Today we’re going to chat chicken — which is like talking turkey, only smaller. Specifically, we’re going to look at how to get crispy chicken skin on the grill and get it right every time.
We spend a lot of time talking about getting the perfect sear on a steak, what kind of sauce to mop on your ribs, or how to smoke a brisket to tender perfection. Sometimes it is easy to forget that there’s more for the ‘cue than pork and beef!
Grilled chicken is absolutely delicious, and it’s a favorite with a long history. In fact, it’s where many people start their BBQ journey. Try telling me a juicy grilled chicken breast isn’t a classic worth celebrating!
Still, for as easy as it is to prepare, grill, and enjoy chicken, getting the skin crispy is elusive as heck. What’s the secret, or secrets, behind chicken skin that isn’t either dried out or rubbery?
All is about to be revealed. Chicken lovers, this one’s for you.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- 1 Start with a Dry Bird
- 2 Stretch it Smooth
- 3 Salt Your Way to Success
- 4 Searing and Separating
- 5 Crank Up the Heat… for a Bit
- 6 Open the Tent Flaps when Resting
- 7 Leave Your Chicken Alone on the Grill
- 8 The Boiling Water Trick
- 9 Separate and Poke Method
- 10 Baking Powder For the Win
- 11 What to Avoid When Aiming for Crispy Chicken Skin
- 12 Final Thoughts
Start with a Dry Bird
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that something wet can never be crispy. So, the first step towards crispy chicken skin is getting rid of unnecessary moisture.
If your chicken is frozen, you need to defrost it thoroughly first. Check our guide on how to quickly defrost chicken for tips.
If not frozen, then first unwrap your chicken, whether it’s whole or in pieces, and pat it dry on all sides with paper towels. Don’t rub hard; just press the towel against the skin and let it wick the water away.
Next, let the chicken air-dry in the fridge. Leave it unwrapped on a platter for at least a couple of hours, but preferably as long as overnight. It’s perfectly safe, and the trace bits of surface moisture remaining will evaporate.
Stretch it Smooth
Time to channel your inner plastic surgeon and give your chicken a facelift and a tummy tuck! A raw, skin-on chicken can be an ugly, wrinkly thing, and all those folds trap moisture and cause uneven cooking.
Since the skin sits loosely, it’s possible to pull it and stretch it and smooth it out until it’s tight. You can use scissors to remove excess flaps and toothpicks or skewers to pin down edges. That drum-tight skin will cook evenly and without pockets of moisture.
Salt Your Way to Success
If you’ve ever read up on brining, you know that salt effectively draws moisture out of meat. Even if you haven’t, you may have noticed that bathing in salt water dries out your skin. The same thing applies to chicken.
As an add-on to drying the chicken in the fridge, try sprinkling salt on the skin to help pull moisture from inside. Don’t use table salt, though; for this, you’ll want to use kosher or flaky sea salt.
Some people suggest rubbing the salt in a bit, so it penetrates the surface. Be gentle, though, or you’ll just tear the skin to shreds. Dab the chicken with paper towels again when you’re ready to add your favorite chicken rub for smoking, then put it on the grill.
Searing and Separating
Here’s an interesting technique worth trying. We tend to keep chicken away from direct heat because we’re so afraid of burning it or drying out the meat. But, a carefully monitored sear may be exactly what you need to crisp up the skin.
Start by super-heating your grill before placing the chicken on the grate. Don’t place it directly above the flames, though; either turn off a burner and put it there, or shove aside some charcoal and plunk it down. This reduces the chance of flare-ups from dripping juices.
Sear each side for 3-4 minutes and then move it to a true indirect heat zone to continue cooking. After a few minutes, carefully remove the skin with tongs and lay it directly on the grate, either in that same “cool” zone or even further from the flame.
Once the chicken is ready, remove it from the grill, but keep cooking the skin. Once it’s golden and crispy, remove it from the grate and drape it over your chicken.
This technique comes to us from Chef Nick Wellhausen of The Companion Group.
Crank Up the Heat… for a Bit
Similar to searing, you might try putting your chicken on the grill at a much higher temperature than you normally would. Think 400F or higher, but still away from direct heat to reduce flare-ups. The high temperature will dry the skin, but the skin will protect the meat.
