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Is there a proper technique for cooking chicken (with skin) on the barbecue, without little chicken-fireballs?


My previous landlord loved to cook on the barbecue, much to the displeasure of our tastebuds. (We alternated cooking days).

Her chicken always caught on fire and the skin burned to a crisp. The meat on the inside was fine of course, but the fatty skin was long since toast.

I have never tried cooking chicken on the barbecue with skin, but I'd like to try it, without setting them on fire. Can it be done, and is it really easy?

I've theorized that if I boil the chicken just a little, it might remove some of the fat and help, but I'm not sure. I won't have barbecue access for awhile (currently living in an apartment) so I can't try it, yet.

I have no idea why her chicken burned (high temperature, not paying attention, etc).

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Even at low temperature, you're going to have flare ups. Don't crowd the grill, and when the flammable grease starts causing spurts of flame, move the chicken slightly. – Satanicpuppy Apr 28 '11 at 16:13
For charcoal at least, putting the cover on reduces the amount of oxygen available, lowering heat and greatly reducing flame-ups (indeed, since there is little spare oxygen, there isn't any to feed the flame-up). – derobert Apr 29 '11 at 17:34
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The chicken fat layer in the skin is flammable. As it melts, it drips out and down. If there is something extremely hot underneath it (like hot charcoal), it will ignite causing a flareup. Heat rises, so the heat and flame go back upwards to heat the chicken more, causing more fat to melt and drip. It is a self-reinforcing cycle.

To prevent the cycle from beginning:

  • lower the heat level
  • put a drip pan between heat and the chicken
  • move the chicken so it isn't directly above the heat
  • start with the side of the chicken with skin facing down, finish with it facing up

If you actually get the skin hot enough to catch fire while on the chicken, you're REALLY using too much heat.

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Was she just grilling the chicken or was she grilling it with barbecue sauce on it?

If she was just grilling it then she most likely was using too high of heat.

If she was grilling it with barbecue sauce or other sauces/marinades that were on the sweet side the issue (and that for a lot of people doing barbecued chicken) is that she was grilling it with the sauce on the chicken for too long (probably from the very beginning).

When meats have been marinated in mixtures that contain a lot of sugar or sweeteners (sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, etc.) such as brown sugar, the meat should first be wiped off, patted dry and rubbed with a little oil before being placed on the grill. This will keep the sugary components from caramelizing, sticking and burning to the grill grate and causing burning and blackening on the exterior of the meat (chicken briquettes as a I like to call them). Boil the marinade/sauce for a few minutes and then use as a basting sauce to give a glaze to the meat during the last 3-5 minutes of cooking.

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  1. Lower the heat... Eventually. I'd still start on a high temperature for a good sear, but then drop from high to low/medium.

  2. Beware of sugary marinades or glazes. For marinades, wipe the outside of the meat before cooking with a paper towel. For glazes, only use them in the last few minutes of cooking.

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The answer is simple. Don't cook on direct heat, and don't sauce (if at all) until the end of the cook. Sometimes I like to crisp up the skins first over direct heat and then move the pieces to cook indirectly. Other times, I just cook indirectly at a higher temperature (350f+). Depends on my mood. But if you cook directly over the fire, you are begging for flare-ups to ruin your food more often than not.

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You need to alternate between direct, radiant heat (high flame) and indirect heat (baking).

Turn on one side of the grill only. Sear and crisp the skin, and leave it over the heat until you get your first flare up.

Immediately transfer the meat to the cold side of the grill and close the lid. Let it bake there.

I find chicken cooks through three phases -initial heating -rendering -post rendering heating. (getting the red near the bone out)

The rendering phase must be done indirectly, or you will get flare-ups.

Also, when you are done, turn both sides of the grill on high to burn off the rendered fat that has dripped all over your rock/tiles.

Commercial chicken also has a lot of loose fat that can be removed prior to cooking. In particular, where the thigh meets the body there is usually a large piece of fat that should be removed. It won't add any flavour, but will definitely contribute to that greasy black smoke you are trying to avoid.

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My neighbor had the ultimate solution for flare ups of any kind. He simply built an ugly barbecue grill that had the heat source, in his case charcoal, two feet below the grill. Even chicken flare ups could not reach the chicken on the grill or ignite the chicken. His barbecue grill was a 55 gallon drum. Not very pretty but it sure worked for grilling chicken.

On the bottom side of the drum he cut a 10"X18" horizontal opening. Inside he placed a round 18" charcoal grill about 3" off the bottom. This was held in place by two pieces of steel T=posts that protruded through holes on the outside of the drum. On this grill he placed the charcoals. He re-attached the removed piece by two hinges and a latch. Around the bottom of the drum he put about 10 1" Holes to provide ignition air.

He cut off the top of the drum about 1" below the top. He then made numerous vertical 1" cuts around the top edge of the drum and bent the drum top extensions in a little. This allowed the lid to fit easily on top of the drum.

One foot down from the open top he placed another grill a little less than the diameter of the drum width held in place with two more t-posts. He put two wood handles on the lid so it could be safely removed to work with the food.

The entire unit could be easily disassembled and cleaned. But best of all the chicken or steak was never touched or burned by flames**.

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