I don't think anyone needs convincing that skin adds a ton of flavor to chicken thighs. I've known that for a long time, but having grilled skinless and skin-on chicken thighs one right after the other, using the same marinade, I could really appreciate the difference. If you don't like the the skin, or want to get rid of the extra calories, grill chicken thighs with the skin on, then remove it after grilling. The meat of grilled skin-on chicken thighs just comes out juicier, more tender, with noticeably better texture.
Marinating chicken thighs before grilling
Whether or not using skin-on or skinless thighs, marinating chicken thighs before grilling is always a great idea. Not only marination will flavorize chicken meat inside out with salt and seasonings, it will also tenderize it. The meat will also absorb some moisture during marination, similar to what happens during brining, and will come off the grill much juicier. In other words, if you want truly succulent grilled chicken thighs, you've got to marinate them. But that process is slow, so make sure to marinate the chicken overnight for best results, or at least for a few hours. No meat can be properly marinated in 20 minutes, unless it's cut paper thin.
What is the best marinade for chicken thighs?
If you have a favorite marinade, use it. The only thing to be cautious about is the amount of acidity in the marinade. Overly acidic marinades will make chicken thighs mushy, destroying the meat texture. A ratio of about 1/3 acid to 2/3 oil is a good starting point. A marinade should also be perfectly salted. Under- or over-salted marinade will result in chicken meat tasting equally the same.
If you don't have a favorite marinade, let me offer two amazing marinades that you can use on your chicken thighs - the Killer Chicken Thigh Marinade and the Thai Chicken Thigh Marinade. Both are fantastic marinades and will give a lot of oomph to your grilled chicken thighs. The Killer marinade has honey in it, and the Thai marinade has sugar, so be careful when grilling thighs marinated in them. You may want to pat dry the thighs really well before putting in the grill and flip the meat more often, about every 2 minutes or so to prevent burning. For grilled chicken thighs, if I were to pick between the two, it would be the Thai marinade. That's the marinade that I provided in this recipe.
How long to grill these chicken thighs?
Ask five cooks about how long to grill chicken thighs and you will most likely get 5 different answers. The minimum safe internal temperature is 165F, according to USDA. Yet, unlike chicken breasts, chicken thighs usually taste better when cooked well past 165F mark. It's because red chicken meat is tougher than white meat and only benefits from longer cooking and higher internal temperature to become more tender. This comes at the expense of meat losing water and becoming dryer, but red chicken meat also has more fat so it doesn't taste dry even if cooked to 180F or 185F. That's what I target for dry-rubbed grilled chicken thighs as they taste best when cooked to this temperature.
Now, marinated chicken thighs behave slightly differently. Even before chicken thighs hit the grill, the meat has already been tenderized by the marinade. That's why it's recommended to marinate overnight or even 24 hours for best results. Marinated chicken thighs will be very tender at 165F internal, or at least that's what my experience has been. Kingsford guys also recommend grilling chicken thighs to 165F internal. And, of course, thighs are quite a bit juicier if cooked to this temperature as they won't lose as much moisture compared to when cooked to a higher internal temperature. But that's, of course, a matter of taste. If you like your thighs cooked a little more, there is nothing wrong with that.
If you are after a very juicy, succulent grilled chicken thigh - marinate it overnight and don't overcook.
- 8 chicken thighs (skin-on)
For the marinade:
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh Thai basil (or use regular basil)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander
- 1 1-inch piece of ginger root (peeled and minced)
- 3 cloves garlic (minced)
- 2 Thai (Bird's eye) chilies (thinly sliced or minced, or use 1 Tbsp of minced regular hot red chili)
- 3 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp dark soy sauce (or substitute with regular soy sauce)
- 2 Tbsp Thai fish sauce
- 4 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp lime juice
- 2 Tbsp palm sugar (or brown sugar)
- 1 shallot (minced)
- Combine all of the ingredients for the marinade in a medium bowl or a Ziploc bag and mix thoroughly, making sure that the sugar has dissolved. Add the chicken thighs and marinate overnight. I find that overnight (or even up to 24 hours) marination gives the chicken optimal flavor and tenderness.
- Preheat the grill to 300F - 325F at the grate level. You don't want the grill to be very hot to prevent burning.
- Trim excess skin and fat from chicken thighs. Place the thighs in a medium bowl and add the marinade. Stir well to ensure proper coverage. Marinade for 24 hours or at least overnight.
- Remove chicken thighs from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Some bits and pieces of herbs and chili pepper remaining on the skin are totally fine, but you want as much of the liquid and oil off as possible for better browning and to prevent flare-ups.
- Grill chicken thighs over direct heat, flipping frequently, about every 2-3 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and internal temperature has reached a minim of 165F.
- Let the chicken rest for 3 minutes and serve.