How to Grill Chicken Thighs With the Skin On

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Season the chicken thighs before grilling them, or baste them with sauce while you cook.
Season the chicken thighs before grilling them, or baste them with sauce while you cook. (Image: Enlightened_Spirit/iStock/Getty Images)

It's difficult to find a cut of chicken that's more forgiving on the grill than chicken thighs. The rich flavor of the dark meat stands up to bold seasoning, while the higher fat content prevents the meat from drying out as quickly as chicken breasts. Leaving the skin on adds to the succulence of the meat. It also gives you a fabulously crunchy, flavorful exterior after the chicken when you sear the chicken on a hot grill.

Setting Up the Grill

You can grill chicken thighs over direct or indirect heat, depending on your personal preference. To set the grill for direct heat, spread the charcoal in an even layer or turn all the burners onto medium or medium-low heat. For indirect grilling on a charcoal grill, place the charcoal on either side of a drip pan placed in the center of the grill. If you're using a gas grill, only light one burner of a two-burner grill, or the back and front burners of a three- or four-burner grill. The chicken gets placed over the unlit portion. Once the grill is warm enough that you feel the heat when you place your hand over the grate, clean the grates with a grill brush and spray them with cooking spray.

Prepping the Chicken

Trim any excess skin and fat from the chicken thighs to reduce the likelihood of a grill flare-up. Choose from the following three basic options to add flavor to the meat:

  • **Dry rubs** include commercially made seasoning blends, your own blends made at home or individual spices. In addition to the essential salt and pepper, this may include spices such as onion powder, garlic powder, dried thyme, basil, oregano, smoked or sweet paprika or cayenne pepper. You can apply a dry rub right before grilling or several hours beforehand.

  • **Marinades** require more time to maximize the flavor -- usually at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight. To make a marinade, combine your favorite wet and dry ingredients together and toss the chicken thighs in the mixture. Place it in a baking dish or resealable bag and refrigerate until approximately 30 minutes before you're ready to grill. Experiment with your marinade ingredients. Try an Asian-inspired concoction with ingredients such as ginger, garlic, soy sauce, crushed red pepper flakes and sesame oil. Alternatively, combine fresh lime juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin and paprika for a more south-of-the-border appeal.

  • **Glazes or basting sauces**, such as barbecue sauce, get brushed onto the thighs, usually after the first 15 to 20 minutes and then every time you flip the chicken.

Adding Smoke

Another optional way to infuse chicken thighs with flavor is to add smoke to the fire. If you're cooking on a charcoal grill, simply add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of wood chips or chunks on top of the charcoal while the grill heats up. If you're using a gas grill that's equipped with a smoker box, add wood chips to the box and heat the grill on high until it starts to smoke, at which time you can turn the temperature down. If your grill doesn't have a smoker box, make your own pouch by wrapping soaked wood chunks in heavy foil. Poke a couple of holes on the top and place it on one of the grill's burners.

The wood chips or chunks that you choose change the flavor of the grilled chicken thighs. For example, fruit woods such as cherry or apple add light, sweet smokiness that doesn't overpower the flavor of the chicken thighs. Hickory and pecan carry a bit more of a punch of flavor, while mesquite imparts strong flavor, so use it in moderation along with other types of wood. Experiment with different types of wood chunks and ratios to create your own blend. For example, add 1 cup of cherry wood chunks with 1/4 cup of pecan and a couple of chunks of mesquite.

Approximate Grilling Times

Grilling bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs over direct heat takes approximately 30 to 40 minutes, while grilling them over indirect heat can extend that time to about 50 minutes. While the chicken thighs are cooking, flip them every 10 minutes to provide even browning. Boneless chicken thighs require less time on the grill than their bone-in counterparts. According to Fine Cooking, small thighs may take approximately 10 minutes while larger ones need more like 12 to 15 minutes.

Insert an instant-read meat thermometer in the plumpest part of the thigh to check for doneness. Continue grilling the chicken thighs until they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

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