My parents just sold our family house of 31 years. One of my earliest memories there — food-related memories, anyway — is of my dad making barbecue chicken on his old Weber kettle grill on our driveway while my brothers and I played in the backyard. Even now, I can practically smell it. It was nothing fancy. Store-bought sauce, maybe a little blacker in places than we would want, but enjoyable nonetheless.
The house and grill are now gone, but there’s a new house and a not-quite-as-new gas grill (Dad gave up charcoal long ago) to usher in new memories. So, when it came time for me to test a barbecue chicken recipe, the roles were reversed, to the satisfaction of both generations. I got to grill for my parents, with a bit of assistance from Dad, while Mom watched my son.
I didn’t want to stray from the simple sauce-and-chicken formula. Classic Barbecue Chicken, an archive recipe from former Washington Post columnist Jim Shahin, sounded exactly like what I needed. The upgrades: An easy-to-assemble, from-scratch sauce and an indirect cooking strategy that keeps the skin from getting too dark and the meat too dry.
Both improvements were hits. The sauce balanced sweet and heat really well, with a more nuanced spice flavor than you find in ordinary grocery store bottles. Allowing the chicken to spend most of its time over indirect heat on the cooler part of the grill kept the meat particularly juicy, even with a few thighs going about 20 degrees above the recommended 165-degree mark thanks to a hot spot on one side. (Worth nothing: 185 to 190 degrees and a long, slow cook is what Cook’s Illustrated recommends in its grilled chicken thighs recipe, “because the longer the meat spends cooking at temperatures above 140 degrees, the more of its abundant collagen breaks down and transforms into gelatin that lubricates the meat, making it seem juicy and tender.”)
We couldn’t remember the last time any of us had made barbecue chicken, but everyone agreed this recipe was a keeper. Will we do it again? You bet. Will my son remember these long, sauce-smeared summer afternoons with the same fondness as the ones I do from my youth? I hope so.
CLASSIC BARBECUE CHICKEN
4 to 6 servings
Recipe note: The sauce can be prepared up to 2 weeks in advance and stored in the refrigerator.
FOR THE SAUCE
2 cups ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons light brown sugar, preferably light brown sugar
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
FOR THE CHICKEN
4 to 4 1/2 pounds skin-on, bone-in chicken pieces, such as drumsticks, thighs or breast halves (6 pieces total)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
For the sauce: Combine the ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, molasses and water in a large bowl.
Combine the brown sugar, chili powder, powdered mustard, black pepper, salt and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the onion and cook for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until barely softened. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes, until soft.
Add the brown sugar mixture and stir to incorporate; cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until fragrant, then add the ketchup mixture and mix well. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered for 20 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture becomes a thickened sauce.
The onion and garlic give the sauce a bit of texture and a homey quality. But if you prefer a smooth barbecue sauce, strain it through a fine-mesh strainer. Pour or strain the sauce into a container with a tight-fitting lid. Use right away, setting aside 1 cup of the sauce for cooking the chicken, or cool and cover.
Prepare the grill for indirect heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal; when the coals are ready, distribute them on one side of the cooking area. For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 4 or 5 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
Season the chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper. Arrange them skin side down on the direct-heat side of the grill; cook, uncovered, until the skin begins to blacken, 5 to 10 minutes. Use long-handled tongs to move the chicken to the indirect-heat side of the grill, turning the pieces over so they are skin side up. Close the lid; cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the interior temperature of the thickest part of the meat on each piece (taken away from the bone) registers 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (The meat will not be cooked through; move smaller pieces sooner as needed.)
Liberally coat the skin side with some of the sauce; move the pieces to the direct-heat side of the grill and cook uncovered for 5 minutes. Turn the chicken over, skin side down, coat with more sauce and cook uncovered for 5 minutes.
Turn the chicken over one more time, so the skin side is up. Slather with more sauce. Cook uncovered for 2 minutes or until the chicken registers 165 degrees on the thermometer.
Transfer to a platter; let the chicken rest for 5 minutes. Serve with the remainder of the sauce at the table.