Naked Chicken and Other Rub-Downs

My mother (bless her heart) loves overcooked chicken - and believes everyone else does, too. I remember her valiant attempts at grilling chicken during the first few summers after my father's death in 1982. As always, she was stalwart, determined to be strong in her new role as single parent. Unfortunately, in her efforts to continue some of my father's culinary traditions, she failed miserably as grill mistress.

For starters, she would use only breasts. Any veteran chicken griller will tell you that of all chicken parts, the breast is the leanest and one of the easiest to turn into unrecognizable fossils (if there is such a thing). Of course, grilled boneless breasts are a low-carb counters dream, but that's if you know what you're doing. Lean meat needs little time on the grill, a concept that was (and still is) foreign to my Mom.

She'd plop big bone-in breasts -- three inches thick -- right on the grill, and THEN brush on the barbecue sauce. And they'd sit there, for a good hour or more, morphing into a relative of the tire. I can see my brother Tim's face right now, trying to hide his dread when it was time to eat. (Yes, we were ungrateful little brats.)

In the years since my time at culinary school, I now believe one of the underlying reasons I pursued food as a profession is to learn the things my mother never did (I bet a therapist would have a field day with this one). As a young mother in the 1960s, she was swept away by the fantasy of instant-presto meals that came out of a box. The Bird's Eye and Betty Crocker folks had spun such a believable tale and my mother lapped it right up. Instant mashed potatoes! String beans in a bag! Add water and you'll have stuffing, just like Thanksgiving! But I digress.

As a budding cook, I was determined to get grilled chicken right. Over the years, I have discovered:

* the beauty of the more grill-friendly chicken thigh
* the magical powers of a marinade and/or rub
* how easy it is to create your own rather than buy a bottle of marinade

If you're going to the trouble of making a marinade or rub, be sure it's got a personality. Do it all the way, with flavor intensity and depth, or don't bother. For example, pouring soy sauce over chicken, I suppose, is technically marinating it. By adding a few extra things to the mix - a little sesame oil, some chile pepper and fresh ginger - that soy sauce comes to life, and in turn, infuses the chicken with its new, enhanced flavors.

My favorite marinades come from different parts of the world. For chicken, I love to virtually travel to Jamaica with a jerk rub. Hot and spicy, this rub will fill the house (and the backyard) with its all-spice-heavy perfume.

Although more of a liquid-y solution than a dry rub, tandoori marinade is also heavy on spices that turn a kitchen into an exotic bazaar. Yogurt is used as the medium for an array of aromatics, including cardamom, cumin, coriander and cayenne. You can marinate chicken way in advance, up to 36 hours, and the longer you do it, the more flavorful the grilled results. One note: When ready to grill, pat chicken dry of marinade to minimize fiery flare-ups.

You can also improvise using many of the tandoori ingredients, but without the yogurt, and rub into chicken parts with skin removed. I like to call this naked chicken, which cooks a lot faster without the cushion of fat.

For more how-to explanation, check out a marinade video that I produced a bunch of years ago. (I look so young!)

Have a favorite chicken marinade or rub? Please share in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 14, 2006; 10:14 AM ET Chicken/Poultry , Flames
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The link to the video is fine, but the connection keeps timing out less than 1/4 through.

Posted by: Angus Goodson | July 14, 2006 11:23 AM

When you rub chicken parts with the skin still on, gently pull the skin away from the meat and rub inside. Your spices won't make it through the fat layer and into the chicken. This way you get the moisture from the fat and the nice flavor of the rub.

Another idea is to use an olive oil based wet rub for skinless breasts. Make whatever rub you'd like then add just enough oil to turn it into a paste. It'll help to keep those lean breasts juicy.

Posted by: Hill Griller | July 14, 2006 11:40 AM

Check out "Johnny Grub Rub" with your search engine. You'll use it on everything except strawberries.

