It’s the most disappointing taste of summer. You’re at a backyard cookout and the host offers you a piece of barbecue chicken. You get excited, only to find the first bite sitting in your mouth like the charred ashes of a dream about chicken you once had. The second bite is a stringy, chicken-flavored rubber band.
Of course, many of you already know that, even though it’s lacquered in barbecue sauce, this isn’t really barbecued chicken—it’s grilled chicken, cooked quickly over direct heat. Barbecuing means going low and slow with more smoke. The fix is easy—less heat, more time, brine the meat, and save your sauce for near the end. The result will prevent your guests from wondering if their tears can be used to return needed moisture to a dry plate of what could have been.
So why all the great, timely cooking advice for a season that just ended? Truth is, summer isn’t the best for barbecuing. Standing over a grill in July is a horribly sweaty affair. Autumn is the best time to barbecue: The warm grill in cool air offering a rare second chance to capture one of the pleasures of a summer that probably went by too fast.
Just don’t squander the opportunity by marinating chicken in sauce, then throwing it onto a roaring-hot grill for 15-20 minutes. This will burn rather than caramelize the sugars in the sauce. Plus, most barbecue sauces contain vinegar or other acidic ingredients that begin cooking your meat early, effectively drying it out. Instead, brine your chicken, soaking it in a saltwater solution a couple of hours before cooking. The salt breaks down muscle fibers, allowing the meat to absorb moisture but also preventing the fibers from contracting quite so much under heat, thus releasing that moisture.
And remember that barbecuing in America is a sacred topic marked by spirited debates. Brining is one of them. Wet brining is described above; “dry brining” is an alternative by which the meat is simply rubbed with salt and maybe some spices. The high priests of food science that occupy the Internet and cooking shows can never seem to agree on what option works best. More Zen-like members of the group, such as Alton Brown, waver back and forth on brining technique. He holds two opposing ideas in his mind at once, yet miraculously retains the ability to function.
Both methods work fine, but I go with wet brining because it’s given me slightly better results. If I go to foodie hell for my beliefs, I only hope that I can find a quiet corner where the coals aren’t too hot. Because low heat isn’t a debatable issue.
Only at the very beginning do you use high heat, to sear the skin side for a few minutes. Then you cool things down, either by banking the coals to one side or turning down the burner. Close the lid and give each side about 25-30 minutes, keeping the heat in the range of 300-325 degrees. After that, begin painting on the sauce, brushing and turning for another 20-25 minutes, not letting the sauce burn, but rather caramelize into a gooey lacquer with the texture of a fruit roll-up. After about 75 minutes, and once the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, it’s ready.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 3 to 4 hours, mostly unattended
⅓ cup salt, plus more for seasoning
2 tablespoons sugar
One 4 to 5 pound chicken, butchered into 8 pieces
2 cups barbecue sauce
1. Dissolve the salt and sugar in 5 cups water in a large bowl and add the chicken to it. If needed, add water to cover the chicken, and let it sit for 2 to 3 hours in the refrigerator.
2. Heat a charcoal or gas grill, keeping part of the grill cool for indirect grilling. Remove the chicken from the brine, pat dry, and season with salt and pepper. Put the chicken pieces skin side down on the hot part of the grill and cook until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the chicken to the cool side of the grill, close the lid, and cook for 50 to 60 minutes, turning once.
3. Uncover the grill. Gradually brush the chicken with the barbecue sauce as you continue to cook it, turning occasionally, until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of one of the pieces reads 165°F, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Store leftover barbecued chicken wrapped in foil in the fridge for up to a few days.)