How to BBQ Chicken (Without Burning It)

Are you tired of chicken drumsticks and thighs catching fire on the barbecue?

Bone-in chicken legs take longer to grill than boneless chicken breast, but the fatty skin can quickly catch fire before the chicken is even ready.

While gas grills give off a more even heat, controlling the flames is difficult when fat droppings from chicken skin or other fatty meats ignite them.  

After years of trial and error, we found a method to cook the chicken slow and low to avoid burnt skin and barbecue sauce.

Give this method a try the next time you host a BBQ. You’ll need a charcoal grill, charcoal, and a charcoal chimney starter. It will take about 2 hours including prep.

Let’s dive in! 

Step-by-Step Guide BBQ Chicken on a Charcoal Grill

1. Prep the grill

Use a 2” plastic spackle scraper to clean the sides and bottom, and remove burnt particles of food, ash, old charcoal bricks, and BBQ sauce residue from inside the grill.

Unlit charcoal in a chimney starter.

2. Prep the charcoal chimney starter

Chimney starters make it easier to light the charcoal without requiring lighter fluid. Put about three pieces of crumbled newspaper in the bottom of the charcoal chimney starter. Then turn the chimney starter over and fill the large part to the top with charcoal.

It’s important to use regular charcoal, not “match light” charcoal infused with lighter fluid. Match light charcoal burns out faster and doesn’t work with this technique of slow-cooking chicken.

Charcoal in chimney starter on grill.

Light the paper from underneath. There will be a lot of smoke at first. That’s normal. Let the charcoal burn until they’re covered with ash and turn gray. It should take about 30-40 minutes.

3. Prep the BBQ sauce

Put your favorite barbecue sauce in a bowl to avoid cross-contamination with raw chicken. Bring the sauce to room temperature. I use a store-bought sauce that’s not too sweet or I’ll make ‘Thick and Sticky Barbecue Sauce”, a ketchup and vinegar-based sauce from the book Dr. BBQ’s Big-Time Barbecue Cookbook: A Real Barbecue Champion Brings the Tasty Recipes and Juicy Stories of the Barbecue Circuit to Your Backyard.

Charcoal covered in ash on one side of grill.

4. It’s time to add the charcoal

Pour the heated charcoal only on one side of the grill. Try to get the layer of coals as evenly as possible to avoid extreme differences in heat and cooking times. Leave the other side of the grill empty, with no charcoal.

Chicken grilling on half of the grill over coals.

5. Grill the chicken

Put the top grill on. Put the chicken on one side directly over the charcoal. Grill for ~1-4 minutes on each side. Depending on how hot the coals got before you started the chicken, there may be some variation in cooking times at this step.

If the charcoal isn’t gray with ash, you might get flames when you add the chicken. If the coals sat too long after turning gray, the cooking time may increase.

Once you grill the chicken on both sides, transfer the chicken to the side of the grill without charcoal. Brush a liberal amount of barbeque sauce, cover and cook for 20 min.

Chicken drumsticks on half of grill with bbq sauce.

Then, turn the chicken over (keeping it on the side without charcoal), and apply barbeque sauce to the other side. Cover and cook for 20 min.

Turn the chicken one more time and brush it with barbeque sauce. Then cover and cook for the last 20 minutes.

You might think the grill won’t be hot enough to hold enough heat to barbeque, but after 60 minutes, the chicken will be cooked through and the skin will caramelize without charring.

Do you have any BBQ tips? Let me know in the comments below.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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