Also, check out brining and smoking your chicken whole or in halves. I've done this with cornish hens and whole fresh turkeys. The breast meat stays moist. I give 'em a good rub with the Johnny Grub just before they go in the Weber.

Posted by: walt | July 14, 2006 12:49 PM

I can't stress enough the importance of a good brining of chicken parts before grilling. Chicken thighs are also my favorite, bone in or out.

My current Grilled Chicken fave recipe:

Grill thighs until almost completely cooked, seasoning only with salt/pepper to taste. Apply a dressing/paste of fresh herbs and olive oil to the chicken, both sides, and let cook covered for the final 2-3 minutes.

The key is the herb blend. Use fresh herbs (I like a combination of mint, rosemary, thyme) Combine the fresh herbs with a few cloves of garlic, olive oil and paprika in your food processor until the mix achieves a paste like consistency. Apply the herb blend onto chicken with a silicone brush. Serve with fresh grilled pita, some tzatziki and a cucumber/tomato salad. You won't be disappointed.

Posted by: Pitbull | July 14, 2006 2:54 PM

I marinate skinless chicken breasts in orange juice with curry powder and a bit of olive oil. The orange juice provides a sweet contrast to the curry. I marinate the chicken in a sealable plastic bag. If I squeeze out all the air I can cover six breasts with less than a cup of marinade.

Posted by: Glenn Cassidy | July 14, 2006 7:43 PM

Kim - on a non-chicken theme - did you ever post the recipes for your home made popsicles? With the 100+ degree temps this week I desperately need some cool frozen treats!

Posted by: Jenny | July 17, 2006 10:03 AM

Jenny, I most certainly did! To cool off, go here:

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 17, 2006 10:20 AM

I recently read a recipe by "Dr. BBQ". It was called Yojerk Chicken or something like it. The idea was to combine yogurt and jerk seasoning for a marinade. I'm going to try it with pork loin, slicing the loin into "leaves" applying the marinade to the "leaves", tying the roast and "groasting" (grill-roasting) it. Best of both worlds, I hope.

Posted by: Bud | July 17, 2006 12:25 PM

I brine chicken leg quarters, as well as small pork roasts overnight before grilling. Besides salt and water, I add a "tea" of whatever herbs sound good and fruit juice. The last time was sage, a clove of garlic and white pepper in orange juice. The chicken was later glazed with sage mixed into melted orange marmalade (I think there was another liquid ingrediant, but can't remember it now. White wine maybe?)

Kim, I sympathize with you on your mother's cooking. Some home economic teacher must have emphasized the importance of cooking meat to kill the "germs." While Mother wasn't into grilling chicken, her hamburgers were hard little hockey pucks and pork chops could be used for shoe leather. (Sorry, Mom, but McDonalds really did have better burgers!) I was a teenager eating dinner at a friend's house when I discovered that I didn't hate steak, I just hated well-done steak. I learned to cook in self-defense.

Posted by: WMA | July 18, 2006 2:17 PM

As I stated in today's chat, I seared the tandoori chicken pieces in my cast iron pan on the stove top before tranferring to a 400 degree oven. I also use some elephant garlic that I got from the farmer's market, for a slightly more subtle garlic flavor.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | July 18, 2006 5:36 PM

Has anyone ever made a tandori marinade (this or another) with soy yogurt or another non-dairy substitute? We recently decided not to mix dairy and meat anymore, but love Indian food. I'd love to make this at home since we can't order it out....

Posted by: Dallas, TX | July 18, 2006 11:12 PM

I improvise rubs constantly, but my favorite is a base of salt, brown sugar, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, curry, and smoked paprika.

Smoked paprika comes in either sweet or hot. I like the sweet; it gives me flexibility on making either a hot or mild rub.

It may be hard to find, but I'm telling you: smoked paprika is your grill's soul mate. Once they meet, they'll do everything together.

Posted by: JerseyBrendan | August 3, 2006 12:48 PM

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