It’s the day of the year most associated with the barbecue grill. The Fourth of July is to undertrained home cooks what New Year’s Eve is to underage drinkers: It can become amateur hour in a hurry. You crazy kids need to be careful out there with the open flame and volatile animal fats. Throw in a little alcohol and you have the makings of a potentially dangerous situation, and it may take an expert to pull you out of it.
Danger aside, there is also the case of what you are cooking. Most of you can cook a pretty mean burger if you know when to pull it. Hot dogs? Set them on the grill and forget them — I don’t mind a little char, it adds character. For ribs you will need a little more expertise and a decision as to whether you want it falling off the bone or more like a Kansas City competition rib. For brisket you really need to know what you’re doing. But the one thing that requires a little bit of know-how and has a safe margin of error happens to be my favorite grill item: the chicken.
The almighty yardbird is the most versatile protein on the grill. You could make a fairly healthy meal of it or go for the greasy, fatty cuts that melt in your mouth. Skin on, skin off, white or dark, sauce or dry rub, marinade or straight to the coals, the chicken has a realm of possibilities.
When I said there is a safe margin of error I was speaking about the doneness of the chicken. Let me explain. To me, grilled chicken can be a little brown. I don’t want to dry it out, but you can get a char without overcooking the thing. One thing I don’t screw around with when cooking chicken is the internal temperature.
You can have varying results for the crispiness of the outside of the chicken depending on how close you place it to the coals (or burner), but the inside temp must reach anything above 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Cross that 160 line or better, and when you pull it from the grill allow it to rest a bit. I use a regular old instant-read meat and poultry thermometer. It’s about $10, is very reliable and is not digital, requiring no batteries or assembly. Go high-tech if you wish, but we will get (hopefully for you) the same results.
So let’s get back to the chicken. I have an electric rotisserie I used to use on my gas grill. It was a real crackerjack of an operation until the grill bit the dust after eight years of abuse. Sad, but I had to put her down. Couldn’t keep replacing parts the way it was going. Now the rotisserie hangs in the garage and I am currently 100 percent charcoal while I weigh the options of my next big purchase of ceramic and a smallish gas grill or a monster of a gas grill and my existing charcoal setup. Rotisserie isn’t really grilling, in my book, and as good as it was I prefer to grill cuts of chicken, particularly thighs.
Chicken thighs are my favorite piece of meat. They are cheap. They are dark. They have a thick piece of skin that is easy to remove or can be used to your advantage.
With two growing boys in the house, you can imagine we go through a lot of pickles. I don’t know what it is about kids, but they cannot resist the pickle. I save the juice. My fridge looks like an OCD nightmare with jars of pickle juice with no pickles. I keep them cold and untainted and they make for my favorite simple marinade. It’s just pickle juice and a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce.
This marinade can work wonders in just a couple of hours in the refrigerator. You’ll tell the difference in a hurry. But be careful, an overnight soak may work for you but for others the flavor could be a little offensive. I say bring it on!
Once the thighs have been drained I generously season them with black pepper. You could use a Creole seasoning or lemon pepper but those contain salt. There’s enough salt from the pickle juice so use sparingly. Once I have them on the grill — skin side up, over good heat but not too much flame — I pretty much leave them alone, relying on that thick flap of skin to protect the meat from any harm.
The grill will be full of these bad boys (like I said, they are cheap) and I won’t be obsessive with that thermometer. My plan is to wait until I think they are done and then only sacrifice one piece to a piercing. When the juices run clear and your reading is 160, it’s time to pull them.
Always do this so you have leftovers. Pickle chicken is amazing in chicken salad. You know why? It’s because I add more pickles! Cheese and rice casseroles scream for it. But my new favorite is the one I cooked tonight. Leftover pickle chicken with spaghetti squash and fresh grated Parmesan cheese was a “straight, no chaser” approach to casseroles and it turned out fantastic. No sauce or butter, this was my version of a healthy dish that really pleased.
If you’re spiking the watermelon this year be sure to have that fire extinguisher handy for any sloppy grilling. Don’t neglect the beef and pork industry, and of course grilled shrimp are fantastic. No matter what you are cooking, grab a huge pack of thighs and make sure you have some to spare. It’s OK, don’t be ashamed. Let the world know you’re a thigh man.