It's summer, and what better way to celebrate than to slow cook a chicken on the barbecue?
Before you pull a chicken out of the freezer and toss is right on a hot grill, let's talk about how we can get the most out of that chicken. A little preparation can go a long way!
Pasture raised chicken isn't quite like to your average store bought chicken. Chickens raised on pasture use their muscles a lot more than conventionally raised birds; they are also fed diets that often encourage them to grow a bit slower than big name brand birds. As such, a free range chicken is going to be a bit firmer, leaner, and packed with flavor.
To enhance the characteristics of a free range chicken, regardless of cooking method, I highly recommend brining the bird for 12 to 24 hours prior to cooking. Brining helps in numerous ways, but most importantly it tenderizes the meat by softening and breaking down connective tissue while helping to season the meat all the way through. A simple, effective brine consists of 1/4 cup salt, 1/4 sugar, and 1 gallon of water. A non-iodized salt is preferred. Brines can be supercharged by adding fruits, herbs, spices, etc. Check out Alton Brown on the Food Channel's website, he has all sorts of unique brines!
To make and use a brine, combine all the ingredients into a large, non-metallic bowl and stir until the salt and sugar are mostly dissolved. Place your bird, either whole or in parts, into the brine. Place the brine with bird into the fridge to keep it cool for the next 12 to 24 hours. If you're placing a frozen bird into the brine, the brine will help thaw the bird but it'll also take longer for the brine to be effective.
Once you feel the brine has worked its magic, remove the meat from the brine. Crack a little fresh pepper onto the skin of the bird. Now it's time to start the grill.
Our objective when grilling a whole chicken is to cook it slowly and evenly. Keeping the grill between 250F and 300F for the duration of the grilling session will result in a superb chicken that takes about two hours to cook. Cooking a parted bird at this temperature will finish quite a bit faster.
If you're using a gas or pellet grill, simply fire it up and let it reach the desired temperature. If you're using a charcoal grill, build a fire for indirect cooking by placing the coals at the edge of the grill rather than in the middle. Once the grill is warm, place the chicken on the grill, generally as far from the heat source as possible. Close the lid and let the grill do all the work.
When the chicken is looking golden brown, insert an instant read thermometer into the thickest part of the breast and verify the chicken has reached an appropriate temperature. The USDA recommends chicken to be cooked to an internal temperature of 180F. Many cooking resources suggest targeting 160F and letting the bird rest, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. I can't officially suggest one method or the other, but I'll say that the latter method produces a pretty nice bird!
Once the bird as reached the desired internal temperature, remove the bird from the grill. Place the meat on a heat safe dish, cover with tin foil and a towel, and let rest for 15 minutes. This resting period is important as it allows the juices (and flavor!) to evenly distribute throughout the bird. Cutting into the meat before it has had time to rest results in those juices draining out onto your cutting board; a sad sight indeed!
And now, for the most important part. Cut yourself a helping and enjoy the delightful flavor of a slow cooked free range chicken!
If you begin to feel adventurous with your grilling, here are a few things to try:
Add some herbs and spices to the brine. Even just adding some thyme will really change things up.
Poke a lemon a couple dozen times with a fork and place the whole lemon inside the chicken just before throwing it on the grill.
Sear the outside of the meat over direct heat for a few minutes at the beginning of the cooking cycle, then lower the heat of the grill and perform a slow cook until the chicken is done. This forms a crust around the chicken and helps keep juices in!
For smaller grills or faster cooking times, cut the chicken in half. You still get the qualities of a slow cooked bird but reduce the cooking time by 25% to 50%.
Cook two chickens at once! For a family of four, this results in quite a bit of left overs which can be used as quick meals. We'll toss cold chicken on salads, quickly heat up diced chicken with various sauces in a skillet, or use the chicken as an ingredient in other dishes.