How to BBQ chicken: Top cooking tips

A chicken drumstick, thigh, or kebab on the barbecue is always a winner. Here’s how to prepare and cook chicken on the barbecue safely...

How to BBQ chicken: Top tips

Nothing signifies the start of summer more than a delicious BBQ! And chicken - be it a drumstick, thigh or even a whole bird - is always a firm favourite.

Knowing how to BBQ chicken will take your summer meals outside to the next level. Plus, it will give you some peace of mind when serving barbecued chicken to friends and family, knowing that it's cooked thoroughly and properly. No upset tummies here thank you!

Before you even start firing up that grill to barbecue chicken, here are a few things to always remember:

Don’t wash raw chicken Washing can splash germs and recent advice from the NHS is that water droplets can travel more than 50cm in every direction. Only a few campylobacter cells are needed to cause food poisoning. Cooking will kill any bacteria, including campylobacter - the most common form of food poisoning in the UK.

Always use separate boards, knives, plates and dishes when preparing raw chicken You should wash any chopping boards, knives, plates and dishes used for preparing raw chicken. To thoroughly wash, use hot soapy water, or pop the everything in the dishwasher. Once you start to barbecue, have a clean dish or tray to hand for the cooked chicken.

From cooking advice to the right time to apply your marinade for perfectly succulent chicken, here's a handy guide on how to BBQ chicken...

How to BBQ chicken

Firstly, coat your chicken with olive oil and season generously to make sure it’s flavourful. Light your grill, ensuring that you are able to moderate the heat and leave a cool spot where there are few coals. Once your grill is prepared, barbecue the chicken undisturbed with the skin side down for around 15 mins (depending on how hot your grill is) and close the lid.

Once it is seared, coat the chicken in barbecue sauce using the cool part of your grill. Following this, turn the chicken over for an additional 20-30 minutes, lowering the heat and closing the lid. As the 20-30 minutes comes to an end, coat the chicken in some extra barbecue sauce. You should cook until the chicken is firm to the touch and opaque all the way through at a temperature of around 165 degrees.

How to barbecue a chicken whole

It's a bit tricky cooking a whole chicken on the barbecue, but the key things are temperature control and a kettle-style barbecue with a domed lid. With the lid on, the barbecue will cook like an oven giving an all round heat for more even cooking.

Marinated chicken cooked on the BBQ

Credit: Getty Images

Alternatively you could go for a spatchcock chicken. Spatchcocking simply means the chicken is cut open and flattened so it cooks more evenly. Using sturdy scissors, place the chicken breast-side down on a board and cut along either side of the backbone.

Open the chicken out, turn it over and press down firmly with the heel of your hand to flatten. To keep the chicken flat push two skewers diagonally through the thigh on one side to the breast and wing on the other side.

Check out our recipe for Spatchcock peri-peri chicken here for the ultimate BBQ chicken with a spicy Nandos-style kick!

How to marinate chicken for a BBQ

A marinade is what you soak meat, fish, or other food in before cooking in order to give it flavour and soften it. Marinading chicken will not only give it flavour but it will also help stop the chicken becoming dry when it cooks.

To marinade a chicken, simply fill a bowl with your sauce of choice and put the chicken into the liquid to soak. The trick to marinading is what you choose to put into the sauce and how long you leave the chicken in there soaking for.

If a marinade includes sugar or salt it will tenderise the chicken a little as it loosens muscle fibres. But if there is an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, buttermilk or yogurt, then the marinade will transform the texture of the outside of the chicken over time.

Marinated chicken

Credit: Getty images

The longer you leave an acidic marinade to work on the chicken, the worse the surface texture will get, becoming more stringy and dry, so don’t leave chicken soaking any longer than overnight.

It takes 5-6 hours for the best flavour and texture, but if you don't have that long, even 10 minutes of marinating will give flavour to the outside of chicken.

Marinades without acid can be left longer but won’t make them work any better, so stick to 24 hours as a maximum.

