Barbecued chicken is one of my favorite summertime dishes. I like every part of it: the tomato-based sauce (the spicier, the better), the crispy skin, even the bones.
And taste aside, it’s also relatively healthy, at least as compared to grilled or smoked ribs, brisket or pulled pork. It’s chicken, after all, and it wears that lean protein halo. Unfortunately, when it’s prepared with its skin and bones and slathered with a sugary sauce, barbecued chicken is very nearly as caloric as its brethren. Know why chicken skin is so delicious? It’s high in fat.
So I set myself the task of coming up with a recipe for a leaner version of barbecued chicken that somehow still boasted the most lovable aspects of the classic version: a mouth-watering sauce and an element of crunch.
I started with a boneless, skinless chicken breast. The one problem with this virtuous ingredient is that it’s tough to cook just right. Undercook it, and you risk getting sick. Overcook it, and you’re faced with a slab of dry, tough protein.
There’s also another problem: Chicken breasts come in all different sizes and thicknesses. Generally, if it’s labeled “cutlet,” it’s fairly thin. If it’s labeled “chicken breast,” it’s rather thick. But there’s a range of thickness within these categories, too. I tried both and opted for the latter because the thicker breasts were harder to overcook. The breasts also are covered for two-thirds of the cooking time, which helps keep them moist.
The internal temperature of the cooked breasts should be 165 degrees. And be sure when you take the temperature to insert the thermometer sideways into the center, not straight down from the top, to get a more accurate reading. Also, don’t forget to let the chicken rest for a few minutes after you pull it out of the oven to maximize the juiciness.
For the sauce, I wanted to conjure something with big flavor that wasn’t too sweet and didn’t require hours of simmering on top of the stove. I started with the usual ketchup base, balanced the sugar with an acidic ingredient and Dijon mustard, then spiked it with a secret weapon: adobo sauce from canned chipotles in adobo. Chipotles are smoked jalapenos; they are hot and smoky, as is the adobo sauce they swim in. You also could use an actual chipotle, finely minced, but that could be too fiery for this small amount of sauce.
If you open a whole can of chilies to make this sauce, you can freeze what you don’t use by putting a chili with a little sauce into each cube of an ice cube tray. Caution: After this baptism by fire, this particular tray will be usable only for freezing other spicy or tomato-based preparations.
Finally, I needed to add some crunch to the recipe to replicate the missing skin and bones. Panko breadcrumbs did the trick. These fantastically crispy Japanese breadcrumbs are available at most grocers (check the international aisle if you don’t see them with the regular breadcrumbs). I sauteed them in a little olive oil with some fresh thyme until they were nicely toasted, then topped the chicken with the crumbs for the last 10 minutes of baking, which guaranteed the crumbs would stick to the chicken but not get soggy.
I was very pleased with the result: a juicy, spicy, slightly crunchy, easy-to-make barbecued chicken that happens to be tasty hot, cold or at room temperature.