by MEGHAN SPLAWN published AUG 12, 2021
Grilled chicken is a summer staple. It’s a key player in weeknight dinners and a go-to for meal prep. Too often, though, grilled chicken — especially the ubiquitous boneless, skinless breasts — are dry and flavorless. Juicy grilled chicken is what we all really want this summer.
This quest inspired me to test six methods for juicy grilled chicken, from basic brines to sticking it under a brick, to find the one method you really need. Keep reading for two flawless methods I love!
A Few Notes About Methodology
Our recipe suggestions came from Kitchn’s team of food editors and contributors. For example, contributor Patty Catalano suggested our own pounded thin, brined, and marinated chicken, while my friends The Grill Dads had a lot to say about dry brining (and the over-promise of grill marks).
Each method was prepared so that they could be grilled and tested side-by-side. I used boneless, skinless breasts of roughly the same weight (6 to 7 ounces each). Two methods had overnight brining or marinating times as options, and I did test them out to try and get the best results. Each method was tested on a gas grill following the directions for each method — most call for medium-high heat, while two called for indirect and direct heat (also known as two-zone cooking). All of the chicken was sliced and taste tested in our backyard by my family of four and two close friends. Here are the results.
Grilled Chicken Method: Marinated Overnight
Timing: Overnight marinade + 12 minutes grill time
This classic marinade method comes from Damn Delicious and is incredibly popular on Pinterest. A marinade — a mixture of an acidic liquid, like vinegar or citrus juice, mixed with herbs and spices — promises to flavor the chicken and keep it juicy in one fell swoop. In this recipe, the marinade is loaded with dried and fresh spices and gets its acid from lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. Some of the marinade is reserved for glazing the chicken while it cooks. The chicken breasts are marinated for at least one hour or overnight (I did the latter) before grilling over medium-high heat.
I suspect that this method was primarily developed by indoor grillers using mostly grill pans. I found that the marinade made for very sticky chicken that might have burned over a charcoal flame (I had quite a few flareups on my well-maintained gas grill). The cooked chicken looked good and had great flavor, but was bone dry and chewy. Over-marinating can toughen the meat, so if I were to try this method again I’d go with a shorter marinating time.
Grilled Chicken Method: Wet Brined (Quick)
Timing: 30-minute brine time + 25-minute cook time (includes 5-minute rest)
Wet brining, like this recipe from Simply Recipes, is different from marinating. Wet brines are a solution of salt and water (sometimes enhanced with dried herbs and spices) that help keep meat moist and also season the meat through osmosis. Simply Recipes promises juicy chicken after a 30-minute saltwater soak. After brining, the chicken breasts are patted dry, brushed with oil, sprinkled with paprika, and grilled using a two-zone cooking method using direct and indirect heat.
Generally, I’m a fan of brining, but this brine alone didn’t bring enough flavor to our grilled chicken party. The chicken itself browned well and the middle was juicy. The edges of the chicken were very dry, which speaks a bit to why flattened chicken pieces grill better — more on that below.
Grilled Chicken Method: Dry Rubbed
Timing: 15 minutes with the rub + 25-minute cook time (includes 5-minute rest)
Dry rubs are spice blends that are great for flavoring everything from chicken to ribs. For this method, the dry rub is super simple — just salt, pepper, and garlic powder — which promises not to burn on the grill. You can prep the chicken, fire up the grill, and go from cooking to eating in less than 1 hour. This particular recipe from Fit Foodie Finds calls for grilling over hot direct heat, which may have ultimately been its major downfall.
The hot temperature makes for stunning grill marks, but with such high heat and a short rest with the rub, the chicken dried up quickly! I might reach for this method again for a big batch of grilled chicken for chicken salad, or if I’m in a real rush, but otherwise I think a longer dry brine and lower cooking temperature make for better grilled chicken.
Grilled Chicken Method: Cooked Under a Brick
Timing: 10-minute prep time + 20-minute cook time
I got unreasonably excited about the idea of brick-cooked chicken, because doesn’t it just look like fun? This Italian method for cooking wood-fired chickens is most commonly used for whole, halved, or spatchcocked birds and the idea is simple and effective: A brick is wrapped in heavy foil, preheated on the grill, and then the seasoned chicken is pressed between the grill grates and the hot brick. This method helps cook the chicken more evenly and more quickly.
While I really loved the flavor of this chicken, and it did grill up somewhat moist, it felt like the chicken was squeezed through the grill grates, which pushed out a lot of the natural juices. I suspect the issue here is that boneless, skinless chicken breasts aren’t the best candidates for this method. I’m looking forward to trying this again with halved chickens later this summer.
Grilled Chicken Method: Pounded and Wet Brined Overnight
Timing: Overnight brine + 15-minute cook time
This is a method I developed many years ago for Kitchn but got lazy about using the last couple of summers. It requires quite a bit of upfront work but promises juicy, evenly cooked chicken. First, you pound the chicken to an even thickness — it doesn’t have to be thin, just make sure the middle and edges of each piece are roughly the same. Then a basic brine gets flavored with a marinade that also doubles as a glaze. After an overnight brine, the chicken is grilled using two-zone cooking.
This method requires more ingredients and more upfront work than any of the other methods, but it really does deliver on juicy, perfectly cooked chicken. In the future, I’d ditch the marinade part of the brine and use a simple sauce instead of the somewhat tedious glazing this recipe calls
Grilled Chicken Method: Pounded and Dry Brined Overnight
Timing: Overnight brine + 30-minute cook time
Leave it to Serious Eats to give us all the details for grilling perfect, juicy chicken breast with a healthy dose of science and as little fuss as possible. Their method calls for pounding the chicken to even thickness and then using either a wet or dry brine to season the chicken overnight. I choose the dry brine method to see how it compares to the wet brine above. After the brine, the chicken is cooked using the two-zone method.
This chicken browned gorgeously (thanks to the sugar in the brine) but didn’t get deep grill marks. But that didn’t bother any of the testers because the meat was flavorful and moist. This method hits the sweet spot of ease, flavor, and juiciness that I crave from grilled chicken.
No matter how you choose to flavor your chicken, pounding the chicken to an even thickness gave the two winning methods their advantage. Evenly shaped chicken cooks quickly and retains moisture from end to end. While a brine contributes a lot of moisture, both dry brine methods seemed to cook and brown more easily than their wet-brined counterparts. Some of that might be due to the surface moisture of the chicken after being brined in so much water. Cooking temperature also matters for grilled chicken: For beautifully browned meat that is also juicy, the two-zone method is the way to go.Meghan SplawnFOOD EDITOR, SKILLS
Meghan is the Food Editor for Kitchn’s Skills content. She’s a master of everyday baking, family cooking, and harnessing good light. Meghan approaches food with an eye towards budgeting — both time and money — and having fun. Meghan has a baking and pastry degree, and spent the first 10 years of her career as part of Alton Brown’s culinary team. She co-hosts a weekly podcast about food and family called Didn’t I Just Feed You.FOLLOW MEGHAN