Tips for perfect grilled chicken breasts every time

Grilled chicken gets a bad rap. Sometimes it's well deserved, like when a boneless and skinless chicken breast has been turned into something that's as flavorless and texturally similar to a wet towel...only less tender. But with just a few key tips and techniques you can have moist, flavorful grilled chicken every time. Here are 13 tips for making perfect grilled chicken every time.

Grace Parisi / TODAY

1. Buy the right size

Bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to chicken breasts. Large breast halves, those over 10 ounces, take forever to cook, leaving you with potentially dry, stringy meat. Instead, opt for pieces that are between 5 and 8 ounces—they'll cook more quickly and retain more moisture.

2. Pound or butterfly like a pro

Breasts are naturally thicker on one end and the large ones can vary by almost two inches from end to end. To level the playing field, pounding or butterflying are the best ways to even out the thickness and shorten your cooking time.

How to pound chicken breasts: For average or small breasts, use a meat pounder to even out the thickness. Here's a foolproof method for pounding: Dip the breast lightly in water, set it in a quart-size zippered bag and pound gently with a meat pounder. Never pound straight down, rather pound gently down and away from you. Aim for about ¾- inch to 1-inch thickness.

How to butterfly chicken breasts: This works well for breasts that are too large to pound. Using a sharp knife, make a horizontal cut from one side, nearly cutting through to the other. Open up the chicken like a book and gently pound the seam and thick end to even it out. If you do it right, the breast will be heart–shaped.

3. Make shallow gashes to increase the surface area

More surface area gives a marinade more to cling to. Pounding or butterflying is one way. Another way is making shallow gashes into the flesh—it allows the marinade to permeate. This works really well with chicken on the bone, but boneless chicken breasts benefit from this too. Rub the marinade into the cuts about ¼-inch to ½-inch deep.

4. Use a wet marinade, dry rub or brine

Unless I'm glazing with a BBQ sauce I always marinate boneless, skinless chicken, even if it's for just 20 minutes. Wet marinades, dry-rubs and brines all add flavor and moisture to chicken breasts and can also act as a tenderizer. Here's what you need to know about each:

How to wet marinade chicken breasts: A wet marinade is any type of highly seasoned liquid, such as herb or spice pastes, wines, spiced oils, vinaigrettes, yogurt/buttermilk, Cuban citrus mojo, etc. If your marinade includes something very acidic, like vinegar, wine or citrus, keep the marinating time relatively quick—30 minutes to 3 hours depending upon the thickness of the chicken breast—and cut it with a little olive oil. Lactic-acid rich yogurt and buttermilk are much less acidic and can stand a longer marinating time—2 to 6 hours depending upon the thickness. Non-acidic marinades, like herbs and spices mixed with oils, can sit on for 2 to 10 hours.

How to dry rub chicken breasts: A dry rub is usually a blend of dried spices, herbs, salt, pepper and sometimes sugar. The effects of dry rubs are practically instant. You can marinate for minutes or hours to add even more flavor. Foods rubbed with dry spices should be cooked over indirect heat, otherwise the sugar and spices will burn.

How to brine chicken breasts: A brine is a mixture of salt, water, aromatics and sugar. Not technically a marinade, a brine is an incredibly effective way to infuse flavor and moisture into meat, especially boneless, skinless chicken breast. Depending upon the salt/sugar/water ratio, (I like 1 part each salt and sugar and 5 parts water) boneless chicken can brine for 2 to 4 hours (bone-in can go overnight).

5. Know how to cheat the marinade

Pickle juice, especially if it's highly seasoned, mixed with a little oil, makes a great instant marinade. Leftover vinaigrette or even bottled vinaigrette are very good too. Just be sure to read the labels—sugar can burn quickly, so pay attention when you're grilling.

6. Leave the skin on

A grilled boneless chicken breast with the skin is absolutely delicious—the crispy skin and juicy meat are irresistible. Since it's nearly impossible to find skin-on boneless breasts at a supermarket, the closest you'll come are split chicken breasts on the bone. Ask your butcher to debone them for you or practice your knife skills and do it yourself. Either way, don't toss the bones—freeze them for stock making another day. Better yet, grill the bone-in breasts and you may become a convert.

7. Clean your grill

Dirty grates are not only unappetizing—they also make foods stick. Heat the grill and brush the grates with a wire grill brush. To remove even more gunk, crumple up a damp paper bag or newspaper and using tongs, rub the grates. Follow up with a damp paper towel. Once or twice each summer (or every 4 months if you grill year-round), be sure to thoroughly clean the grill. Built-up grease can cause flare-ups and fires. Don't forget to brush your grates after each use.

8. Oil your grates

Once the grates are clean and hot, carefully rub them with a lightly oiled paper towel that's held with tongs. Oiled grates release food much better than oiled chicken alone. Of course, you can hedge your bets and oil both.

9. Preheat your grill

If you're using a gas grill, allow 10 minutes for the grill to heat. If you're using a charcoal grill, you'll need to preheat for about 30 minutes. Don't add food to an under-heated grill—it's guaranteed to stick.

10. Choose the right heat level

Because boneless, skinless chicken breast is so lean (and thin if pounded), it should be grilled quickly over high heat to retain as much moisture as possible. Chicken on the bone or large un-pounded breasts should be grilled more slowly over medium-high heat so the outside doesn't burn while the inside reaches an internal temperature of 165°.

11. Know when to open and close the grill

Closing the grill turns it into an oven, which heats everything more evenly all around. This is good for large, un-pounded breasts and bone-in chicken. Leaving the lid open concentrates the heat only at the bottom, which is best for thinner breasts so that the bottom of the piece gets that nice char without overcooking the top.

12. Watch the clock

Timing is everything now that you're in the home stretch. You've come way too far to blow it now. Boneless skinless breasts (pounded ¾-inch thick) should be cooked on high heat for 10 to 12 minutes. That means you have no more than 5 minutes to run back into the kitchen to toss the salad or grab a platter before flipping to cook the other side. To test for doneness, carefully press the chicken at the thickest end with your finger. If there's no resistance, it's done. Bone-in chicken is more forgiving and grills on medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes depending upon size to an internal temperature of 165°.

13. Brush on a glaze

If you love that sticky, caramelized glaze from BBQ sauce, brush it on about 2 or 3 minutes before the chicken is done. That way the breast meat doesn't overcook and the glaze doesn't burn. Don't have BBQ sauce? No problem. Just mix some apricot jam, a squirt of ketchup, a shot of bourbon and dash of chipotle powder for an almost–instant substitute.

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