How To Grill Chicken Breasts: A Guide For Heretics

The boneless, skinless chicken breast is the totemic foodstuff of the health-obsessed, because of the nutritional potency of chicken, because of the relatively low fat content of the boneless, skinless breast relative to other nutrient-dense animal proteins, and because in 99 percent of its preparations, the boneless, skinless breast's taste and texture are utterly indistinguishable from biting through and chewing a black-and-white composition notebook. This satisfies our culture's stupid Puritanical inheritance of deprivation as virtue: that the things that are good for us can be identified by how much jaw-clenching willpower is required to take advantage of them; that that which does not kill us ought at least to have the decency to make us wish that it would. This demand for the almost always miserable boneless, skinless chicken breast explains why the fuckers both A) take up three-quarters of the space in your local supermarket's meat section, and B) cost exactly as much per unit as a new luxury automobile.

That's odd and counterintuitive, isn't it? The whole rest of the supermarket is a shrine to easy, cheap, preposterously unhealthful indulgence—Where can I find the Doritos Jacked, my good man? Oh, Aisle 19 is the Doritos Jacked aisle, right between the Double Stuf Oreos aisle and the Just A Bunch Of Giant Ziploc Bags Filled With Cake Frosting And Bacon Bits aisle—and then you get to the meat section and suddenly your hat has a fucking buckle on it, and you weren't even wearing a hat to begin with. Can you get some cured pork fatback? No. You cannot. But you can get 567,000 wads of soul-killing self-denial in poultry form, that's for damn sure.

Well, look. You're gonna eat these fucking things no matter what I say, and really, that's fine. Do what you want. But, please: Don't give in to the notion that doing so must be a grim, hateful experience in order to be any good for you. You can enjoy boneless, skinless chicken breasts. You can even enjoy grilled boneless, skinless chicken breasts. More than that, you may enjoy them. You just have to brine them first.

And, hey, if the story of your pursuit of healthfulness can't satisfy you without also doubling as a narrative of grim willpower triumphing over the abject misery of self-denial, hell, brining your chicken breasts involves more work. Is that harsh enough for you, Cotton Mather? Let's get started.

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The first thing to do is to get your chicken breasts ready for brining. In a big tupperware or casserole dish or some other vessel large enough for four boneless, skinless chicken breasts to lie side by side without overlapping, um, lay out four boneless, skinless chicken breasts side by side. Look at them all cute and pink and snug, like adorable slimy alien slugs! Who's a good slug? Who's my good slug! Yes, you are!

(A note here: If you wanted to pound your big, rubbery wads of chicken into uniform thickness before brining them, that's not the worst idea in the world. Doing so will ensure more even doneness in the end, which, hey, that's great. On the other hand, if you didn't want to spend the rest of your life hammering away at a bunch of big, gross, pink disembodied chicken boobs like a really very deeply confused misogynist, and then hosing down your entire home in antibacterial disinfectant afterward to ward off the five gallons of pure salmonella spattered across its every square inch, that's OK too. Your boneless, skinless chicken breasts are still going to taste good. You really don't need to pound them flat.)

Next, add some flavor, because boneless, skinless chicken breasts contain none of that. You can play around with your own spice and aromatic combinations (remembering to be very generous with them, since they're going to be diffused into water); today, I'm going to recommend lots and lots of powdered turmeric, a modest amount of powdered cinnamon and ginger, some chopped garlic, and, most crucially, a bunch of chopped red onion or shallot. Just go ahead and dump all that stuff directly onto the chicken in the vessel. Add enough cold water to the vessel to just barely cover the chicken, then add a double-fistful of ice on top of all that.

Now you're going to prepare the briny part of the brine. To do this, grab a small saucepot and fill it with: one cup of water, three heaping tablespoons of sea salt, and three-quarters or so of a cup of sugar. (If the proportions of salt and sugar in the preceding sentence have caused you to worry that I am tricking you into making candied chicken, don't fret, although that would be pretty funny. The sugar is not going to make your chicken taste like candy. It is going to counter the salt a bit, and it is also going to do something downright neat-o when you cook the chicken, which we will get to in a bit.) Bring this to a boil on your stovetop and stir it a bit until all the salt and sugar have dissolved, then remove it from the heat, let it sit and cool for just a couple of minutes, and pour it over the ice in your big vessel full of wet bird tits.

Congratulations. Your chicken is now brining. If you were preparing an entire chicken, or a whole turkey, you would let the thing soak in the brine for a long time, hours and hours and hours, for as long as you could stomach the notion of a large decapitated bird-corpse slowly dissolving in a vat of tepid water somewhere inside your home. Thankfully, you are not doing that. These chicken breasts are a lot smaller than a whole chicken, so you'll be able to get them out of the brine long before they have a chance to make you feel like the Jeffrey Dahmer of barnyard fowl. Give them a half-hour or so; they're not going to turn into chicken pudding if you leave them in the brine longer than that, but they shouldn't spend more than an hour in there.

