Grilled Spice-Rubbed Chicken

*This recipe is intended for a gas grill that has more than one shelf*

I have enjoyed cooking my entire life, but my interest began to peak when I entered high school. This was when I discovered the art of grilling. My mom received her breast cancer diagnosis when I was a freshman in high school. This meant that suddenly my dad and I were responsible for the majority of meals cooked since my mom was too sick from her treatments. My dad was perfectly adept in the kitchen, but overall he preferred to use the grill, and I asked him to teach me how to use it. Since my dad worked shift work, I would have to cook dinner on my own during this time too. As a typical teenager, I hated doing the dishes. Grilling offered a certain advantage – it didn’t get pots and pans dirty, and a lot of grilled food could easily be served on a paper plate. 

Even though my grilling experience started from a negative life event, it has grown into one of my absolute cooking techniques. Now, I cannot say that I am a true Wisconsinite that grills all year round. Honestly, I put the protective cover on mine in November, and it typically stays that way until late March. Could I grill in -20 degree weather? Absolutely. Do I choose to? No way. Not when I also love a steaming soup boiling on the stove. Despite not using my grill in the winter months, I still make sure it gets plenty of love the rest of the year. 

While poultry is our main source of protein that we eat, I’ve only recently begun to use the grill to cook it up. I used to reserve the grill for steaks, brats, shrimp, and the occasional porkchop. Lately I’ve been looking for ways to branch out when I cook chicken though, and when the weather allows it, I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting on the grill. 

During the process of my experimentations, I kept reaching a point of struggle. I would make up various types of supposedly delicious rubs, but then, when I would go to cook them, the rub would completely char to a point where I couldn’t even taste the flavor that was supposed to be there. I started to do some research, and was greatly disappointed by the bulk of my results. Many blogs and cooking websites were saying that the rubs I wanted to try were not intended for the grill, but for smoking low and slow instead. The reason behind this was that the rubs I was using contained brown sugar, which burns very easily at semi-high temperatures. 

I was frustrated. I didn’t own a smoker, and I felt like there should definitely be a way to cook up these recipes on my gas grill. Despite the research warning me it wouldn’t, I became determined to figure out a way to make this work, and after numerous times of trial and error I have finally found a technique that fixes the charring issue. When I first started this experimentation I was interested in using drumsticks, but I will provide tips for cooking up chicken breasts and wings at the bottom of the recipe too!


1 lb Chicken Drumsticks

Spice Rub of Choice (I usually use Jamaican Jerk or Cajun)

Olive Oil

Directions – Drumsticks

1. The first step to take when grilling drumsticks is to bring them to room temperature. They grill up more easily if they have not come directly out of the refrigerator. Obviously, it is not overly healthy to keep raw chicken sitting out on the counter for a duration of time, so I like to do this by creating a hot water bath. I fill my sink with a couple of inches of hot water, put the drumsticks in a seal-able bag, and let them soak for at least 15 minutes. This process warms the meat up a little bit without having to leave it out and exposed. 

2. After the meat has been brought to room temperature it is time to put the rub on. My personal preferences are either a Jamaican Jerk rub or a Cajun Rub, but many other delicious options can be found in grilling cookbooks.

When it comes to putting the rub on the chicken, I don’t have an exact amount that I use in my technique. I know this can be frustrating to hear. Ambiguous recipes can be challenging to follow, but when it comes to something like a spiced rub, it really is a matter of preference. Some people prefer their foods to be filled with flavors, and other people prefer the natural flavor of the meat and lean toward less spice. Personally, I shake the rub out so that it coats my entire cut of meat, and then I rub it into the skin. You can see from the picture below that my chicken has been coated pretty generously. 

3. After the chicken has been prepped, it is time to turn your attention to the grill. This next part is crucially important. You want to heat your grill up so that the temperature is hovering around the 400 degree mark. It is okay if you are not exactly there, but you do not want the gauge to dip lower than 350 or higher than 450. The goal is to keep it in the sweet spot in between those two numbers. 

4. Once the grill has come up to temperature you are going to oil it. You only need to oil the top shelf of your grill, because the bottom one will not be used. Oiling the grill is an easy process – simply use a silicone basting brush to apply olive oil to the bars the chicken will sit on. Try to avoid dripping too much oil into the flames though or large flames will flare up. This is part of the reason that I like to use an infrared grill. The grate on an infrared grill prevents flare ups entirely.

Kitchen Tip: Out of all the experimenting I have done to figure out how to grill a spice rub chicken without charring it to death, the shelf placement has proven the most helpful. The charring of the spices is directly correlated to the amount of heat it is exposed to. In grilling terms this is considered the difference between direct heat exposure and indirect heat. By using the top shelf of the grill you are keeping them further away from the flames to prevent the charring that detracts from the flavor of the rub. 

5. When the drumsticks are on the grill they need to be flipped every 7 minutes for a total cooking time of 35 minutes. By flipping them so many times you are, once again, working to prevent the charring of the rub. When the rub is continuously touching the hot metal for long periods of time it is more likely to burn, but by flipping the chicken frequently you are allowing it to cook without charring. 

6. The final step of grilling the chicken is to turn the grill up to a high temperature during the last three minutes of the cooking process. By increasing the heat during the last minutes of cooking this allows the meat to get a deliciously crispy exterior while holding the juiciness of the meat inside. Because the heat is increased for only a short period of time, it also still keeps any of your rub from burning. 

Even though many cooks warn against using sugar in rubs, I have found that by using indirect heat, oiling the grill, and flipping the meat frequently, charring can be prevented, even with a Jamaican Jerk seasoning. This says a lot considering there is a sizable amount of brown sugar in a Jerk Rub. Good luck, and happy grilling!

Directions – Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts

Because my husband is not a fan of having bones in his meat, I have also had to experiment grilling up chicken breasts when I grill drumsticks for myself. The process is pretty similar, but there are a couple of small steps that need to be taken.

  • Since this is a skinless cut of meat, about two tablespoons of olive oil need to be poured directly into the bag before soaking the chicken in the hot water bath. This oiling provides two distinct advantages: First, it helps to keep the chicken juicier when it is cooking, and secondly, since the chicken doesn’t have skin for the rub to stick to, the oil helps the rub stick to the meat.
  • Since this is a boneless cut of meat, it doesn’t take as long to cook, unless you have a breast that is over 8 ounces in size, then you may still want to grill it for the same duration as the drumsticks. However, if your chicken breast is 8 ounces or less, it should only need 28 minutes to cook instead of 35. You will still flip it every 7 minutes, just like the drumsticks though. 

Every other technique is kept the same for chicken breasts as it would be for the original drumstick recipe. 

Directions – Chicken Wings

Chicken wings are one of my favorite cuts of poultry, but they provide a bit more prep work to cut the drumettes and flats apart. For this reason I usually prefer to make drumsticks on a more regular basis, but have provided instructions for wings below. Overall, it is about the same as cooking the drumsticks, just with a different cooking time, and this one gets to cook on the bottom shelf of the grill instead of the top. Moving it to a section that has more direct heat allows the skin of the wing to become less chewy and more crispy. Since the wing skin is thicker than other chicken skin, it needs a more direct approach to form crispiness. 

  • Since chicken wings are a much smaller cut of meat, they take much less time to cook than a drumstick does. They also need to be flipped a little bit sooner because they seem to char more easily. I grill chicken wings for a total of 20 minutes and flip them every 5 minutes. 

Like this recipe? Check out some of my other grilling recipes listed below.

Tasty Turkey Burgers

Parmesan Garlic Oysters

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