How to Grill Chicken Breast
I love to grill, but I often avoid grilling chicken breasts for a crowd. Even with years of restaurant experience under my belt, this cut makes me nervous. It seems silly to be apprehensive because they’re such a common ingredient, but I think that chicken breasts are the single hardest protein to cook on the grill.
I was determined to overcome this fear, so I set out to find the best way to grill chicken breasts. I had three major objectives:
- Figure out exactly why chicken breasts are so hard to cook
- Conquer and overcome each of those reasons
- Apply my solution as a quick and easy method that didn’t compromise the flavor of a juicy chicken breast
What Makes Chicken Breasts so Hard to Cook?
To start, chicken breasts are an incredibly lean cut of meat. What does this mean? They don’t have very much fat content, so even the slightest overcooking results in a dried-out flavor.
Secondly, unlike beef, lamb, or pork which can be cooked to medium rare, chicken meat carries the risk of salmonella. The FDA recommends cooking chicken breasts to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, which means that it must be cooked to a “well-done” temperature.
Which brings us back to why chicken breasts are so hard to cook: undercook them and it’s dangerous. Overcook them and you end up with a dry, chewy piece of meat. Cook them too hot and they’ll be overly charred but raw in the middle. Use heat that’s too low and it’ll take forever to put dinner on the table.
So why should we even bother with cooking them if they’re so difficult? Because it’s worth it! Chicken breasts have so much potential. Their mild flavor pairs well with every type of cuisine, they’re a healthy source of protein, and they taste moist, tender, and delicious when cooked correctly.
An Easy Cheat for Juicy Chicken Every Time
Some grilling primers suggest that you butterfly or pound-out chicken to make it thinner and more evenly shaped. This method certainly works to cut down the cooking time of the chicken. It allows you to grill the chicken over high heat, reaching a safe temperature before the meat dries out. We like this way of grilling chicken, but we like another method even better.
Brining the chicken breast in a salt and water solution pulls out excess moisture from the chicken and replaces it with salt. This process actually reshapes the proteins in the meat, allowing the chicken to retain moisture more efficiently as it cooks.
The benefit of brining not only results in a juicer-than-normal chicken breast, but it also allows you to cook the chicken breast whole. This gives you the texture of a full bodied chicken breast without sacrificing any flavor.
Brining is as easy as 30 minutes in a solution made from ¼ cup salt and 4 cups water. The brined meat has a little bit of extra protection in case you slightly overcook it, so it can hold up to the grill’s heat without drying out.
Once it’s brined, you won’t need to salt it because it has absorbed some of that salt from the brine. A simple rub of olive oil, paprika, and Mexican oregano makes a good all-purpose seasoning. I’ve used this rub for everything from salads to tacos to mixed Greek grill.
So let’s get started with brining and grilling some chicken!
What You Will Need to Follow This Tutorial
For the Brine
- 4 cups water
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
For the Chicken
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
- A large bowl
- A charcoal or propane grill
- An instant read thermometer or remote meat thermometer
- Grill tongs
1. Prepare and brine the chicken breast
Begin by trimming the chicken, removing the excess fat (if any) and trimming away any connective tissue. This will prevent flare-ups or burnt bits once the chicken hits the grill.
In a large bowl, combine the water and salt, using a whisk to completely dissolve the salt. Add the chicken breasts to the brine and place the bowl in the refrigerator. Allow it to brine for at least 30 minutes but no longer than an hour. Too much time in the brine will cause an overly salty chicken breast.
2. Prepare the grill
It is important to begin with a clean grill surface so your chicken breasts don’t stick. The chicken may be low in fat content, but flare-ups are still possible if the last item you cooked left a lot of oil and residue.
If you didn’t clean the grill the last time you used it, clean it now by preheating the grill on high to get the drippings moving. Once the grill is hot, use a brush to burn off any residues and brush it clean using a wide bristled grill brush.
