicken. Too long and you’ve got overcooked, dry meat. Too short of cooking time and you’re serving a health risk on your plate. Here are some easy tips to ensure you’ll grill juicy chicken every time.  

What Is A Safe Internal Temperature For Chicken? 

No matter what piece of chicken you are grilling, the minimum safe internal temperature for chicken is 165°F. Eating chicken that hasn’t reached this temperature puts you at higher risk for food poisoning. Plus, undercooked meat has an odd texture and doesn’t taste pleasant. 

It’s important for your chicken to reach this temperature prior to serving but that doesn’t mean you have to leave it on your grill the whole time. Carryover heat and cooking means that your meat will continue to cook even after you remove it from the heat source. We’ll look at the ideal internal temperature to remove each cut of meat. 

How Long To Grill Cuts Of Chicken 

My favorite cut of the chicken is the leg – a chicken leg with crispy skin and tender dark meat. Chicken breast is one of the most popular meat cuts since it is a lean protein and takes on whatever flavor you want to give it. But you can’t cook the chicken leg at the same time as other pieces of chicken, especially whole one. Let’s look at chicken grilling time for each cut of meat, starting with the quickest piece to the slowest. 

Does Chicken Need Direct Or Indirect Heat? 

Whether you’re using a gas or charcoal grill, you’ll want to set it up with the ideal cooking methods. Indirect grilling means the heat is to the side of your meat, not directly under it, like when you use direct heat. For some cuts of chicken, you’ll want to use direct cooking, while other cuts of meat, use a blend of direct and indirect cooking. 

A pro tip is to keep the lid closed as much as possible when grilling with indirect heat. Every time you lift the lid, heat escapes and it affects the cooking time.  

Grilling Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs

Grilled Chicken on BBQ

If you want a quick protein for your meal and craving chicken from the grill, opt for the boneless, skinless thigh. Chicken thighs are richer in flavor because of its fat to protein ratio. A 3.5-ounce serving provides 10.9 grams of fat, 26 grams of protein, and 209 calories. They are also often cheaper than other cuts of chicken, making a budget-friendly choice. 

Grill a 3.5 to 4 ounce boneless, skinless chicken thigh for 8 to 10 minutes over direct high heat. Keep in mind that boneless cuts of chicken take the least amount of time to grill and marinating boneless chicken thighs won’t affect the grilling time. 165F is your safe temperature.

Chicken thighs do well on direct heat, given you turn them a few times to avoid burning in one spot and undercooking in other areas of the meat. 

Grilling Bone-In Skin-On Chicken Thighs

Angry BBQ Chicken Recipe
Mikes Angry BBQ Chicken Recipe – Try It Now and Thank Mike Later

These are my favorite chicken thighs to grill. A crispy skin really adds to the overall flavor and texture profile to chicken. The method is similar to the boneless and skinless chicken thighs above but these will take a bit longer because of the bone. Because of the bone, I actually grill these thighs to a higher temperature of 175F which still provides a moist and juicy thigh. I want to make sure the meat up to the bone is properly cooked. Try out our favorite chicken thigh recipe with marinade. We also use thighs to make Shawarma.

How To Grill Chicken Wings 

How to grill chicken wings

The love of chicken wings has led to national chain restaurants dedicating their entire menu to them. When you think about healthy cuts of chicken, most people avoid the wing. But, it’s not the wing itself that leads to a high-calorie or high fat meal, it’s the breading and the sauce. Chicken wings (4.4 ounces or 4 wings) provide 23.8 grams of protein, 16 grams of fat, and 250 calories. 

Cook chicken wings directly over the heat for about 20-25 minutes. Position wings on the grill gates and cook with the lid closed for the first 4 to 5 minutes. Then, turn each wing every 3-4 minutes for even cooking. Check the internal temperature of the wings and take them off once they’ve reached 165°F. There isn’t much carryover cooking with chicken wings since they’re smaller pieces of meat and any added sauces will also stop the meat from cooking. 

If you are adding a chicken wing sauce, make it before you grill the wings. Then slather onto your meat after they’re done grilling. Remember to get them to 165F as a minimum, but with wings you can easily go to 180F and still have tasty juicy wings.

Grilled Chicken Wings

How To Grill Chicken Breast 

Grilled chicken breast wins the popularity contest. It’s high in protein, low in fat, and easy to grill.

