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Making grilled chicken taste wonderful

Chicken doesn’t have a great reputation as a meat. People call it bland. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

During my time off from Kamikaze Cookery, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking, and learning a lot of new stuff. Some of it isn’t directly applicable to everyday living, like knowing the national dish of Laos (larb, a minced meat salad - nicer than it sounds). Other bits, though, really are - notably having had time to thoroughly go through many of my neglected recipe books.

I’ll be sharing a fair bit of this stuff over the next months, but right now I want to talk about what might be my favourite dish of all from a year’s testing - grilled chicken.

By “grilled” here, I mean grilled on a grill pan, a solid chunk of metal with ridges that you put on a stove, or potentially a barbeque. (Personally I’m using a seriously battered Le Creuset cast iron model) Top-down grills, which the Americans amongst us would call “broilers”, have rather seriously different cooking qualities (although they’re ace for sausages). But a ridged grill cooks fast and delivers lots of gorgeous searing on the meat, meaning Maillard reactions are a go, for that amazing caramelised crunchiness contrasting with the hot, fresh, tasty meat.

h2. Thigh FILLETS are the win.

Chicken breasts don’t have a great reputation amongst the cookerati, which I think is slightly unfair. However, for a simple grill, you really want the flavourful, mixed dark and light, slightly fatty meat of a thigh. Grilled chicken breast is not only more expensive but also less tasty.

But there’s a problem with that - a whole thigh takes forever to grill, and is a bit of a dicy proposition even if you’re using a thermometer. My one undercooked-chicken FAIL of the last year was courtesy of some stovetop-grilled chicken thighs - you’ve got to watch hot and cold spots, which even induction cookers and cast iron can produce, you’ve got to watch cooking all the way through the meat, and you’ve got to watch the wierd thermal dynamics around the bone. In short, whole chicken thighs are great for all-over cooking in stews or ovens, but suck donkey balls for grilling.

However, most UK supermarkets at least now stock thigh fillets. They’re damn good value (about four pounds for 500g of free-range high-quality thighs from Sainsburys in the UK), they taste gorgeous, and they’re thin, so they cook extremely fast on a grill. Most of them are skinless, but the grilling process gives so much flavour it doesn’t matter.

You could fillet your own thighs, of course. I could peel tomatoes for ragu too, but I can’t usually be arsed to do either. They’re about comparable levels of pain in the ass.

(Finally, one neat tip if you cook sous-vide. Grilled chicken breast is a two-minute job if you cook the breast at low temperature - and by “low” we mean 60 degrees centigrade, a la Douglas Baldwin’s guide. ONce they’re done, simply slap them on the grill for a minute each side - the only way to get really tasty grilled breast. Make up a really good caesar dressing, grab some anchovies and some crispy lettuce, and you’ve got the basis of a world-beating grilled chicken salad. )

h2. “Smoky” is the name of the game in grilled chicken recipes.

Solo, grilled chicken thighs aren’t bad. But the heat and the fat means that they take up appropriate flavours like you wouldn’t believe.

My vote for best meal I’ve made all year goes to Nigel Slater’s chicken thighs with thyme leaves. Just rub the thigh fillets with good olive oil and fresh thyme - don’t even bother stripping it from its branches, just stick sprigs of it on there - then grill. The smell is incredible - one of the few meals that works much better if you’re eating it where you’re cooking.

He also recommends balsamic vinegar, onions, or French mustard as tastes to go with grilled chicken. I’d also suggest lemon or lime - grilled lemon chicken is a classic, of course - to cut through the smoke and bring out high notes to the taste, or maybe even white wine - you could try just heating the pan hot then almost basting the chicken with it every couple of minutes. Barbeque sauce, provided it’s good stuff, or Moroccan tastes like cumin also work a treat.

h2. Fat, fat, fat.

It’s all about the fat in recipes for grilled chicken. Chicken thighs already have quite a bit, of course, and this is a good reason to keep the skin on if you can get the skin-on fillets. (The other reason, of course, is that chicken skin is gorgeous).

Otherwise, you’ll be wanting to add some serious fat content in there. Olive oil rubbed into the chicken tastes fantastic in an “oh my god, I’m in an Italian tourism advert” sort of way. Butter, either rubbed on, plonked on after, or both, gives it a rich, expensive feel. And cream or creme fraiche makes a great base for a sauce, contrasting nicely with the spare feel of the grilled chicken and picking up all the grilled, charred flavours.

Any other tips for grilled chicken?