As the season for grilling accelerates, this week’s food section acknowledges that good steaks need a good sear.
But chicken constitutes most backyard cooks’ trial by fire. It’s unfortunate when the well-meaning grillmeister marinates chicken for more than a few hours in hopes of it becoming tenderer and remaining juicy. In reality, long marinating times break down muscle tissue, rendering chicken — boneless/skinless breasts in particular — hopelessly mealy.
In addition, chicken often is grilled too hot or for too long because people are “terrified” it will be undercooked, says Cheryl Jamison, co-author with her husband, Bill, of “100 Grilling Recipes You Can’t Live Without.” Grill chicken over medium heat or run the risk getting “a charred surface and chicken sushi inside,” she adds.
Here are 10 more tips recently rounded up by the Chicago Tribune from the country’s foremost grilling experts, plus a recipe for the Jamisons’ “foolproof” barbecued chicken, which starts by pounding the boneless/skinless breasts to a uniform thickness, so all portions are done at the same time.
1. Read or reread the owner’s manual for your grill, says Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, a trade association based in Arlington, Va. Pay particular attention to the manufacturer’s safety hints.
2. Give the grill a thorough inspection and cleaning. “Make sure the legs are sturdy, that things haven’t rusted out, the vents are working properly and the burners are clean,” Wheeler says. With gas grills, make sure there are no holes or leaks in any hoses, that the hoses are properly hooked up and all connections work properly.
3. Use care in positioning the grill. “Lots of people put the grill outside the back door but, really, is that the best place?” Wheeler asks. Grills need to be out of high-traffic areas so children and pets won’t bump into them. Ideally, the grill should be at least 10 feet away from the house to reduce fire risk. If you live in a condominium or apartment building, make sure grilling is permitted and know what type of grills are allowed.
4. Pay attention lighting the grill. Open the hood before igniting a gas grill to vent any fumes that may be gathering there, Wheeler says. Don’t pour additional lighter fluid on coals after they’re lit; you risk a big flare-up.
5. Stay focused: “We get frustrated when we see people not sticking with the food,” Bill Jamison says. “They’re going away, getting a beer, drinking a beer, while the food cooks without them paying any attention to the time or the temperature.”
6. Don’t move the food about. Put it on the grill, let it get a good sear on both sides, then move the food to more moderate heat to cook through, say the Jamisons. Searing eliminates the risk of food sticking to the grill, Cheryl Jamison says.
7. Don’t squash the burgers onto the grill. “All the juices will run out,” Cheryl Jamison says.
8. Never sauce too soon. “Most sauces on the market are ketchup based, and there’s sugar in them,” says Myron Mixon, author of “Everyday Barbecue” and a judge on the reality television series “BBQ Pitmasters.” “The sugars caramelize and start burning.” He recommends applying sauce to food at the end of the grilling time or serving the sauce in a bowl at the table. If you want to dab something on the food as it cooks, Mixon, who loves in Unadilla, Ga., recommends an old Southern trick, a mop made of vinegar, salt and red pepper flakes. “Use it for basting, for flavor and for keeping the food from burning,” he says.
9. Practice, practice, practice. Mixon says you should try out any unfamiliar grill recipe a few times before adding it to your party lineup. Don’t sweat it if the dish doesn’t debut on Fourth of July; there’s always Labor Day fast approaching.
10. Clean the grill while it’s still hot. The work will go faster, Wheeler says. Use a sturdy brush to get any food residue off the grill rack. Make sure the gas is turned off before closing the grill lid. Close the grill vents so a charcoal fire dies out quickly; you should be able to reuse some of the coals next time, she says.
Bodacious Barbecued Chicken Breasts
Barbecue sauce: 1 cup ketchup
1⁄4 cup molasses
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 1⁄2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons yellow mustard
1 teaspoon onion powder
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt or coarse sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon chili powder
3 to 4 tablespoons bourbon
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (6 to 7 ounces each), pounded to 1⁄2 inch thick
1⁄2 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt or coarse sea salt
Combine the ketchup, molasses, brown sugar, butter, 11⁄2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, mustard, onion powder, salt, pepper, chili powder and 1⁄2 cup water in a medium saucepan; heat to a boil. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook, until thickened lightly, for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the bourbon and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat; set aside about half of sauce to serve at the table.
Place the chicken in a zipper-top plastic bag; pour the 1⁄2 cup Worcestershire sauce over it. Add the oil and salt; seal bag. Toss back and forth to coat chicken evenly. Let sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.
Fire up the grill, bringing temperature to medium. (You can hold your hand over grill for 4 to 5 seconds.)
Drain chicken, discarding marinade; blot any moisture on surface with a paper towel. Grill, uncovered, for 10 to 12 minutes total. Turn 3 times, rotating breasts a half turn each time for crisscross grill marks. After each side of chicken has faced fire once, begin brushing sauce over breasts.
Chicken is ready when it is white throughout but still juicy and sauce is a bit chewy and caramelized in spots. If you wish, leave chicken on grill an extra minute or so to get a slightly crusty surface. Serve chicken breasts whole or thickly sliced and mounded on a platter. Pass reserved sauce on the side.
Makes 4 servings.