I’ve grilled chicken over charcoal for years, but it always seemed to come out dry and chewy, which was a huge disappointment. Then I discovered a few secrets and perfected my process to the point where I can now make juicy grilled chicken breast every single time. Here’s how I do it.
My Best Grilled Chicken Recipe
Buy fresh, never-frozen, boneless skinless chicken breasts.
Previously frozen chicken will come out drier and chewier than fresh chicken. It doesn’t ruin your meal, it just doesn’t allow you to make juicy grilled chicken breast that gets rave reviews from your family and friends.
Marinate the chicken.
Choose your favorite marinade (homemade, store-bought marinade, Italian dressing, etc.). Place chicken and marinade in a plastic bag for at least 30 minutes prior to grilling, longer if possible. Make sure chicken is thoroughly coated, and mix the pieces up from time to time.
Next, start some charcoal about 20 minutes prior to the end of your marinating process. They take at least this long to come up to temperature and get a nice gray ash on the majority of their surfaces.
When the coals are mostly gray, arrange them in an even layer on the charcoal rack. Make sure the hottest coals are dispersed evenly throughout, and place the less-hot ones among them. This prevents hot spots, which would cause certain pieces of chicken to cook too fast, or even burn.
Arrange chicken for even cooking.
Notice how these pieces are arranged?
As nice as they look like that, it isn’t for show. I placed the thicker end of each breast in the center of the grill where they’ll get direct heat from the charcoal, and the thinner ends out near the edges of the charcoal bed. They’ll get indirect heat out there, and cook slower.
If you skip this step and arrange them with each piece entirely over the coals, their thin ends will be dry and over-cooked. Very unpleasant.Tip: I set the top grill about 3″ above the charcoal, and kept it there. Tip: Add a nice smoky flavor by tossing some wood chips on the coals right after you place chicken on the grill – especially mesquite chips. If you want to do this, soak them in water 15-30 minutes prior to grilling, so they’ll steam and smoke nicely while the chicken is still raw.
Let’s call this Side A (the bottoms are facing down).
Now close the lid and let the magic begin. By the way, that’s a Weber grill I’m using. It’s always worked real well. It has nice, even heat. I think they’ve done a great job perfecting their trademark shape. For more information, see my review on the Weber Performer® Platinum grill here. It uses the same basic kettle, pictured below, but in a sturdy cart with side table and a lot of other nice features.
Notice the thin line of smoke exiting the grill? That’s all you want with boneless skinless breasts. If you get more than this, your meat may be too close to the charcoal. Lower the charcoal grate, if possible, or try spreading the charcoal out. Another grilling secret is to move all of the charcoal to one side of the charcoal grate, then place your chicken on the opposite side of the cooking grate for less-intense indirect heat.
I keep the top and bottom vents wide open, and flare-ups aren’t a problem.
Food Safety Tips
While side A is grilling, I thoroughly wash the tongs that were used to place those raw chicken breasts on the grill.
If I don’t wash them, but instead continue using them out at the grill, then I’ll be contaminating the cooked chicken with raw juices, and potentially making everyone very sick. Wash, wash, wash!
Wash your hands, also.
And that leftover marinade? Seal the bag and throw it away. Because it contains raw meat juices. You should not use it for anything else.
Do not time this process.
Nobody can tell you to cook chicken x-minutes per side, and have it cook perfectly. Nobody.
There are too many variables, such as charcoal brand, distance from chicken, how far you let it burn down, how densely you packed the charcoal grate, type of grill, weather conditions, thickness of meat, etc. You just can’t time it.
Instead, your job as “Grillmaster” is monitor the grilling process.
After a few minutes, check the grill to see how your chicken is coming along. When side A (the bottoms) are cooked about like the pieces shown below, turn them over and close the lid again. I prefer some nice browning, but no burned areas beyond what’s pictured.Tip: I usually check the grill every 5 minutes or so, depending on how hot I think the charcoal is. More often if hot, less often if cooler.
Once side B is browned up about like side A, I begin checking each piece’s internal temp with a digital thermometer. At this stage, they are likely in the 130-145°F range, plus or minus, and are not done yet.
Make your target temperature exactly 165°F (internal) – NO MORE!
You’re here to make juicy grilled chicken breast, right? Then keep the lid closed between temperature checks, and pull it off when the internal temp is 165°F.
That’s the point where your chicken is fully cooked, but still the most juicy and tender. Every degree past this temp will be just a little bit drier, so don’t exceed it.
This temp is contrary to some meat thermometers I’ve seen, and other sources I’ve read, but the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services puts their official seal of approval on it. They posted a handy chart of safe minimum temps for many foods, including chicken, at FoodSafety.org:
From this point forward, you have only two goals:
1 – Keep flipping the chicken pieces to prevent burning. They’ll get a little darker, but that’s alright. Just keep flipping to minimize it and prevent burning. If they’re getting dark too fast, then they’re probably too close to the charcoal. Move pieces outward so they get more indirect heat, or lower your charcoal grate, or spritz the charcoal with water to cool it slightly. Just do whatever it takes to stop the outside from burning, yet keep them cooking.
2 – Remove each piece as soon as it reaches its target temp of 165°F. Again, it’s done when it’s done. No timing. Just constant checking of each piece’s internal temp every few of minutes.
Have a platter ready for pieces as they reach their temps, and cover them with aluminum foil to keep them hot until the other pieces are done. They’ll stay hot for an incredibly long time when covered with foil.
During this process, you’ll find your first finished piece and move it to the platter. Cover it with foil, then wait a couple of minutes. Two more may be ready the next time you check, so over to the platter they go.
Keep doing this until they’re all done, then serve your masterpieces and enjoy the compliments.
Since perfecting this process, I now love that fact that I’m able make juicy grilled chicken breast instead of making everyone suffer through dry, chewy pieces. My hope is that you are able to get the same results.
It may take a little practice, but I’m sure you will. This is my best grilled chicken recipe, and it works every time for me.
Do you have suggestions, or maybe some questions? Just add a comment below. Also, if you follow this recipe, I would like to hear how it works for you.
Comments are welcome below.