This gives you at least a half-hour to work with. It's now time to build an unreasonably, frighteningly hot fire in your shitty charcoal grill. Here is how you are going to do that. First, you are going to shut up about your chimney starter and your Big Green Egg and your but I never use anything but the finest hand-chopped mesquite chips!, and you are going to purchase a very enormous bag of lump (not briquette) charcoal. The reason you are using lump and not briquette charcoal in this preparation is not ideological: The shit simply burns hotter, and while that quality might be superfluous to the cooking of, say, cheeseburgers or grilled fish or whatever the hell, it's perfect for the cooking of chicken breasts, because chicken breasts need to be cooked over a fire precisely as hot as hell.

So. Fill your shitty charcoal grill halfway with your lump charcoal. Don't pile the charcoal into a pyramid; don't arrange it into spiraling tiers around a tent of aged hardwood sticks you picked yourself down t'yonder holler; just pour the shit into your shitty charcoal grill and soak it the fuck down with a scary amount of lighter fluid. Pause to delight in the echoing cries of impotent rage from the weenie grilling purists crapping their jorts over your use of lighter fluid. Now, fill up the rest of the available space in your shitty charcoal grill with ... more lump charcoal! That's right! Fill 'er up right to the top, so that when you set the grate in place, it is flush with the surface of the great black ocean of lump charcoal. Put on your best set of deranged spiral-eyes and soak that bad boy down with yet more lighter fluid, then strike a match, step back, and light that fucker on fire.

You were a child once. You enjoyed playing with fire. You went to a bonfire in the autumn, and a stern-faced adult gave you a hard time for tossing a plastic fork and a styrofoam plate into the fire and watching them curl up and burn away (and also for then going in search of the family cat). There are few opportunities in the dreary, haggard, rushed, joy-starved life of a grownup to do something as innocent and pleasant as making a furious, towering fire and then stepping back and watching it and experiencing some genuine worry that it might ignite the earth's atmosphere and incinerate all life. By God, if you are going to eat fucking boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which is about the most depressingly grownup activity a person can undertake short of doing the exact same thing while filling out a tax return on an elliptical machine, you might as well scorch the surface of the fucking moon to make it worthwhile.

This is a really big fire you have made. It's going to take a few minutes to retreat to its new digs inside your immoderate pile of lump charcoal. Turn and walk away in slow motion, a badass silhouette illuminated from behind by The End Of The World, to go back inside and complete the somewhat less badass step of slicing some eggplant into discs. About a half-inch thick, each.

So, at some point your fire will have calmed down and settled in a bit; the mushroom cloud is visible from space, but it's safe to venture outside again, and the coals in your grill are ash-covered and glowing a fierce, brilliant orange. You can measure whether your grill is hot enough to cook your chicken breasts by holding your hand 18 inches or so above the coals, and paying careful attention: If you are able to scream all the air out of your lungs before you complete your transformation into a blackened skeleton, try to wave your arms at a neighbor or passerby to indicate that it is time to cook the chicken.

Do not dry the chicken when you remove it from the brine; do not set it aside to drain or wipe away any onion bits or spice powder on the individual breasts. Carry the vessel with the brine and chicken in it out to the grill, and, using your trusty tongs, yank the chicken directly from the brine to the surface of the grill. Each breast has a smooth side and a gnarly-looking one; put the smooth side down first. Do not clamp the lid on. Just step back for maybe three or four minutes or so.

Three or four minutes later, grab your tongs, lift up one of those chicken breasts, and look at its underside. Ooooooh. So sexy and dark and grilled-looking. The sugar did that. Neat-o, huh? No? Well, fuck you! Flip the chicken breasts over and give them another, oh, three or four minutes to cook on the gnarly-looking side.

At the end of those three or four minutes, give the breasts a few forceful prods with your tongs. Are they soft? Pendulous? Retreating hastily? Apologize to your grandmother and check the chicken breasts on the fucking hot grill instead, you pervert. They should be firm and, if they exude any liquid when you prod them, that liquid should be clear. They're done. Get 'em off there and onto a plate. They could benefit from a couple of minutes of alone time.

Now you've got those eggplant discs just sitting there. Spritz 'em generously on both sides with some spray oil and grill the eggplant for a minute or two per side until the discs are darkened and grilled-looking, then haul them off the grill and sprinkle them with some salt. Your grill will still be hot enough to smelt iron ore for the next several hours, but you're done cooking. Time to eat.

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Serve your chicken breasts and eggplant with a tasty salad, as well as the sense of personal satisfaction that comes with knowing that you have simultaneously attended to your physiological wellness and defied the Puritanical dictate that you must suffer while doing so. And, fuggit, lots and lots of very-bad-for-you cold beer. You're still coming out ahead: Not only is that juicy, flavorful, succulent chicken breast good for you on its own, but on top of that, you probably lost at least a couple of ounces of weight already today, when your grill-fire burned off all of your hair.

Here's to health.

Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at albertburneko@gmail.com. Image by Devin Rochford. You can find the full Foodspin archive at foodspin.deadspin.com.