Chicken can be tough to cook right, but everyone seems to love chicken and its cooked all around the world. You’ll find it in Mediterranean food, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Caribbean, French and so many other cuisines. And with so many cusines cooking chicken there’s a lot of variety out there in how to cook it. Some people cook it whole, others use the thighs or the wings, the legs, the marylands or the breasts only.
How do you know which bit to use for what?
And another thing, why is it that chicken can become dry and tasteless in some recipes and some styles of cooking but not in others? Why is it that some people just have a knack for cooking chicken and others don’t? How is it that so many people can cook it wrong? And how can we avoid doing just that?
What you need to know for cooking perfect chicken
It all really comes down to a couple of key pieces of knowledge:
- Knowing which cut of chicken is best for the recipe and ingredients you’re cooking with.
- Knowing the best technique to cook the chicken pieces you’re using.
- Knowing the timing of the different cuts of chicken.
Which cut is best for your recipe:
Chicken is called a lean meat, which means there isn’t too much fat in it. The less fat you have in a piece of meat the more chance it has of becoming dry when overcooked. That’s why so many people can make chicken so dry – because they don’t cook it with enough moisture or fat, or they just cook it for way too long.
If you have a look at a raw chicken you’ll notice that the breasts are a nice pale pink colour, but the thighs and legs are a darker pink colour, almost red. This is because in any piece of meat (not just in chicken) the darker the pieces of meat are the more the animal has used that area of its body for movement – in this case the thighs and legs are used for walking while the breasts aren’t.
The best technique for your pieces of chicken:
Which means that the darker the meat the longer it will need cooking. So, as a rough guide:
- A whole chicken is ideal for a long, slow cook (i.e. roast chicken).
- The darker cuts like the thighs and legs can be cooked over a medium amount of time (i.e. for 30-40 minutes as part of a casserole or similar type dish).
- The wings are quick cooking because there isn’t a lot of meat on there.
- The breasts are quick to cook because there is less fat on them, and the smaller they’re cut the quicker they will be.
Therefore, when roasting chicken made it a whole chicken or use the thighs and legs. When you want to grill chicken, use the breasts because grilling is a quick cooking technique and helps you to lock in the moisture.
Know the timing:
Roast chicken takes around 1hr to cook (dependng on size). You can reduce this to 40 minutes if you take out the backbone (see this video if you want to learn how to do it).
Chicken legs and thighs take about 30-40 minutes cook. They take longer than chicken breasts because they are connected to the bone. Whenever you cook meat or chicken on the bone it takes longer to cook. Here’s an easy leg recipe to get you started: Five spice roast chicken drumsticks.
Chicken wings only take 20-30 minutes to cook, but again they’re being cooked on the bone, so they need time for the heat to penetrate down to the bone. In this Honey Soy Chicken Wings recipe the wings are cooked for 25 minutes because they’ve been cut into three pieces.
Chicken breasts will cook the fastest, with a whole breast taking 10-15 minutes, and small pieces of chicken breast (1cm cubes) taking a couple of minutes. It varies depending on the size of the cut, but its the breasts that are ideal for grilling.
For the best success at tender grilled chicken
Now you know which cut of chicken to use for grilling, here are a few other tips you should follow to help you get perfect tender grilled chicken each time you make it.
- In a fry pan vs on the BBQ: You can grill on either the fry pan or the BBQ, but make sure the pan or BBQ are hot before you put the chicken on it. Make sure its hot enough to seal the outside (cook the outside only) before you lower the heat and continue to cook the inside. Tip: have an open window or door near the kitchen if you’re cooking like this as the fire alarm can go off with the extra smoke in the room (this is a lesson well learnt in my house as the alarm goes off all the time!).
- Change the heat: Watch the temperature of the pan. You only want the pan hot when you put the meat in so you can grill one side, then grill the other (also called browning the meat) before you turn the heat down. Turning the heat down means you won’t burn the outside but still have a raw inside. Keep the heat on medium to low and cook for a bit longer to make the inside moist – the higher the heat, and the longer its on a high heat is when you’ll end up with dry chicken.
- Cover it with a lid: Once you’ve sealed the outsides of the chicken and turned the heat down, cover the pan with a lid (or close the BBQ lid). This helps the chicken to continue to cook by creating steam that then helps to cook the chicken from the top as the heat fries it from the bottom.
- Glazes or rubs that burn: Some ingredients in marinades can burn faster than others, so you need to be careful with these. For instance, anything sweet will burn faster, such as sugar, honey, maple syrup or fruit juices because sugar burns a lot faster than the chicken does. Dry rubs can burn faster too as spices will burn if there’s no liquid to fry them in (like oil), so I’d recommend making a wet marinade (i.e. add oil, lemon juice or yoghurt to the spices). When grilling chicken using a glaze or rub as a marinade make sure the you follow the steps above, but turn the heat down sooner than for other types of coatings (and make sure that door is open!).
- Use tongs to handle the chicken: By using tongs you won’t pierce the meat and let the juices out. This is crucial if you’re trying to get moist chicken. (Do this with all types of meat you’re cooking too).
Recipe ideas for Grilled Chicken
Here’s a few recipe ideas to get you started. Don’t forget though that any recipe that calls for frying or grilling can be cooked using this technique too.
- Island spiced pineapple glazed grilled chicken breasts.
- Honey chicken kebobs (kebabs on a stick – try this marinade on pieces of grilled chicken too).
- Easy grilled teriyaki chicken.
- Greek style garlic chicken.
- “Unbelievable” chicken.