Lazy Sunday Afternoon Barbecue Chicken

Ok, I know that this isn't revolutionary, but I just discovered that I can roast whole chickens on my barbecue...and its easy...and they are really tasty. Despite the fact that there seems to be a place to buy a roasted or rotisserie chicken every few blocks, I still feel a little like an evil genius, like I pulled off some great crime.

It goes a little like this:  It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, clouds scattered shadows across the yard as a robin ripped a worm out of the ground. Silently I lit the coals for the barbecue and with only butter, olive oil, herbs, salt and pepper, the chicken was set to be grilled. Potatoes, carrots and onions were thrown on whole unbeknownst to the suspicious neighbors. The smoke threatened to blow my cover, but by the time anyone in the house caught on, dinner was served with enough left for the rest of the week.

Alright, I admit that this isn't the work of mystery novels, but I am still in awe of the fact that with almost no preparation, very little work and hardly any dishes, that I can create a wonderful dinner with enough to make sandwiches later. Plus, I have time to work on the garden or play with my son while it is cooking. The only real question that remains is, "Why did it take me so long to discover this?"


That question and its answers are exactly what led me to write this. I've always loved grilling and grew up with it, but inevitably it was always burgers and tube meat. Nothing wrong with that, I love everything meaty, but I'm never satisfied with the status quo and one day I stumbled onto an article about two-zone grilling. I gave it a shot this winter in 10 degree weather and although the temperature was hard to control, I certainly learned a lot about what goes into acheiving even heat and that even if you don't, the meat will still turn out. I combined this with a little memory of a recipe I had seen a long time ago about roasting whole birds...or I just made it up. This jumble of past techniques, a hazy recall of recipes and a foggy memory, I call inspiration. To top it off, this idea of easily roasting whole birds appealed to my practical side that is always looking to cook food now to use for many meals later. I guess all of these elements came together this summer and now I want to share them with all of you patient readers still left after this rambling introduction.

The theory:

Two-zone grilling creates a more flexible and cool (temperature, not anti-nerd way of being) way to grill. Instead of high, intense heat throughout the barbecue, it is set up to give a cool zone with indirect heat, like an oven, as well as an area of direct heat over the coals. This allows you to grill, roast and even smoke meat.

The equipment and setup:

Could not be easier really. I use an old Weber grill that I found on the curb, an oven thermometer, a charcoal starter or "chimney" and an old aluminum baking pan for water. The grill need only have some air control. For mine, many of the vent covers are broken so I jam wine corks into the holes to control air flow. The thermometer is great to give you an idea of how your coals are doing and how much air flow is effecting the heat. I swear by the chimney as it never fails to start the coals evenly and without any lighter fluid. If you burn through all of your fuel before the food is done, you can easily start more in the chimney and add it to the grill. The water pan is the essential piece for two-zone grilling. I started with disposable aluminum pans, but they are expensive and tend to get holes and leak. I got my heavy duty aluminum bread pan at the thrift store for a buck. This water pan will sit next to the coals under the grill. Not only will it keep one side of the grill a bit cooler, it provides moisture for the meat.

What to do:

Prepare the whole chicken by patting dry and then tuck cold slices of butter and fresh herbs under the skin on both the breast and back side of the bird. Do this by lifting the skin up on the cavity side and poking your fingers between the skin and meat to create a little space. Cover the bird in olive oil, salt and pepper. Stuff more herbs and whatever else you want to into the cavity. When the grill is holding at a fairly even temperature, place the bird above the pan of water, breast side down. I like to roast chicken on the grill between 250 and 300 degrees. This usually takes about two hours to reach an internal temp of 170 degrees for a small bird. Have a thermometer ready to check the temperature of the meat. I usually temp my bird by placing the thermometer deep into the thigh meat.

At this point, play the waiting game. Go play some bocce ball or weed the garden. Try not to check the bird very much, maybe every half an hour just to peek at the temp of the grill. I don't baste it at all. The butter under the skin will keep the meat very moist and all of the juices will marinate the breast which you have placed facing down on the grill.

After about an hour, I check the temperature of the bird. It will probably be around 140 or so. This is also the point when I put potatoes and sometimes beets on, whole with skins, rolled in olive oil, with salt and pepper. I keep all of the vegetables on or near the coal side of the grill. After another 30 minutes I add carrots, onions, and whatever other vegetables I have in my fridge or garden. I tend to roll all of them in olive oil with salt and pepper. I keep it simple. My friend loves to add herbs de Provence to his carrots. Often by the end of the second hour the temperature of the grill may have dropped, but I usually find that the chicken is around 170. Done!

A few additional ideas:

Some swear by saving the drippings in the water pan for broth. I usually find it has some ash in it, but maybe I'm clumsy with the coals. I do often save the carcass and make a small batch of smoky broth on the stove top.

I love adding some dried sage or oregano stalks to the grill above the coals when I start the chicken. It creates a lovely herby smoke. It tends to be less heavy than wood smoke which can overpower the chicken.

You will probably have chicken left over, so think ahead and put way too many potatoes on the grill. They are delicious later mashed, for potato salad or to cut and fry into home fries or hashbrowns in the morning.


Barbecue crazy? Check out this super fun and informative website:


Need local meat? Besides the meat departments at any of our wonderful co-ops, here are a few favorites:,, minnesota department of agriculture (poultry farms).  Please let us know some of your favorites as well!

Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at 
Simple, Good and Tasty.  He can be reached at