Once you see the skin starting to turn brown, you may wish to move the chicken to a cooler zone to finish cooking and keep it from drying out inside. Remember: cook to temperature, not to look or time! When your instant read thermometer reads 165F, it’s safe to eat.
Open the Tent Flaps when Resting
Resting meat after it’s off the grill allows time for carryover cooking to finish and for protein strands to tighten up. Tight proteins hold in moisture, so when you cut into the meat, it doesn’t lose its flavorful juices.
Tenting foil over chicken keeps the moisture inside, but it can also turn the skin soggy. Be sure to allow some of the heat and steam to escape out the ends to stop this from happening.
Leave Your Chicken Alone on the Grill
We fuss because we care! Many grillers have a bad habit of constantly poking, prodding, flipping, and moving meat around the grill.
It is always a good idea to just leave the meat be and let it do its thing. This is especially true of skin-on chicken. The more you move it, the more likely you are to wrinkle or tear it and interfere with the crisping process.
Use your eyes, your intuition, and your thermometer to know when it’s the right time to handle your chicken. And check our guide for more details on how long to grill chicken.
The Boiling Water Trick
This one may sound a bit crazy and definitely counter-intuitive. The secret to crispy chicken skin may be more water and not less!
Follow the fridge-drying technique described above and also salt the chicken for even more moisture elimination. When you’re ready to take the chicken out of the fridge and cook it, fill up the kettle and set it boiling.
Place the chicken in the sink and pour the boiling water over every inch of the bird, taking care not to scald yourself. You should notice the skin actually contract and tighten to the contours of the chicken frame. Once finished, pat dry the chicken again, and it’s ready for the grill.
Check out this video from FudeHouse to see the process in action. Skip ahead to about 00:40 if you want to get to the boiling part.
Separate and Poke Method
I probably made that name up, but it’s descriptive, at least.
I originally saw this technique on a Facebook group, added as advice to a question on getting crispy chicken skin by David over at barbecuelogic.com.
Under the skin of a chicken, there’s a layer of fat. Fat adds moisture as it renders, so we love it for juicy steaks. We don’t love it for soggy chicken skin.
Carefully work a knife between the skin and the meat to separate the two, but without tearing the skin or actually removing it. Then, poke some holes here and there with a fork.
As the chicken cooks, the fat will render as usual. However, between the holes and the separation, most of the fluid will leak out. This should help the skin crisp up nicely. It’s not an easy technique, so be sure of your knife skills before taking it on.
Baking Powder For the Win
You’ve probably got a box of baking powder in the pantry, right? Time to put it to use!
Baking powder is mildly alkaline, according to the wise people at Epicurious. Thanks, to that property, it will cause proteins to contract, kind of like the boiling water.
So, if you add baking powder to your salt or rub and let the chicken sit in the fridge to dry, the baking powder will tighten as the salt extracts.
What to Avoid When Aiming for Crispy Chicken Skin
So what are the no-nos when it comes to crispy chicken skin? Here’s a not-to-do list for you:
Miss the Marinade
Yes, a good dunk in a marinade adds a lot of flavor to any meat. But, with chicken, it’s a recipe for soggy skin. Save it for skinless cuts.
Belay the Baste
Applying a baste too early will add moisture to the skin before it has a chance to get crispy. Add it just minutes before you’re ready to take it off the grill.
Save the Sauce
As with a baste, that yummy BBQ sauce will add moisture you don’t want. It’s like putting lotion on dry skin.
Instead, either use it as a dip, or apply it just as you’re about to remove the chicken from the grill, so it has a minute or so to char a bit.
Skip the Smoker
Smoked chicken is fantastic. But it’s never crispy. Smokers are great for making tough meats edible by rendering fats slowly at low temperatures and adding moisture from a water pan.
For crisp skin, you need high temperatures and the shortest possible cook times. You can still add some smoking wood to flavor your chicken, just do so at higher temperatures in your gas or charcoal grill.
Of all these techniques, what’s the best? It’s probably a combination of several.
Try mixing and matching methods until you get the skin to the level of crispiness you most enjoy. As so often happens in BBQ, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. There are just guidelines, tips, and a chance for you to experiment!
As always, your questions and comments are welcome, just like you’re welcome to share this and any article from the site with friends. Speaking of friends, come join the crowd on our social channels — you’ll find links on this page.
Thanks for reading, and I wish you well with your next batch of birds on the barbecue!