It’s finally grilling season here in Nebraska—when it’s not raining. We’re less than an inch away from the wettest May in history. One Sunday when it wasn’t storming, I spent a solid afternoon cleaning every inch of our gas grill. After that crazy cleaning session, I decided to grill up one of my favorite recipes with a Mexican twist: Margarita-Brined Butterflied Chicken.
Butterflying (or spatchcocking) chicken is my secret method for getting a juicy, flavorful chicken on the table in under an hour. It’s much easier than it sounds, and best of all, the flattened chicken looks impressive.
To butterfly your bird, flip it onto the breast side and cut along the backbone with a pair of poultry shears or a sharp chef’s knife. My favorite tool is the pair of heavy-duty German shears we inherited from my husband’s grandmother. Then, backbone removed, lay the bird breast-side up on a cutting bird and firmly press to crack the breastbone and flatten the bird. I freeze the remaining backbone for making stock. Watch a video of the technique here.
Brining is an easy way to ensure a moist, tender and well-seasoned bird. In this brine, we’re evoking margarita flavors with plenty of fresh citrus—juice and zest—along with tequila, salt and sugar. After hanging out in the brine for 2-12 hours, the chicken is rubbed with a Mexican spice rub and grilled.
Though the brine brings some citrus and salt to the party, the spice rub adds a layer of flavor that makes this chicken truly delicious. The primary component is ground ancho chile powder. Ancho chiles are actually the dried version of the fresh green poblano. They have a deep red color and wrinkled skin. On the Scoville heat scale, they’re in the low range of 1,000-1,500 heat units.
Ground ancho powder lends a deep crimson hue and mildly spicy, fruity flavor to the rub. I also added dried oregano, which has a pungent, distinct flavor, lemony dried cumin and a pinch each of ground chipotle and cayenne.
To ensure a moist, evenly-cooked chicken, grill over indirect heat. If you’re using a gas grill, heat the grill with all burners on high. When you’re ready to cook your chicken, turn off one half of the burners and set the others to medium. Place the chicken over the unheated part of the grill, first breast side up.
For a charcoal grill, heat your charcoal until it’s covered with a white ash, and then divide it into two piles, setting a drip pan between the coals. Place your chicken in the center, not directly over the heated coals.
After about 30-35 minutes of grilling, flip the chicken breast side down and grill for an additional 10 minutes. That will help ensure the dark, crispy skin that everyone loves. Monitor the chicken carefully, as you may have to rotate it for even cooking without burning. The chicken is done when a thermometer in the thickest part of the breast registers 150 degrees F, and the thigh temperature measures 170-150 degrees. Tent loosely with foil, let rest for 10 minutes, and then cut into quarters. Grill up a few fresh orange and lime halves while the chicken rests for extra flavor and a striking presentation.
This simple grilled chicken is perfect with a side of crispy potatoes, cilantro rice or potato salad—however you love you serve grilled chicken. Shred leftover chicken for salads, soups or tuck into tortillas for easy tacos.
- 1 whole chicken, butterflied
- Margarita Brine
- 1½ cups water
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1½ cup cold water
- ½ cup tequila
- ½ orange juice (fresh squeezed)
- Juice of 1 lime
- 2 tablespoons orange zest
- 2 tablespoons lime zest
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves, crushed
- Mexican Spice Rub
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ¼ teaspoon chipotle chile powder
- Pinch of cayenne
- Pepper, to taste
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- Vegetable oil
- Orange and lime halves, for serving
- To butterfly your chicken: use poultry shears to cut along both sides of backbone. Remove backbone and discard or save for stock.
- To prepare brine: bring 1½ cup water, salt and sugar to a simmer of medium-high heat. Stir to dissolve. Cool slightly, then add in cold water, tequila, orange and lime juices, orange zest, peppercorns and bay leaves. Place whole chicken in brine. Cover and refrigerate 2-12 hours, flipping chicken occasionally.
- To prepare spice rub: Mix together salt, sugar, chile powders, cumin and cayenne.
- Remove chicken from brine, pat dry and spread with olive oil. Sprinkle with spice rub and rub into chicken.
- Prepare grill. For a gas grill, heat all burners on high. Turn the burners that will be directly under the chicken off and the other burners to medium. For a charcoal grill, build a charcoal fire. When coals are white hot, divide into two piles and set a drip pan between coals. Oil the grill grates. Set the chicken, skin and breast side up over the center of the grill (or not directly over heat). Cover and cook 30-35 minutes, then flip bird skin side down for 5-10 minutes. Check carefully to ensure chicken does not burn. After 45 minutes, use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. The chicken should register at least 150 degrees in the thickest part of the breast and 170 degrees in the thigh. If not to temperature, grill for an additional 3 to 5 minutes and re-measure. When chicken is done, remove from heat, tent with foil and allow to stand at least 10 minutes. Cut into quarters and serve with grilled orange and lime halves.
- Prep time does not include brining time.
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