The One Grilled Chicken Mistake You Don't Want to Make

It leads to dry chicken and no one wants that!

A high angle extreme close up horizontal photograph of some barbecued chicken drumsticks and thighs on a green platter.


A high angle extreme close up horizontal photograph of some barbecued chicken drumsticks and thighs on a green platter.

Photo by: DebbiSmirnoff/Getty Images

DebbiSmirnoff/Getty Images

Grilling is wrapped in a very specific brand of mystique. Every family and/or vacation group has a designated grill master, the person who holds the keys to the grilled meals everyone wants to devour. Said grill master knows how to operate any grill they encounter and possibly even sip a cool beverage while doing so. If you’re reading this story, congrats, you probably hold those magical keys. But are you actually grilling your chicken right?

Recently, I decided to grill chicken for a crowd of twenty people. Let me tell you, the stakes were not low. If the chicken turned out anything but juicy with a crispy exterior, I had no built-in excuses like “the grill sucked” or “I didn’t have the right tools.” You better believe I brushed up on how to grill chicken, and it turned out to be some of the best I’d ever made (humble brag). Everyone kept asking what the secret was and if they could have the recipe.

6 Grilled Chicken Mistakes 01:08

Avoid these grilling mistakes to get juicy, perfectly cooked chicken every time.

I told everyone the truth. I didn’t use a recipe, but I didn’t make the mistake that everyone else makes when they grill chicken: not using heat zones. It’s pretty easy to say, “heat zones, schmeat zones, I don’t bother with them,” but they make an enormous difference with chicken, specifically.

Conventional wisdom says to grill chicken directly over the heat until it’s cooked through, so it doesn’t stay on the grill for a long time and dry out. But when you cook it this quickly, it tenses up and toughens. You’ll achieve more tender, juicy results by cooking it over direct heat just until it develops grill marks, moving it over to indirect heat and covering the lid until it’s cooked through. An analogy? Pan searing chicken versus braising it. The former will give you fine results, but braised chicken that’s cooked low and slow will be far, far juicier.

Don’t know how to create heat zones? For charcoal grills, pile your heated coals to one side of the grill — that’s the direct heat side. The indirect heat side is the one without coals. For gas grills, turn one side up to high heat (direct) and the other side to low heat (indirect).

Oh, and onneee more little grilled chicken tip. If it’s at all possible, choose bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or breasts. The bone helps to keep the chicken juicy while it cooks. I used bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, which you can buy in packages from some grocery stores or ask for at your butcher. Before serving, I sliced the chicken off the bone and then sliced it up into neat pieces.

Ready to try your hand at grilled chicken? Welcome to the clean plate club.

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