Summer has arrived, and with it comes the time to break out the grill! I will admit I enjoy a sizzling steak, a savory burger, a juicy brat, seared scallops, and succulent grilled salmon as much as the next person. And yet, my go-to will always be chicken – and in particular, I am always partial to chicken thighs. Grilled thighs are more forgiving in the preparation and cooking than chicken breasts. You can overcook a chicken thigh to where the skin is charred and crackling while the inside remains juicy and full of flavor. Try that with chicken breast and you end up with an inedible chunk of chicken jerky. Thighs will always have a permanent place on my grill, and I hope after reading this, yours also.
Grilling Chicken Thighs
Even though I have stated, unequivocally, that it is easier to grill chicken thighs than breast, there are some steps and considerations to take if you want the end result to have nice and crispy skin with the meat remaining mouth-watering and tender. After years of grueling hours sweating to the sizzling sound of thighs in various states of preparation and flavor combinations, I believe I have hit upon the best practices and an ideal recipe that uses both; a dry rub and sauce. Before I go into the details of doubling up the flavor of your grilled chicken thighs, let’s look at how we can get to grillin’ the perfect thighs.
The First Step Takes Place at the Meat Counter
Finding the ideal thighs can at times be challenging. For our family, when I run across a great sale – I buy in bulk. Look for plump, meaty thighs with some fat on the edges. Next, let the chicken thighs cool to room temperature. If the thighs are frozen when purchased, allow them to thaw in the refrigerator. And don’t forget the calibrated sniff test. If that bird doesn’t smell right, get rid of it.
I prefer bone-in with the skin still attached. Trim all excess fat and skin. Boneless chicken thighs are convenient; they cook quicker and more evenly than bone-in, but to me, a boneless chicken thigh is not quite as tasty. Some folks advocate keeping your chicken in an airtight container for several days before processing. For my personal safety, I do not follow this recommendation. I know that if I tried, I would probably drown in my own saliva in anticipation of the upcoming grilling bonanza!
Moisture is Not a Chicken Thigh’s Friend
Soggy thighs do not absorb the flavors of a dry rub nearly as well as dry thighs can. By blotting your thighs with paper towels you will remove excess moisture which in turn allows the skin to pull in the flavor of the rub, get crispy while grilling, and lock in all of that juicy goodness.
- Dry Rubs – The Foundation of Flavor
Dry rubs are a wonderful way to push a lot of flavor into the meat in a short amount of time, without having any additional sauces or meats. Even though you can always add a glaze or a sauce after the meats have been cooked, it’s absolutely not necessary with a dry rub. What is a dry rub? It’s very simple, dry rub is a combination of dry ingredients and spice ingredients mixed together for coating and flavoring meat and as the name implies, it gets “rubbed” into the meat prior to grilling.
There are many different dry rubs available for every taste preference. For those with a sweet tooth, there are rubs leaning heavily on the different sugars and other natural sweeteners. For those who like it hot, there are pre-made rubs guaranteed to set you on fire coming and going! For me, I like to go simple when using over-the-counter rubs. My personal “go-to” will either be a combination of equal parts of Italian Seasoning mixed with a quality Garlic Salt; or, a simple Lemon Pepper. Once you have your grilling basics mastered, then I recommend you move on to the next level and find that combination that will create a flavor explosion for your taste buds.
Once you have determined which direction your tastes lie, take your dry rub and place it into a large bowl. Add the thighs one at a time and thoroughly rub the seasonings into every nook and cranny of the meat. Some prefer to allow the meat to refrigerate overnight to push as much flavor into the meat as possible. That doesn’t work for me. A well-rubbed thigh can be cooked immediately.
- Grill and slather, slather and grill
Now that your thighs are fully rubbed, it’s time to grill and add that final touch of sauce to push the meal over the top! What is a grill sauce and is it really needed? A sauce is intended to add an extra layer of flavor to the grilled entrée. Prior to slathering the thighs in your favorite barbeque sauce, I offer a word of caution. Always keep in mind that the rub you used should be complemented by the sauce. As an example, a sauce heavy on chili powder will be much more overpowering than the flavors imbued through the use of chipotle as the spice base. Both sauces could overpower a mild lemon pepper rub and would not compliment the final selection as well as a mango-based sauce. Trial and experimentation have now become part of your growth as the “Grill Master.” Whatever your preference, you will find that combination of rub and sauce that starts you salivating just at the thought of firing up the grill!
- Preheat your grill to 400ºF (cooking at a lower temp for a longer period of time will make the meat fall off the bones easier).
- Place the thighs skin-side down over direct heat and grill for about 5 to 6 minutes. You will notice the skin starting to curl as you approach that super crispy stage!
- Flip the chicken thighs and cook them over direct heat for 4 minutes. Pay attention to the flame height, this is when flare-ups are going to occur.
- Flip chicken thighs one last time for another 4 minutes prior to moving them over indirect heat.
- While the thighs are continuing to cook over the indirect heat, go ahead and start to work the sauce into the meat. Once the sauce has caramelized, flip the thighs over and repeat the process. The thighs are done when they’ve reached an internal temperature of 165ºF.
Grill chicken thighs for about 15 minutes or until they have an internal temperature of 165ºF. These times will vary depending on the size of your thighs and whether they have been deboned. Thick thighs with the bones still in will take longer. Use your thermometer to guarantee the meat is cooked thoroughly. After the thighs have reached the proper internal temperature, remove them from the grill and allow them to rest for around 10 minutes. Not only will this allow the flavors to flow through the meat, it is a vital safety precaution for those hungry guests who have been waiting patiently for the meal. I can attest through experience that biting into a sizzling, juicy thigh can lead to painful burns inside your mouth! Now, fire up the grill, rub those thighs, sauce them up and enjoy.
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