According to the USDA and other food safety organizations chicken is safe to eat at 165 degrees Fahrenheit. While this is very much true for chicken tenderloins and boneless skinless chicken breasts, it isn’t always the best metric for larger bone-in cuts of chicken. At least not if your goal is to eat tender, juicy chicken.
If you try to quickly grill chicken drumsticks, chicken thighs, leg quarters or full chicken wings to 165 degrees, you’ll end up with tough bites of chicken that feel like meat floss in your teeth. With some of the larger cuts like chicken leg quarters, there might even still be unappealing lumps of fat hiding under the somewhat rubbery skin.
What Makes Some Pieces of Chicken Tough?
The parts of the chicken that do the most work in life, like the legs, thighs, and to some extent the wings all have a fair amount of connective tissue. Made from collagen and other tough protein structures these connective tissues need time and modest heat to render into gelatin. Along with the fat this succulent gelatin permeates the meat adding flavor and juiciness.
So with these tougher, bone-in cuts of chicken time is just as important as temperature. Though even if you were to remove the bone from a chicken thigh, it still needs either more time or thinner cutting to achieve the same level of tenderness that you come to expect from something like a chicken tenderloin.
Taking Chicken Skin Into Account
With some cuts of chicken, like wings, you also have the skin to contend with. Chicken skin has a relatively high-fat content, and when it renders and drops onto the flames of a grill it can cause flareups. At the same time, bone-in cuts of chicken also need to cook the meat through to the bone. So if you use too high or fast of a grilling/cooking strategy, you can very easily end up with pieces of chicken with burned skin on the outside and potentially under-done meat down near the bone.
The Best Temperature & Grilling Method for Popular Cuts of Chicken
If you’re somewhat new to the world of grilling chicken, or you just want to make sure you are making the most out of your poultry, you can use the following tips as a guideline to get the tender, juicy chicken off the grill.
Boneless-Skinless Chicken Breast & Chicken Tenderloins
With very little connective tissue and virtually no fat boneless skinless chicken breast and chicken, tenderloins can be cooked quickly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Direct heating is just fine for breast and tenderloin meat that you’re going to serve plain or with a dipping sauce.
If you want to put barbecue sauce or some other type of glaze you might want to use indirect heating. This will cook the chicken through and caramelize the sauce without burning it.
Bone-in Chicken Breast
Bone-in chicken breast with the skin still on will be reasonably tender when cooked over direct heat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Though it’s best to grill it with the bone side down until the thickest meat, near the ribs reaches about 150 to 155 degrees. Then flip it skin side down rotating occasionally to crisp the skin until it reaches 165 degrees.
Chicken drumsticks need to be cooked slow and low for a longer period of time to an internal temperature of around 175 to 180 degrees. This will give the connective tissues inside the drumstick the time and thermal energy they need to break down and render.
Rotating the drumstick every 5 to 7 minutes over indirect heat helps cook the meat evenly. When the drumstick reaches an internal temperature of around 165 degrees, move it over a direct flame. Continue rotating every 2 to 3 minutes to sear and crisp the skin.
Chicken thighs get reasonably tender around 170 degrees, though 180 will give you a more succulent bite of meat. They benefit from a slow and low cooking approach to heat the meat near the thick bone inside all the way through.
To keep chicken thighs from burning, it’s best to grill them over indirect heat. Then set them over a direct flame with the skin side down as the internal temperature hits 165 degrees.
Chicken Leg Quarters
Chicken leg quarters are basically just chicken thighs and drumsticks that haven’t been separated. Though they tend to be thicker. It often helps to express the joint so you can stretch the leg quarter out, and help the meat deep in the joint to cook evenly.
It’s best to grill/smoke over indirect heat. When it hits a target temperature here is 175 degrees in the deepest part of the thigh and the leg portion, move the chicken leg quarter directly over the flames with the skin side down to crisp the skin.
Chicken wings need to be grilled to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. Though starting them off over indirect heat until they reach 165 and then searing them over a direct flame will give you crispy skin that isn’t burned, it will also bring the meat up to around 175 degrees, which will help tenderize the wings.
It also helps to loosen the joint until you can pull the chicken wing straight. This will ensure that the meat near the joint will cook evenly.
Choosing the Best Thermometers to Check the Internal Temp of Chicken
For checking the internal temperature of chicken tenderloins or boneless, skinless chicken breasts all you really need is an instant-read probe thermometer. You just insert the tip into the thickest part of the meat and it tells you the temperature in less than a second.
You can also use an instant-read thermometer for checking the internal temperature of a chicken drumstick or a chicken thigh. You just have to make sure that you keep the tip of the probe at least half an inch away from the bone to get a truly accurate reading.
For large chicken breasts and leg quarters then it’s better to use a grill thermometer that you leave in. You insert it roughly halfway through the grilling process and leave it in. It will give you the internal temperature of the meat is without having to pull it out, which will create a hole that precious juices leak out of.