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Tips for perfectly grilled chicken breasts every time

Say bye bye to overcooked poultry with these simple grilling and barbecue techniques.
by Grace Parisi /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Grilled chicken gets a bad rap.

Sometimes it's well deserved, like when a boneless, 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 it's possible to have moist, flavorful grilled chicken all summer long.

Here are 13 tips for mastering the art of grilling poultry.

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 grillers 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 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 the body. Aim for about a 3/4- inch to a 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 thicker end to even it out. If it's done right, the breast will be heart–shaped.

3. Make shallow gashes to increase the surface area.

More surface area gives a great marinade more to places to cling. Pounding or butterflying is one way. Another way is by making shallow gashes into the flesh. This allows the marinade to permeate through the meat. This technique also works really well with chicken on the bone, but boneless chicken breasts benefit from this, too. Rub the marinade into the cuts, about 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch deep.

4. Use a wet marinade, dry rub or brine.

Unless glazing with a barbecue sauce, 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 to know about each type:

How to use wet marinade on 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 a 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. Yogurt and buttermilk, which are both rich in lactic acid, are much less acidic and can stand a longer marinating time — 2 to 6 hours depending upon the chicken's thickness. Non-acidic marinades, like herbs and spices mixed with oils, can sit 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. Chicken 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, (Note: I like 1 part each of salt and sugar, mixed with 5 parts water) boneless chicken can brine for 2 to 4 hours, while 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 vinaigrettes are very good, too. Just be sure to read the labels — sugar can burn quickly, so pay attention when grilling.

6. Leave the skin on.

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

7. Clean the grill.

Dirty grates are not only unappetizing, they also make foods stick. Heat the grill and brush the grates with a hard 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 four months, for people who grill year-round), be sure to thoroughly clean the grill. Built-up grease can cause flare-ups and fires. Don't forget to brush the grates after each use, too.

8. Oil the 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, it's even better to just oil both.

9. Preheat the grill.

For a gas grill, allow 10 minutes for the grill to heat up. For a charcoal grill, 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 degrees.

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 in the home stretch. The grilled chicken has come way too far to blow it now! Boneless skinless breasts (pounded 3/4-inch thick) should be cooked on high heat for 10 to 12 minutes. That means there are 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 a 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 on the size, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

13. Brush on a glaze.

Love a sticky, slightly-sweet, caramelized glaze from barbecue sauce? Brush it on about 2 to 3 minutes before the chicken is done. That way the breast meat doesn't overcook and the glaze doesn't burn. It's important not to rush the final step, otherwise the sugar from the sauce will burn on the grill. Don't have any 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 (but super delicious!) substitute.

This post was originally published May 2, 2016.

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