The Best Grilled Chicken is Shelf Chicken

by R.B. Quinn and Min Merrell
how to cook chicken

I ate a lot of burned up grilled chicken as a kid (i.e., before I took over the grilling department, thank you very much Troop 216, The Highlanders). In the late 1960s-early 70s we used the shallow three-legged braizer-type grills with the wobbly grate on the center pole and too many briquettes. Chicken fat can really kick up the flames and turn your bird black and bitter before the meat is fully cooked to a safe temperature. I think that’s when I first hear the word “patina.”

I think the best grilled chicken is shelf chicken. Parked on the upper shelf of the gas grill puts the chicken several inches further away from the burners below so your chicken is protected from any flare-ups caused by dripping fat. And that’s not all.

Grilling chicken on the shelf creates a spectacular crisp skin. Up on the shelf the skin is closer to the very hot grill cover which radiates heat back on the skin. This will not burn the skin (or the meat). The trick is to keep the grill cover cracked open a couple inches to allow moisture (and smoke) to escape the cooking chamber. The hot, dry grill interior creates a crisp, golden skin while the meat cooks through to doneness.

If you don’t have a shelf, make one. two bricks and smaller grill grate set on top of the grates.

Whole chicken halves are my favorite cut because I don’t have to deal with a whole bird (though whole birds cook perfectly on the shelf) and because the breast meat stays moist and juicy when it cooks still connected to the thigh. But, any cut you like works and we grill plenty of bone-in, skin-on thighs for all kinds of meals and dishes.

grilled chicken

How to Make Shelf Chicken: 

Put the chicken on the shelf of a hot grill, slightly crack open the grill cover, set your timer for 30 minutes, and go make a salad.

  1. Get the gas grill smoking hot.

  2. Season the chicken with Kosher salt and black pepper and coat with a little vegetable oil (prevents sticking on the bottom side). Use whatever chicken cuts you like, but use chicken with skin. We like whole birds cut in half as the breast meat tends to be plenty moist when cooked still attached to the leg and thigh section.

  3. Turn the burners to medium heat. Experiment with this as no two grills heat the same way. Place the chicken pieces on the grill’s upper shelf.

  4. Close the lid but crack it open a few inches with a brick, stone, or the little metal flip-up lid stop if your gill includes one (Broilmaster, for example).

  5. Go do something else like make a salad, a side, or a drink. Grab a guitar and run down some scales.

  6. In about 30 to 40 minutes you’ll have golden crisp skin and juicy, tender chicken.

  7. Use an instant read meat thermometer to check for doneness. You’ll want 185°F degrees in the dark meat and a minimum of 160°F in the breast.

grilled turkey

Wings like these turkeys (or chicken) also a great upper shelf option. Kids, guys night, party food all hits.

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