When the grill is cleaned, you can prepare a medium fire grill. Unlike grilling steak (where you want a super-hot grill to ensure a good sear), a chicken breast will not cook all the way through over high heat. A too-hot grill can result in undercooked chicken that is overly charred on the outside.
The perfect temperature for your grill is between 375 and 450 degree F. Arrange the grill so one side is a higher, more direct heat and the other side is cooler with indirect heat.
This will allow you to achieve some nice browning on the outside using the hot side, and then move the chicken to the cool side to finish cooking.
3. Season the chicken
Since you’ve brined the chicken, you won’t need to add any salt. You do want to add some olive oil to prevent the chicken from sticking to the grill.
Remove the chicken breasts from the brine and pat them dry with a paper towel. Coat them with the olive oil and sprinkle on the paprika and Mexican oregano.
4. Grill the chicken breasts
If you wish, insert a remote thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken breast. This is a good practice for any meat that is over 1-inch thick and it creates a foolproof way to identify when the chicken is done.
Place the chicken breasts on the hot side of the grill, cooking the presentation side (the top, smoother side) first. Allow them to sit, undisturbed, for a few minutes until they have browned and have visible grill marks.
You can lift one of the breasts up with the tongs to check, but a good rule of thumb is that the chicken is not ready to flip if it sticks to the grill.
Once they’re ready, flip the breasts over and allow them to brown on the second side. Follow the same steps for the second side of the chicken breast.
When they have their grill marks and release easily, place them on the cooler side of the grill with the presentation side up (this way you don’t disturb your pretty grill marks!). Place the cover on top of the grill and allow the chicken to finish cooking.
You will be alerted when the chicken is cooked through if you are using a remote thermometer. If not, you can probe the thickest part of the chicken with an instant read thermometer when you think it is close to being done. The chicken will be firm to the touch and will readily bounce back without leaving a finger-shaped indentation.
The FDA’s approved cooking temperature for chicken breasts is 165 degrees F. You can pull the chicken at 160 degrees F and the temperature will rise 5 degrees F as it rests. For the juiciest, most flavorful chicken, you can remove the breasts from the heat at 150 degrees F.
Most chefs agree that this temperature will not make you sick, however if you are cooking for those at increased risk, or if you like to follow the rules, then wait until 160 degrees F.
5. Let the chicken rest
As with all proteins, the resting phase is very important. This allows the juices to redistribute within the meat instead of spilling out onto your cutting board.
Cover the breasts with aluminum foil and set aside for at least 5 minutes before slicing.
6. Serve and enjoy
Chicken on its own tends to taste a little bland, even when you’ve brined it, seasoned it, and cooked it perfectly. This provides the perfect opportunity to showcase your favorite sauces: a beautiful pesto or chimichurri, your favorite BBQ sauce, or Greek tzatziki are perfect complements.
Serve the sliced chicken with a side of grilled vegetables and your choice of sauce. Or, keep the breasts whole and turn them into sandwiches.
Frequently Asked Questions
What temperature do you bake chicken?
The best way is to bake at a high temperature. If you bake for a while at 30 minutes at, say, 350 degrees, you will get dry meat.
However, if you bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes, you will get a juicy baked chicken breast. Just preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and get started!
How long do you cook chicken pieces in the oven?
Put the chicken pieces in the pan so that all the pieces are skin-side up. Make sure the largest pieces are in the center of the pan. Remember not to crowd the pan.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This will help brown the chicken and make it delicious.
How long do I cook chicken thighs in the oven?
In a bowl, place the chicken thighs with olive oil and lemon juice. You can season with salt and pepper and marinate for up to 1 hour.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and roast your chicken with the skin side down in an oiled roasting pan for 20 to 25 minutes. Then, flip and roast for 10 more minutes.
That’s a Wrap
So, as it turns out, it’s easier than I thought to serve delicious grilled chicken to a crowd. By taking the extra 30 minutes to brine the meat, we changed the structure of the chicken breast and allowed it to retain its moisture as it cooked.
What do you think of the brining method? Let us know how your next backyard BBQ turned out!