Like so many of our readers, I love a simple roast chicken that tastes of nothing but concentrated chicken-y goodness. Our most popular chicken recipe, Weeknight Roast Chicken (September/October 2011), accomplishes exactly that—and with a method that couldn’t be easier. There’s no brining, no salting, no knife work, and no dirtying of dishes required.
I wanted to create an equally simple method for the grill, and as with the Weeknight Roast Chicken recipe, pretreatments and extensive prep work were off the table. So were rubs, marinades, and sauces. But I did want the bird to taste of the grill—not so much as to overpower the clean chicken flavor, but enough that you could tell that it had been cooked over coals.
There are two main ways to achieve grill flavor. You can cook the food over direct heat, which produces char—the dark browning that develops where food comes in contact with the hot cooking grate—as well as all the new flavor compounds that develop when meat juices and rendered fat drip onto the heat source, break down, vaporize, and condense on the surface of the food. You can also add a wood chip packet to the fire to produce smoke, which also rises up and condenses on the food.
For the moment, I put aside the notion of adding smoke flavor and thought about how to use direct heat. Trying to cook a whole chicken over direct heat on the grill would be as silly as trying to sear it in a skillet. The exterior would obviously overcook before the interior cooked through. And while some measure of fatty juices dripping onto the coals creates desirable grill flavor, too much triggers significant flare-ups that leave a layer of black carbon on the bird’s exterior that overwhelms its mild flavor. That’s why most recipes for grilling a whole bird call for indirect heat, which cooks the meat gently and evenly—but also produces results without much grill flavor.
My solution incorporated both indirect and direct heat. I built a fire with heat sources on either side of the grill and a cooler zone down the middle and cooked the chicken, breast side up, over the cooler zone until the breast hit 130 degrees; at that point, a good amount of the bird’s fat had been rendered, so I figured flare-ups wouldn’t be an issue. Then I finished cooking the chicken over the hotter zone, flipping it breast side down after a few minutes so that both the top and bottom received direct heat.
What I hadn’t accounted for was that the chicken’s cavity became a receptacle for its fatty juices; when I turned the chicken over, that liquid sloshed onto the fire and flames shot up, scorching the bird’s exterior. Plus, the breast meat was now a tad dry even though I had pulled the chicken off the grill as soon as it reached its target temperature of 160 degrees. My fix was to grab the bird by the cavity using tongs and drain the juices into a bowl before moving it to the hotter side of the grill.
As for the dry meat, I remembered that the hotter the cooking temperature, the higher the meat’s temperature will climb after cooking. Finishing over direct heat caused the chicken’s temperature to rise rapidly. To account for that carryover effect, I pulled the bird off the grill when it registered 155 degrees.
Now the chicken was moist, with evenly bronzed skin and a good measure of that unmistakable char. Time to add some smoke for another layer of grill flavor.
The trick would be calibrating the smoke’s effect to keep it from overwhelming the clean chicken taste. I tried various amounts of wood chips using our standard method—wrapping them in aluminum foil and cutting a pair of slits in the packet to allow just enough airflow for the chips to smoke steadily—and I found that I needed just 1/4 to 1/2 cup of chips (depending on whether I was using charcoal or gas, respectively) to generate the subtle smoke flavor I wanted. I also made sure to use dry wood chips, since they start smoking right away while the bird is still cold, and smoke condenses much more readily on cold surfaces.
After about an hour on the grill, my ideal grill‑roasted chicken was ready: succulent, subtly smoky meat encased in well-rendered and deeply golden skin. Behold, your (and my) new go-to method for roasting chicken—alfresco.