I find that many modern BBQ recipes place a lot of emphasis on special sauces, special ingredients or ludicrously lengthy lists of spices. Sometimes those recipes reward you handsomely, sometimes not so much. As for me, I like simple recipes and the recipes that provide clean and balanced flavors. I think simple recipes come to perfection the closest, like this recipe for grilled chicken legs that I created in an effort to find a very quick but very tasty grilled chicken leg recipe.
Secrets to making the best grilled chicken legs
This recipe is an improved version of the old one I posted on this page. There were two obvious reasons for the change. One is that the recipe had brown sugar and it made it almost impossible to properly brown the skin without some burning here and there. Not a huge problem but I’d rather avoid it if I could. The other one is aesthetics and visual appeal. Somehow plain dry rub without any oil does not look so appetizing on grilled chicken legs. Here is the picture of the product of the old recipe, see the difference? So, in a nutshell, brown sugar is out and is substituted by dark soy sauce for some sweetness and color. Olive oil is in for better browning and visual appeal.
A quick rub to flavorize chicken legs
The key phrase here is ‘quick’. I am a big fan of marinating chicken, because it works and helps attain deep, balanced flavor profiles. If you’ve tried my Killer chicken thigh marinade you know what I am talking about. But, despite what some recipes claim, marination needs at least 2-4 hours to be effective, and preferably longer, like overnight and up to 24 hours. That’s not always possible. More often than not I don’t plan ahead and tend to look for a quick recipe that does not require a lot of prep time.
In this recipe all it takes is 5 minutes to prepare the rub and apply it on the chicken, which is immediately ready to go on the grill. This is it! All you have to do is mix together some granulated garlic and onions, black pepper and salt, add some dark soy sauce for sweetness and some cayenne for a little kick, rub the chicken with the spice mix and throw on the grill.
Then, magically, the cheapest part of the chicken becomes some of the best ‘que you’ve ever had. I think what makes these grilled chicken legs so special is the balance of sweet and salty, subtle pepper, garlic and onion flavors and a nice kick from the cayenne pepper. There are no overpowering ingredients, and the flavors are clean.
Getting the crispy and caramelized skin
Nicely caramelized and crispy skin is the icing on the cake. It’s the best part. You get it by grilling at a fairly high temperature of about 300F-350F at the grate level. Lower and you won’t get proper skin crispness. Higher and you will burn the chicken skin.
Specifics are important in getting the right result. I don’t like guesswork and like the simplicity of using a good BBQ thermometer. It makes grilling a joy, without any stress. I even use my BBQ thermometer when I roast chicken in the oven.
The final important part is the internal meat temperature. USDA recommends cooking chicken to 165F internal temperature. A lot of recipes I’ve seen blindly follow that advice. For example, cooking a chicken breast to 165F makes a perfectly cooked breast. Cooking a wing or a leg to to that temperature makes for a juicy, yet stringy and tough piece of meat, that feels under-cooked when cooked to 165F.
Chicken wings and legs are much more forgiving. I like them ‘overcooked’. For legs, in my opinion, 180F-190F is more appropriate as it gives you tender, fall-off-the-bone meat that is still very juicy.
Looking for more great chicken leg quarters recipes? Check these out:
- 4 chicken legs drumsticks with thighs attached
- 1 tsp kosher salt plus more to taste
- 1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp granulated garlic
- 1 tsp granulated onions
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper plus more for a stronger kick - see my notes
- Start preheating the grill to medium high, about 300F-350F at the grate level.
- Meanwhile, combine all of the ingredients except chicken in a medium bowl and mix well.
- Pat dry the chicken legs with paper towel, then evenly apply the rub all over the chicken legs. The rub should stick to the chicken fairly easily without adding any oil. If not, rub the chicken legs with a small amount of oil then apply the rub. Set aside and let sit at room temperature until the grill is ready.
- Brush the grill grate with a little bit of oil to prevent chicken legs from sticking. Place the legs on the grill, skin side down, and close the lid. Grill covered for about 30 minutes, flipping every 8-10 minutes and moving around to account for hot spots and ensure even browning. The legs are ready when the chicken legs are nicely browned and the internal temperature is reading about 180F-190F.
1 tsp - medium kick
1 1/2 tsp plus more - a lot of kick.