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Stop abusing your grilled chicken breasts

Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Isn’t it time we stopped the abuse of skinless, boneless chicken breasts on the grill?

It ought to be simple. They’re the definition of basic: No skin to burn, no bone to get in the way.

They’re also the definition of boring: No skin to add flavor, no bone to hold in moisture.

Put them on the grill and so much can go wrong. Overcook them and they’ll double as shoe leather. Try to add flavor with a marinade and you can end up with something that tastes like cotton.

Give me chicken thighs or a fish steak any day. That’s why I tackled skinless, boneless chicken breasts (henceforth known as “SBCB”) for my July 4 cookout: The thing you resist is the thing that teaches you the most.

First, there’s the marinating. It seems obvious to soak flavor into meat. But a marinade that’s high in acidity, like vinegar, doesn’t really tenderize, it just breaks down the strands of protein. Chicken that’s marinated too long gets a mushy texture.

Instead of marinating, try brining. It’s simple and it has a big payoff. Skinless, boneless chicken breasts brine in less than an hour; 30 minutes is ideal. Just mix 1/4 cup each of salt and sugar in 6 cups of water. Stir everything until it’s dissolved, add the chicken breasts and refrigerate them for up to an hour. Drain them, pat them dry and cook. They’ll have more moisture and flavor even if you skip the grill and cook inside.

If you really want tenderness, skip the brine and grab the plain yogurt, Greek or otherwise. Yogurt is only mildly acidic, and it has calcium that activates enzymes, which actually does make meat more tender. It’s also a flavor carrier: Mix 1/2 teaspoon each of cayenne, turmeric, ground ginger and cumin into 1/2 cup of yogurt, add the chicken and refrigerate for two hours or up to overnight before you grill it. Serious flavor.

Next, there’s the cooking issue. This is the time for a two-level fire, with most of the coals on one side of the grate and just a few on the other. (Light half the jets if you’re a gas griller.) Place the breasts over direct heat for about 3 minutes per side. Move them to the cooler side and finish cooking them for 6 to 10 minutes, turning every couple of minutes.

If you’re going to glaze or sauce them, do it after you move them to the cooler side. Most sauces and glazes have sugar that will burn over direct heat. Those SBCBs I brined were perfect for brushing with a honey mustard glaze (3 tablespoons each Dijon mustard and honey with 1 tablespoon cider vinegar and a minced garlic clove). Pull them back over the direct heat for a minute or two if you need more browning, but make sure they don’t burn.

Stick an instant-read thermometer into the center from an angle and make sure they’re 160 degrees. Then remember the griller’s rule: All meat gets a rest before you cut it. Five minutes will do it here.

And that’s it: The simplest thing on the grill, cooked the simplest way.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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