Do you grill your chicken skin side up or down? You might be surprised to learn that there’s a right and wrong way to begin the process. When you’ve finished reading this guide, you’ll know why.
Chicken Skin Side Up or Down
It’s better to grill chicken with the skin side facing down—at least during the first stage of the cooking process. You’ll need to flip it over after 10 minutes or so, but this step will allow the skin to achieve a crisp, golden texture. Try not to disturb the meat until it’s time to turn it over.
Why It Matters
When you’re grilling skin-on chicken, your goal is to wind up with savory, juicy meat encased in crispy golden skin. It might seem straightforward enough, but there are certainly steps you can take to further your chances of success.
If you don’t do the job properly, the skin might turn flabby or rubbery. The chicken will still be edible (assuming you’ve cooked it to a safe temperature), but the results won’t be anywhere near as impressive.
Chicken Skin Side Up or Down: How To Begin
You’ll need to flip the chicken over at least once during the cooking process. So why does its initial positioning make a difference either way?
If there was no skin involved, then it wouldn’t matter. You can grill boneless and skinless chicken breasts and thighs without worrying about which side of the cut hits the cooking grate first.
But that’s not the case with skin-on poultry. If you were to put the meat on the grill with the skin side facing up, it would steam as the underside began to cook. That’s the last thing you want.
Always begin by positioning the chicken on the grill with the skin side facing down. The skin will start to brown up immediately. Be sure not to move the pieces for at least 10 minutes, or the skin will stick to the grilling grates.
Tips on Grilling Chicken Skin Side Up
Clean the Grates
Earlier, we mentioned that crispy skin should be your main goal when grilling this type of chicken. But if any of that skin gets left behind on the grill, it won’t matter how crispy it is. Always clean your grilling grates thoroughly after each use.
When you’re preheating the grill, grease the grates before putting any food down. Use paper towels and a set of tongs to apply a thin layer of neutral oil. This is important no matter what you’re putting on the grill, but it’s crucial for skin-on chicken.
Use Medium-High Heat
For optimum results, the chicken skin needs to be “surprised” by the sudden contact with direct heat. You want the fire to be hot enough to create an immediate browning reaction, but not so hot that it causes flare-ups. A medium-hot fire is your best bet.
Also, be sure to preheat the grill for at least 15 minutes prior to cooking. This is another way to ensure that the skin won’t stick to the grates when it’s time to flip the meat.
Thaw The Chicken
Many home chefs don’t realize that you can cook meat without thawing it first. It takes more time than it would if the meat were defrosted, but as long as it cooks to a safe temperature, this method doesn’t do any harm.
That said, the skin may not brown properly if you’re starting with frozen chicken. The meat will release a great deal of moisture as it thaws, and moisture is the enemy of crispy chicken skin.
When you’re dealing with large cuts of meat, it’s not a good idea to cook from frozen anyway. The exterior might char before the insides have had a chance to cook through.
The best way to thaw meat is to keep it in the refrigerator. With this method, chicken should thaw at a rate of about 4 to 5 hours per pound. If you’re in a rush, you can use a cold water bath or the microwave to speed things along.
There’s one other point we should mention: Chicken that’s sold in supermarkets has usually been treated with a brine solution. That means there will be even more moisture trapped inside the frozen product. Thawing it in advance allows you to dry it before seasoning.
Dry The Skin
While we’re on the subject of drying out the chicken, leaving it in the fridge uncovered overnight is a good course of action to take.
After patting the meat dry with paper towels, place it in a roasting pan with the skin side facing up. At this point, you can season it if you wish, or wait until the last minute to take that step.
Set the pan in the fridge and let the chicken sit overnight. The exposure to the cold air will dry out the skin, so it will crisp up better when it’s time to start cooking.
One thing to remember is that raw chicken will only keep for a day or two in the fridge. If you’ve already had it on hand for a couple of days, it might be too late to take this extra step.
Bring Chicken To Room Temperature
First and foremost, we should point out that it’s not safe to leave meat at room temperature for longer than 2 hours—or 1 hour when the weather is exceedingly hot. But you can take the chicken out of the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes before cooking it.
This step isn’t strictly necessary, but “tempering” the chicken this way can lead to juicier meat and a more impressive crust. If you leave the meat outside while heating the grill, make sure it’s in the shade—and out of the reach of pets.
Season in Advance
If you haven’t already seasoned the chicken before leaving it in the fridge to dry, be sure to do so before putting it on the grill. Adding salt and pepper to the cooked chicken won’t have the same effect.
You can also brine the chicken in a saltwater solution. This helps the meat retain moisture, in addition to providing a hint of seasoning. The process can be beneficial even if you only have a couple of hours to spare.
How To Tell When Chicken Is Done
After placing the chicken on the grilling grates with the skin side facing down, wait at least 10 minutes before turning it to the other side. Use tongs or a sturdy spatula to flip the chicken.
If you find that the skin is threatening to stick to the grates, wait a few more minutes, then try again. Don’t be tempted to prod or readjust the chicken during the initial stage. You don’t want to risk tearing the skin before it can achieve the desired texture.
Once you’ve flipped the chicken, it should cook for another 10-12 minutes. The exact length of time may vary, depending on the individual cuts of meat and the reliability of your grill.
Some people try to gauge the level of doneness based on the length of time the meat has been on the grill, or by appearance. While these can be useful guidelines, they won’t guarantee food safety.
There’s only one way to be sure whether the chicken is done cooking, and that’s by testing it with a meat thermometer. Chicken is considered done when it hits an internal temp of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
165 degrees is the ideal serving temperature for chicken breast, but legs and thighs need to cook longer. We suggest that you leave the dark meat cuts on the heat until they’ve cooked to 180 degrees.
Remember that the meat will continue to cook as it rests. You can pull chicken breast from the heat at 160 degrees, then tent it with foil and rest it for at least 5 minutes. The dark meat cuts need to rest as well, during which time they should cook to 185.
If you have any leftovers, be sure to refrigerate them within 2 hours. Even after the meat is cooked, it will attract bacteria if it’s left out at room temperature for too long. Consume or freeze any leftovers within 3 to 4 days.
The Bottom Line
Start the cooking process by positioning the chicken with the skin side facing down, and don’t be tempted to move it too soon. By following the guidelines we’ve mentioned, you should wind up with crispy, juicy, delectable results every time.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!