Any leftover marinade should be thrown away and not served as dip or sauce, unless you boil it thoroughly first, and never pour any shop-bought marinade or sauce back into the bottle to use again.

How long do you cook chicken for on the barbecue?

Cooking chicken on the bbq starts way before you actually put the meat on the grill. Firstly, always remove the meat from the fridge at least 20 minutes before cooking to let it come to room temperature.

Be sure to light coals well in advance; about 40-50 mins before you want to start cooking. And wait until they are glowing red with a powdery grey surface. Start cooking too soon and you’ll have more flames than heat to cook with. In this scenario, you'll likely end up with chicken that's burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. Not good! Always keep children away from any open flames.

When cooking with gas, turn it on and keep an eye on the temperature gauge on the outside of the lid, it should take about 20 minutes to get to an adequate heat.

Chicken cooking on a BBQ

Credit: Getty images

If you are cooking a whole chicken, start it off on the hottest part of the barbecue until it gets some colour then move to a cooler part of the grill and close the lid to retain the heat. Leave it to cook for 60 minutes without removing the lid.

After 60 minutes, remove the lid every 10 to 15 minutes to check on the chicken. Check if it's cooked using a meat thermometer. An average four-pound chicken will take about 90 minutes to bbq.

If cooking chicken on the bone (like drumsticks and thighs) cut a couple of deep slashes through the thickest part of the meat. This will allow the heat to penetrate and cook more evenly. Any marinade or spice rub used will also give more flavour to the chicken rather than just coating the outside.

How do you know when BBQ chicken is done?

You could use a meat thermometer. When you are using a meat thermometer to check for doneness, insert it in the thickest part of the meat. If you're cooking a whole bird, push the thermometer in under the big thigh bone, where the drumstick and thigh meet. When it shows a minimum of 75 degrees Celsius, you are good to go.

If you're cooking meat on the bone, whether it’s a whole chicken, wing or drumstick, make sure the thermometer isn't touching bone when you take the reading. This is because the bone is a conductor of heat and could give you a false reading.

If you’re cooking chicken breast and don’t have a thermometer, make a small incision in the thickest part of the meat and check the colour. Just pull apart the sides using a fork and a knife until you can see the colour of the meat all the way through.

A cooking thermometer showing how to BBQ chicken and other meats

Credit: Getty Images

If you don't want to cut apart your chicken, take a clean knife or skewer and insert it into the thickest part of the chicken. As you remove it, the juices should run clear. However, if the juices are pink, cook the chicken for a further 10 minutes. Then check it again. If necessary, finish the chicken in the oven at 180C (350F, gas mark 4) testing it every 10 minutes.

You should always leave your meat to rest before serving. Whole chickens will need to rest for around thirty minutes. Chicken breasts will only need five to ten minutes.

Should you pre-cook chicken before putting it on the BBQ?

Cooked chicken thighs served on a tray with condiments.

Credit: Getty Images

You don't have to pre-cook chicken before putting on the BBQ. However, it’s a good idea to. We like cooking chicken in the oven and then giving it the final ‘finish’ on the barbecue. You will still enjoy that ‘smoky’ flavour but you’ll know for sure you’ve cooked the chicken all the way through.

Jessica Dady
Food Editor

Jessica Dady is Food Editor at GoodtoKnow and has over 12 years of experience as a digital editor, specialising in all things food, recipes, and SEO. From the must-buy seasonal food hampers and advent calendars for Christmas to the family-friendly air fryers that’ll make dinner time a breeze, Jessica loves trying and testing various food products to find the best of the best for the busy parents among us. Over the years of working with GoodtoKnow, Jessica has had the privilege of working alongside Future’s Test Kitchen to create exclusive videos - as well as writing, testing, and shooting her own recipes. When she’s not embracing the great outdoors with her family at the weekends, Jessica enjoys baking up a storm in the kitchen with her favourite bakes being chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, and a tray of gooey chocolate brownies