The average sized boneless chicken breast is 3-8 ounces, which takes about 12 to 15 minutes on the grill. Place the meat on the grill with medium direct heat and then turn every 5 minutes to avoid burnt outsides and underdone insides. 

Although skinless, boneless chicken breast is popular, it may be one of the hardest chicken cuts to get right. The lack of fat and bone doesn’t give you much flexibility with cooking time. Try butterflying the meat prior to placing it on the grill. Butterflying technique is splitting open the meat horizontally and laying it out like butterfly wings. 

Butterflied Chicken

Grilling bone-in, skin on chicken breast will take about 25 minutes. You can decrease how many times you turn the meat since the bone takes longer to absorb heat. When you’re grilling bone-in chicken breast, cook with indirect heat for the first 12-15 minutes and then move the chicken to direct heat to finish searing off the skin.

How Long To Grill Chicken Legs (Drumsticks)

With their built-in handles, tasty flavor, and small size, chicken legs are ideal for cookouts. But the secret to crispy grilled chicken legs is starting out with dry skin. Pat dry each wing with a paper towel before adding seasonings or placing on the grill. Also, ensure your drumsticks are at room temperature before grilling. 

Try out Chicken Lollipop recipe where we use drumsticks.

Total grill time for drumsticks is about 30-35 minutes, depending on the size and how much meat is on the leg. Split your grill into two temperature zones, one side with direct heat and the other side will be your indirect heat area. 

Chicken drumsticks

Start grilling chicken legs on direct heat for 10 minutes and then use indirect heat for the remaining time until you reach an internal temperature of 180°F. Turn your grilled chicken legs over every 5-8 minutes to keep the skin an even, crispy golden-brown. Let your drumsticks sit for up to five minutes before serving. 

How To Grill A Whole Chicken  

Smoked Whole Chicken

It might take some trial and error to nail grilling a whole chicken. Your first priority is to cook the entire odd-shaped bird to the right temperature for both flavor and health safety. Another struggle is getting the skin to stay crispy.

So why choose a whole chicken? Whole Chicken is often cheaper than the individual meats cut up. Since you control cutting up the bird, you can also control the amount of food wasted during preparation and serving. 

The first step is to choose the right size of chicken based on your overall goals. The smallest whole chicken is Cornish game hens, which are actually <1 month old chickens that weigh less than two pounds, and one parent is Cornish breed chicken. Grill over medium-high heat with the lid closed for 30-35 minutes or until cooked to 165°F, turning frequently. 

Cornish Hens

Broilers and fryer birds are the most common chickens sold here in the US. They’re six to eight weeks old and typically are enough to feed 4-5 people. Roaster chickens are the largest chicken size, weighing in between 6-8 pounds. Since they’re the oldest in age, they often have a more pronounced flavor than the smaller, younger chickens. 

The size affects the time you keep poultry on the grill. But no matter what size you have, the ideal temperature for the grill is 200-300°F. Prepare your whole chicken 2.5-3 hours prior to when you want to eat, as it can take 1.5-2 hours to grill the entire chicken. 

Butterfly Your Whole Chicken

Just like with chicken breast, if you butterfly your whole chicken, you can reduce your overall cooking time and you’re more likely to get chicken that is evenly cooked. Remove the spine of the bird and then flatten it. This technique may seem intimidating, but take your time and you’ll be fine. 

Insiders tip from the butcher: most will be happy to butterfly (also called spatchcock) a whole chicken for you.  

Grilled Spatchcock Chicken

Common Mistakes when Grilling Chicken 

1. Starting with cold pieces of chicken. 

Avoid starting with an ice-cold piece of chicken that’s fresh out of the fridge or even worse, a frozen chicken. This leads to uneven cooking, and it’s more difficult to gauge how long your meat will take to cook. Let your chicken sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. 

2. Rinsing chicken before you grill it. 

Old school methods suggest giving your chicken a bath before you cook it up. But you can’t rinse away bacteria, like salmonella. In fact, you may do the opposite and spread it as far as three feet from your sink. It’s difficult (nor do we recommend) bleaching the entire kitchen. Skip the rinse and dry-pat your chicken pieces. 

3. Leaving chicken on the counter to marinade. 

Chicken marinade is a way to add flavor with minimal effort. Add your chicken pieces to your marinade and let it rest for several hours before grill time. However, don’t leave your chicken on the counter during this process. Instead, toss your chicken in the marinade and let it bathe in the fridge. Keep in mind that marinated chicken takes longer to cook than plain chicken.

Julie Harris - Registered Dietitian

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