The Secret to Perfectly Grilled Chicken Breasts

The Secret to Perfectly Grilled Chicken Breasts

Never been good at grilling chicken breasts? It’s high time that changed. Here's how.

Photo by Brittany Conerly

For people who love to cook chicken breasts, there are all sorts of options for a healthy, flavorful meal. Chicken can be grilled or poached or baked or pounded thin and tossed in eggs and breadcrumbs. And while I do love anything that remotely resembles a fried chicken tender, tough, dry, flavorless chicken breast just makes me sad — so I usually play it safe and avoid it. But it’s summer, the grill is out, and grilled chicken breasts are what the people want. It seems like it should be simple, right? But it’s not.

The thing is, boneless skinless chicken breasts contain very little fat — which means little forgiveness on the grill (not mention, ahem, less flavor). So your approach to chicken breasts needs to consider that every step of the way. 

Here are six tips to help you on your way to grilled chicken breast perfection.

1. Pound it out. 

Chicken breasts — especially those behemoth ones you sometimes see in the market — aren’t meant to just be thrown on the grill. No. They need a bit of handling first.

Unlike a steak or a chop, a chicken breast is not uniformly thick. There’s that big plump part, and the much thinner tip, which will undoubtedly shrivel and dry out by the time the plump part is safe to eat. It’s a nightmare to grill evenly. 

The answer? Pound the breast to an even thickness, which can range from ½-inch to a full inch. (I think ¾-inch is a good middle-ground). Not only does pounding the chicken help ensure even cooking, but it also tenderizes, too. If you have one of those really large chicken breasts, butterfly it first. (Once you pound it out, it’ll look like a heart. Aw.)

You can pound the breasts with a meat mallet right on a cutting board, or, if you want, put the breasts in a 1-gallon freezer bag to contain the mess. If you don’t have a mallet, a rolling pin will do just fine — you can even use an empty wine bottle in a pinch!

Alternatively, you can simply slice the chicken breasts for a more uniform thickness. But then you lose out on the extra tenderizing.

2. Brine it up. 

Brining helps meat retain moisture — and adds a little much-needed wiggle room for chicken breasts on the grill, in particular. 

There are various wet brines, but the simplest is often the best — just combine ¼ cup kosher salt and a quart of water. A tablespoon or two of white or brown sugar is a common addition, as are an array of aromatics. But none are necessary. You can brine for as little as 15 minutes, and it’ll still make a difference.

Rinse and dry the chicken breasts and move on to the next step: flavor. 

3. Rethink your marinade. 

There’s no arguing taste, so I don’t recommend one particular marinade over another. The basic formula is oil (olive oil plays well), acid (vinegar or citrus), seasonings (go wild!), and often a sweetener (honey, teriyaki sauce, brown sugar, etc).

But I do want to make one important point: Watch your acid. Lemon juice and vinegar often play starring roles in marinades, for brightness and kick, but they both tend to make boneless skinless chicken breast leathery. Just think about ceviche — the acid can “cook” the exterior while marinating.

The solution? For that great lemon flavor, without the leather, try lemon zest. 

4. Clean your grill. 

Seriously. A dirty grill is not a happy grill, and even the most gorgeously thin, well-marinated boneless chicken breast doesn't have the kind of fat you need to protect it from the hazards of the grill (namely, sticking). The rules are the same whether you use a gas grill or charcoal grill: Maintain your grill regularly, give the grill grates a quick rubdown with oil right before you hop to it, and you should be fine.

5. Know your zones. 

Some cooks prefer to grill their breasts hot and fast — and that can work great with a breast that has been pounded thin. 

For slightly thicker chicken breasts, a savvy approach is to really work your grilling areas. One zone should be at medium-high heat — roughly 450° F — so you can sear the meat and get those gorgeous grill marks.  The second (and equally important) zone should be on low, so the breasts can continue to “bake” over indirect heat.

6. Use a thermometer. 

The best way to not overcook chicken breast? Use data — a.k.a. your handy-dandy meat thermometer. And remember that those perfect grilled chicken breasts will keep cooking as you rest them off the heat — a phenomenon known as "carryover cooking."

Per the FDA, the safe internal temperature for cooked poultry is 165°F. You can (and should!) safely remove grilled chicken breasts before they reach 165°F and let the carryover cooking do its thing. Some people will pull as low as 150°F and others wait until an official 165°F to remove. You’ll find your own comfort zone between doneness and juiciness. 

Want extra assurance? Check out the Yummly meat thermometer! It connects wirelessly to the Yummly app, which then monitors the temperature and tells you exactly when to take the chicken off the heat for the results you want, every time.

Our Favorite Grilled Chicken Recipes

Plenty of grilled chicken recipes promise perfect results, but these five really deliver — each in their own way.

Perfect No-Fail Grilled Chicken Breasts

In this Yummly original created by David Bonom, cilantro, lime juice, chipotle, cumin, garlic powder, and Dijon come together in a truly tasty marinade.  Lightly pounding the meat helps make sure it comes out tender and juicy end-to-end.

The Best Grilled Chicken Breast Recipe

“The secret to juicy grilled chicken isn’t in the seasonings or complicated marinades, it’s all about HOW you grill the chicken,” writes Heidi from Foodie Crush. Her trick? Prep two different zones on the BBQ — one around 450° to sear the meat, and another with low, indirect heat to finish cooking. 

Mojo Grilled Chicken

In this recipe, from Ashley Pardo, the secret is to brine the chicken for two hours before you start. Then it’s all about the mojo — a delicious Cuban garlic-citrus marinade that tastes just as good on your grilled veggies.

Honey Mustard Grilled Chicken

The flavorful honey mustard sauce in this recipe from Modern Honey serves both as marinade and sauce.

Perfectly Grilled Chicken Breasts with Garlic, Lemon & Herbs

This recipe, from Once Upon a Chef, gets rave reviews, including this hearty gem: “I’m a man, yep, grilling, smoking, charring man. I could do anything but chicken breast until now.” Pound it thin, marinate — and cook it hot!

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