The scrumptious scent of charred chicken
By Genevieve Ko
In her book “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Mary Roach explores how we taste and explains how we can perceive five main flavors, but infinite smells. “Eighty to 90 percent of the sensory experience of eating is olfaction,” she writes.
That’s why grilled chicken legs taste especially good in summer, when their smokiness mingles with the fragrance of sunscreen and ocean air, grass and beer. It’s an aroma that takes me back to church picnics and others to block parties, the sort of gatherings where you’re with your community — not necessarily friends or compatriots, or even people you like, but the humans who make life fuller and a little less lonely.
That immediately recognizable charred chicken scent transports anyone who smells it to good times — and is worth re-creating. The best way is to start with skin-on pieces, ideally legs or drumsticks. As the chicken heats up, the fat in and under the skin renders, sizzles and releases the meaty haze that pulls at an urgent, primal hunger.
The trick is to lightly char the skin to a crackling dark brown, while making sure the meat is fully cooked and juicy. When the fat drips into the grill, it causes flames to lap around the chicken. If the pieces end up engulfed in live fire, they become inedible, with the skin burned to an acrid ash around cold raw meat.
Some avoid that outcome by using indirect heat, slowly cooking chicken over a part of the grill without coals or with a burner turned off. With this method, there’s no chance of flare-ups. But it also results in skin that’s soft and stretchy like a spent rubber band and meat that’s tight.
For tender skin-on chicken you want to eat, you need to grill it directly over coals or propane burners. Starting with moderate heat helps the meat cook all the way to the bone and lets the fat melt slowly so the skin ends up pleasantly thin and a little crackly. Keeping the grill covered also allows the meat to lose its rawness evenly and prevents the fire from raging up. To prepare for any persistent flames, leave a section of the grill unheated and move any pieces over it if they light up like candles.
Coating the chicken in a thin sheen of oil encourages the skin to crisp without burning it. Because fire lends its own flavor, the chicken really doesn’t need anything more than salt and pepper, but, if you want a little sweetness, savoriness and spice, you can brush on a simple soy glaze toward the end of cooking instead of marinating beforehand. (Marinated chicken tends to burn more quickly.) As the glaze heats, it caramelizes onto the skin and seeps into the meat. A final swipe of sauce after it’s off the grill gives it a sticky shine for chicken that tastes as good as it smells.
Grilled chicken legs
The best grilled chicken smells like summer. To achieve that charred aroma, you want to crisp the skin while cooking the meat through and keeping it juicy. Setting oil-slicked meat over direct, moderate heat and covering the grill prevents flare-ups, which can burn the skin before the meat loses its rawness. Because fire lends its own flavor, the chicken really doesn’t need anything more than salt and pepper, but if you want a little sweetness, savoriness and spice, you can brush on the simple soy glaze toward the end of cooking. As it heats, it caramelizes onto the skin and seeps into the meat. A final swipe of sauce over the chicken after it’s off the grill gives it a sticky shine.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Total time: 35 minutes, plus grill heating time
For the glaze (optional):
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
For the chicken:
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
5 pounds chicken legs or drumsticks or a combination, patted dry
Salt and black pepper
1. If you’re making the glaze, mix the soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and red-pepper flakes until the sugar dissolves. The glaze can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a week.
2. Prepare the chicken: Rub the oil all over the chicken, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap any flaps of excess skin around the meat.
3. To cook chicken on a gas grill, heat the grill to medium. When the grill is hot, turn off one burner, and clean and grease the grate. Place the chicken on the grate over the heated burners skin side down. Cover and cook, flipping once, until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. If you’re not glazing the chicken, continue cooking, covered and flipping once, for 5 to 7 minutes longer. If the skin isn’t browning, turn up the heat. If flames flare up over the chicken, move the meat briefly over the unlit burner.
4. If you’re glazing the chicken, brush the meat with the glaze and turn the pieces over. Cover and cook for 2 minutes, then continue brushing, turning and cooking, covered, until you have a spoonful of glaze left and the skin is burnished, 8 to 10 minutes total. A meat thermometer should register 165 degrees.
5. To cook chicken on a charcoal grill, heat charcoal, then spread over two-thirds of the grate when they ash over. When you can hold your hand 5 inches above the coals for 5 to 7 seconds, place the chicken on the grate over the coals skin side down. Cover, with the top vents halfway closed, and cook, flipping once, until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. If you’re not glazing the chicken, continue cooking, covered and flipping once, for 5 to 7 minutes longer. If you’re glazing the chicken, brush the meat with the glaze and turn the pieces over. If flames flare up over the chicken, move the meat briefly over the side without coals. Continue brushing and turning uncovered for 8 to 10 minutes, until you have a spoonful of glaze left and the skin is burnished. A meat thermometer should register 165 degrees.
6. Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and immediately brush with the remaining glaze.