Monday, August 13, 2018

Grilled chicken breast

Grilled skinless, boneless chicken breast can be tough to cook. Too much heat and the breast is dry, tough and leathery.  So how to grill the leanest of lean meats without drying it out?

Skip to past the following recipe for explanations and source material.  Directions are for a Weber Kettle Grill (sorry gas grillers).  This won't make grill marks on your chicken. If you want to do that get a different recipe.

Spice Rubbed Grilled Skinless Boneless Chicken Breast

Prep time: 10 - 15 minutes.
Cook time: 30 - 45 minutes.

Spice rub

2 tbs kosher salt
3 tbs brown sugar
2 tbs chili powder
2 tbs sweet paprika
2 tsp black pepper
1/4 - 1/2 cayenne pepper

Ingredients

Skinless, boneless chicken breast, enhanced
Vegetable oil
Gallon plastic storage bag

For the chicken


Prep

Trim the chicken breasts, remove bone, cartilage, fat and any dangly bits not attached to the main breast.

Flatten

One at a time, put the breast in a gallon plastic storage bag.
Flatten the breast to an even thickness.
Whack the thick part of the breast three to four times with a blunt instrument. Rubber mallet, 6 qt pan, your skull.  All work well.

Rub

Coat the chicken with the spice rub.
Put it in a plastic storage bag and in the fridge for 1 - 4 hours.
You will have leftover spice rub.

Cooking


Prep your grill

Cut a small log of peach wood about 1" in diameter and 4" long or 2 oz by weight.
Fill a chimney starter 3/4ths with charwood and light it.
When the coals are white ash dump them all on one side of the grill.
Clean your grill grates well.
Put the lid on.

Put the chicken on the grill

Get the chicken out of the fridge.
Coat the breasts with vegetable oil.  Just pour a little on and use your hands to coat evenly.

Get cooking

Lift up the grill grate and put the peach wood directly on the hot coals. 
Put all the chicken breasts opposite the coals on the grill.
Put the lid on.
Open the lid vents all the way and place them over the chicken.
Keep the bottom vents open.

Don't f*cking touch it (much)

Leave the lid closed for 20 minutes. 
Temp the chicken breast, it should be close to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rotate any pieces that seem to be cooking faster.
Close the lid and let the chicken cook for another 15 minutes.
Temp the chicken breast, it should be 165 degrees Fahrenheit.  If it's not, you can curse me and leave the chicken on for another 10 minutes or until you think it will be done.


Why did you..?


OK, so what's going on in this recipe and why did I do X?  What's with the mallet, why am I flattening chicken?  There's a couple things going on that make this work and I'll touch on them here.

The spice rub is Cook's Illustrated Picnic Chicken.  I would link to it but the bastards have a paywall.  The rub is pretty basic with salt, sugar and some spices.  Make it hotter with more cayenne.  Use the salt and sugar as a base and experiment.  The salt and sugar will work their way into the meat the longer you let it sit.  Watch out for double salt jeopardy with "enhanced" chicken.

What's "enhanced"?  Enhanced chicken was injected or brined during processing.  Check your packaging and it will tell you.  It's not bad but you may want to adjust your salt down because it has salt in it.  If your chicken is not enhanced use a basic brine recipe: 1 cup table salt to 1 gallon of water, 2 - 4 hours, take it out and rub it before you grill it.

Do not use skin-on split chicken breast and expect this to work.  We're basically brining/salting the breast in a plastic bag, it will make the skin flabby and it will not crisp properly.

You gotta trim that chicken. There's all sorts of dangly bits, pieces of bone and cartilage left over from processing.  I use a pair of kitchen shears, trim the breasts and then boil the trimmings for dog food.  Add some rice and veggies and your dog will love it.  I use a 1-1-1 ratio of protein-grain-vegetables.  Check with your vet.

You ever take a whole chicken breast and throw it on the grill?  That thicker end (on the left) is done before the thinner end (on the right).  The thinner end gets dried out and it sucks.


To fix the uneven cooking problem we whack the thicker end of the breast so the entire breast is (more or less) the same thickness.  The more uniform shape will evenly cook.  Read more from Serious Eats or Meathead.  Don't whack it too much or it'll be limp and strung out.  We just want a nice, even thickness.  Three or four times will work.  I like to use a small Farberware pot.

A Word About Fire


Don't soak the wood.  Meathead disproved the wood soaking theory.  Amazing thing about wood, it really doesn't absorb that much water.  That "smoke" you're seeing from wet wood is just steam.  Toss your wood in dry.  See Meathead's guide on how much wood.  I use a piece of dried peach wood about 1" in diameter and 4" long.  It didn't completely burn during the short cooking time.

All the coals are going on to one side of the grill.  This chicken will go on the opposite side and cook via convection.  That is, the hot coals will heat the surrounding air, the lid will trap the heat and that heat will go into the chicken.  The chicken will cook more evenly.  See Meathead's guide on heat transfer.

I wish I used charcoal but I'm still using up all my charwood at the moment.  The pieces are uneven, unlike charcoal, and you really can't compare a chimney starter full of charwood to one with charcoal.  We're not looking for Hellfire, just 3/4ths of a chimney starter filled with charwood did it for me.  I used a cardboard egg carton as firestarter.  It works well and doesn't leave a lot of ash.

This is lean chicken breast.  We're not going low and slow because that'll just dry it out.  Use a full quart of charcoal to get the grill up to temp, anywhere between 350 - 450.  Don't go lower than 350, the chicken will take too long to cook and dry out.  I've done it, it sucks.

There's no grill marks.  Yeah, that's a design decision.  You could probably coat the chicken with a sauce near the end and toss them on the hot side of the coals for a few minutes to brown them up a bit.

The vents are positioned over the chicken breasts to draw smoke over the breasts as it exits the grill.  They are also open otherwise the coals would starve for oxygen and go out.  Also, we don't "warm up" the breast before cooking.  Another myth Meathead busted.

The Result


Cook the chicken until it hits the magic number, 165 Fahrenheit, and take it off the grill.  No need to let it rest, just serve and tuck right in.  The peach wood will add a bit of smokiness to the breast.  It'll be juicy and flavorful thanks to indirect cooking and the salt/sugar/brine.