How to Grill Chicken to Juicy Perfection
Learning how to grill chicken is an essential skill for summer cookouts. Through the years our Test Kitchen has discovered many techniques and determined how long to grill chicken breasts, legs, wings, thighs, and even a whole chicken using both direct and indirect grilling methods. Use their grilling tips for every cut of chicken you toss on the grill this summer.
Everyone should know how to cook chicken on the grill for easy weeknight dinners and for all the backyard cookouts filling your summer weekends. Even when you're not hosting guests, knowing how to grill chicken breasts and how to grill chicken thighs transforms what might otherwise be a plain chicken dinner. Let us show you how to cook all the cuts of chicken, including how to grill a whole chicken for a crowd and how to cook a few individual pieces for a family dinner. Make sure you've got your favorite barbecue sauce handy!
How to Grill Chicken Breasts
Start by removing the skin if you want (remember there's no need to rinse chicken), then marinate and/or season the chicken. Place the chicken breasts on the grill rack directly over medium coals. Grill, covered, 15 to 18 minutes or until instant-read thermometer like Harbor's Instant Read Thermometer ($9.29, Amazon) registers 165°F when inserted in the thickest part, turning once halfway through grilling.
Test Kitchen Tip: To test your grill for medium heat, use the built-in thermometer on your grill if it has one. If your grill doesn't have a built-in thermometer, hold your hand at about the height of a soda can above the grill grate. Count the number of seconds you are able to comfortably hold your hand at that height before pulling it away. (For safety, immediately pull your hand away when it feels too hot!)
The number of seconds you can hold your hand above the grate indicate the temp:
- High (400°F to 450°F): 2 seconds or fewer
- Medium-high (375°F to 400°F): 3 seconds or fewer
- Medium (350°F to 375°F): 4 seconds or fewer
- Low (300°F to 350°F): 5 seconds or fewer
Related: Keep Food Safe at Your Cookout
How to Grill Chicken Thighs
Place the chicken on the grill rack directly over medium coals (or medium heat for gas grills). For boneless chicken thighs: Grill, covered, for 12 to 15 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part registers 170°F, turning once with tongs such as Oxo's 12-inch tongs ($10.99, Target) halfway through grilling.
For bone-in thighs, prepare your grill for indirect heat using a drip pan. Place the chicken thighs skin side down over the drip pan. Grill, covered, over indirect medium heat for 50 to 60 minutes or until the thighs register a temperature of 175°F.
How to Grill a Whole Chicken
A grilled whole chicken turns out best if you follow the indirect-grilling method. Indirect grilling is usually done at lower temperatures and works like your oven, making it a great option for foods that take longer to cook. Place your chicken on the grill rack above a drip pan opposite the heat source, then grill with the cover closed so the heat circulates.
Step 1: Butterfly the Chicken (optional)
Remove chicken from packaging and pat dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture that could prevent the skin from getting crispy. Using kitchen or poultry shears, cut along both sides of the backbone to free it. Turn chicken breast-side up. Open the two sides of the chicken as if you were opening a book and lay it flat. Break the breastbone by firmly applying pressure and pressing down. Tuck the wing tips under the upper wings.
Step 2: Prepare the Grill
Prepare your grill for indirect grilling. For a charcoal grill, ignite briquettes (50 to 75 for a 22-inch grill) with vents open. Once covered with ash, bank half the coals on opposite sides of the grate, leaving a cool zone in the middle for indirect cooking over medium heat. Set rack in place. For a gas grill, light all burners to preheat the grill. Turn off the center burner to create a cool zone below steaks for indirect cooking over medium heat.
Brush chicken with olive oil. Season chicken on both sides with salt and black pepper. Place skin side down on the center of grill over indirect medium heat.
Step 3: Grill the Chicken
For a butterflied chicken, cover and grill 25 minutes. Turn chicken over. Cover and grill 25 to 30 minutes more or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 170°F. Remove chicken from grill and let rest 10 minutes. Carve chicken to serve.
For a whole chicken that hasn't been butterflied, grill the chicken breast side up with indirect medium heat. The weight of the whole bird determines grilling time:
- For a 2½- to 3-pound chicken, grill for 1 to 1¼ hours
- For a 3½- to 4-pound bird, grill for 1¼ to 1¾ hours
- For a 4½- to 5-pound chicken, grill for 1¾ to 2 hours
There's no need to turn or flip the chicken halfway through. The chicken is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 170°F.
How to Grill Chicken Legs
For a charcoal and gas grills, set up your grill for indirect grilling with a drip pan over medium heat. Place the chicken legs on the grill rack over the drip pan. Cover and grill 50 to 60 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 175°F, turning once halfway through grilling.
How to Grill Chicken Wings
For grilled chicken wings, set up your charcoal or gas grill for indirect cooking with a drip pan over medium heat. Place the chicken wings on the grill rack over the drip pan. Cover and grill for 20 to 25 minutes or until the chicken is tender, turning once halfway through.
Now, put your grilling knowledge to the test! Add grilled chicken wings to your cookout menu alongside burgers and kabobs, or plan your whole barbecue around juicy, tender grilled chicken. Stock up on your favorite sauce and start planning which summer side dishes you're going to serve, because now you've got enough grilled chicken recipes to try to host cookouts all season long.