How to Grill Every Part of a Chicken, According to Geoffrey Zakarian

grilled chicken
Christi Lucaci/Shutterstock
Welcome to Grillist, our annual celebration of all things smoke and fire. Join us all summer long as we get up in your grill with expert BBQ advice, insightful interviews, and bad grilling puns -- but mostly those first two.

Chopped judge Geoffrey Zakarian is a 30-year industry vet with six restaurants, including The Lambs Club in NYC and Georgie in LA, around the country. For the third season of Chopped Grill Masters, he’s filming out on Beringer Vineyards in Napa -- not so bad. Below Zakarian tells us how to masterfully grill all aspects of a chicken, including the whole bird.

Dress a whole chicken with simple flavors

First, season the bird with salt and pepper up to 8 hours before cooking. This allows the seasoning to penetrate more deeply. You can leave the chicken in the fridge uncovered on a tray overnight to dry out the skin. Moisture will prevent the skin from crisping up and achieving a golden color, which is also why you want to stay away from wet marinades. Instead, use flavors such as lemon, salt and pepper, spice, and herbs -- herbes de Provence is always reliable. Before cooking, always bring a whole chicken to room temperature, which takes about 30 minutes. Then, cook the chicken to an internal temperature of 155F in the thickest part of the leg, about 35 to 45 minutes for a 3- to 3 1/2-pound chicken.

Breasts are best marinated

Chicken breasts benefit from a 4-hour marinade with a salty base. I like to use soy, ginger, red chilies, garlic, scallions, and brown sugar. If you want to marinate them longer, in the 8- to 10-hour range, you can use something oil- and herb-based that is milder and doesn't contain salt.

You can also slice the breasts to allow the marinade to cover maximum surface area. Depending on how thick the slices are, I would grill sliced breast for 4-5 minutes on each side. Cook chicken breast on high heat for as little time as possible to fully cook the meat. It’s always safe to wait until you see 155 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Serve grilled chicken with simple seasonal vegetables that best express the time of year.

grilled chicken
Bon Appetit/shutterstock

Thighs are best for grilling

Thanks to their higher fat content, bone-in thighs stay juicy when grilled. (They’re also cheaper than the more popular breasts.) Marinate them for a shorter period of time (about 4 hours) if there is salt in the marinade, and a longer period of time (about 8 hours) if there is no salt. I like to make a marinade with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and herbs. My other go-to is to whip up a sticky honey glaze by whisking equal parts honey and warm water until the honey dissolves. Then I season it with the zest and juice of 1 lemon and 2 tablespoons chopped herbs.

Start the meat on high heat for 4-5 minutes until it begins to caramelize. The dark meat of the chicken thigh means it can hold up to flavorful charring. Reduce the heat, then finish in a smoker or on the top portion of your grill, applying the glaze towards the end so it doesn't burn. To be safe, cook it until it reaches 155 F on an instant-read thermometer.

Wings call for strong flavors

I like to marinate chicken wings with strong sweet-and-sour flavors, such as a simple marinade of lime juice, cane sugar, cilantro, and honey. Chicken wings cook best on high heat. You want charred ends with maximum caramelization. Sometimes I cook the chicken wings on a higher flame for a shorter time, so I'll poach them, before marinating, in simmering water for about 12 minutes. Be sure to cool them and store them in the marinade for at least few hours (so long as there's no salt in the marinade) before you finish them on the grill.

Legs can be treated similarly to thighs

I like to season the juicier bone-in legs more aggressively because the meat can take a higher heat, which results in excellent caramelization. Chicken legs are delicious with stickier marinades or glazes because the bone makes them easy to eat without getting your hands messy. With a bone-in drumstick, I'd cook them for roughly 12 minutes, or until it says 155 F on an instant-read thermometer. To cook the chicken faster, cut around the top of the leg, to allow the meat to pull down into a drumstick. Now you have an essentially boneless leg. Proceed as usual!

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Carrie Dennis is a former Food & Drink editor for Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @CarrrieDennnis.
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