Forget Chicken Pieces, Grill A Butterflied Chicken Instead

Food & Drink

May is National Barbecue Month and that brings up the age-old debate of grilling vs. barbecue. Despite the fact that these days the term barbecue is widely understood and used to refer to slow-cooked, wood-smoked meats, the food that people cook most often on their grill is chicken.

That may be boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chicken pieces, chicken wings; or whole chicken like my favorite beer-can chicken. Less so butterflied chicken—but I hope to change that.

Butterflied chicken a.k.a. spatchcock chicken is chicken that has been flattened by removing the backbone and it is one of my favorite chickens to cook on a sheet pan, a cast-iron skillet or a grill. It is such a great way to cook whole chicken because it is faster, easier to carve and the skin is crispy on the entire chicken. It also looks impressive even though it could not be simplier.

In many grocery stores, you can find whole chickens that have already been spatchcocked/butterflied and are ready for the grill. Bell & Evans came out with their version a few years ago and it literally gets rid of most of the prep time. In this case, all you need to do is brush the entire chicken with olive oil and season it to your liking. I am partial to a simple salt and pepper rub. But this is a great time to use your favorite barbecue or spice rub as chicken is like a blank canvas and adapts well to any seasoning from classic American to your favorite global flavors.

If you are butchering the chicken at home, I suggest using sharp kitchen scissors, the 8-inch or 8.5-inch take-apart scissors from Messermeister are my favorite. They are sharp, smooth, cut well and you can take them apart and put them in the dishwasher. (I use mine for everything including carving the grilled bird before serving.) The scissors make spatchcocking more like a craft project than butchering [with a knife], and easy for novices and professionals alike. If you need a step-by-step refresher on how to cut and remove the backbone, I have one on my newsletter archive.

Now that you have your chicken, it’s time to grill it. You need to set your grill up for indirect heat. While the grill is preheating, brush the chicken with olive oil and bend the wing tips back under the bird, this is called wings akimbo. Once this is done, season as you like and you are ready to grill. Plan on about 45 minutes for a 3-pound chicken—this is the weight after it’s been butterflied. It’s done when the internal temperature in the breast reads 160F and the dark meat near the thigh bone reads about 180F. You will also want to let it rest for 5-10 minutes before carving and serving.

Butterflied Chicken 101

I wrote this recipe for a butterflied (spatchcock) chicken, but you can use the same method for bone-in chicken pieces and adjust the timing based on size. I recommend grilling chicken pieces over an Indirect heat so that it is cooked on the inside and golden-brown at the same time. Cooking over Direct heat can create a raw interior and a burned exterior—especially if you put the barbecue sauce on too soon.

Serves 4

Grilling Method: Indirect/Medium Heat

1 whole chicken, 3-4 pounds, butterflied or bone-in chicken pieces

Extra-Virgin Olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

1. Remove and discard excess fat from chicken if necessary. Pat dry.

2. Brush lightly with oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place chicken, bone-side down in center of cooking grate. You do not need to turn the chicken pieces.

3. Grill-roast until breast meat near bone registers 160-165°F and thigh meat registers 180°F, about 45 minutes depending on size. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, cook until no longer pink and the juices run clear. The skin should be golden brown and the drumsticks should be receding from the skin meaning that you can see the bone sticking out a little.

4. Remove from grill and let sit 10 minutes before serving.

NOTE: If preparing barbecued chicken, season with favorite barbecue rub and brush sauce on chicken during the last 10 minutes of cooking time to prevent burning.

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