Roasting a chicken outdoors is quite a challenge if you want crisp, rendered skin, juicy breast meat, and tender legs. It can be tricky to cook a whole bird evenly on a grill or smoker. If you’re looking for a simple yet exciting way to make chicken, you should try the spatchcock method!
Spatchcocking allows you to easily cook an entire chicken without a lot of extra equipment or fuss. Your bird will cook perfectly and you won’t have to devote hours to its preparation. It also looks impressive when finished and is easy to divide into portions.
- 1 What is Spatchcock Chicken?
- 2 How to Spatchcock a Chicken
- 3 To Grill or to Smoke?
- 4 Grilled BBQ Spatchcock Chicken Recipe
- 5 Smoked BBQ Spatchcock Chicken Recipe
What is Spatchcock Chicken?
Spatchcock is an odd word and a lot of fun to say in a crowd. We aren’t entirely sure where it comes from, but it may be related to the words “spit” and “cock” (as in a male bird). Some folks think it could be a corruption of the phrase “dispatch a cock,” which would make a bit more sense.
Spatchcock is a specific technique for preparing an entire bird for cooking. We usually associate it with chicken, but you can use the method with Cornish game hens and turkeys as well.
When you spatchcock poultry, it means you’ve removed the backbone so your whole bird will lie flat while you cook it. You also break or remove the sternum (breast bone) so the breasts flatten against your grill grates.
It’s an easy and attractive way to make a whole BBQ chicken!
Spatchcock vs Butterfly
Is it the same thing as making a butterflied whole chicken on the grill?
I’ve heard people use the terms interchangeably, but they don’t actually mean the same thing. You can butterfly many types of meats, but spatchcock always refers to a whole bird. It is a poultry-specific term too.
When you butterfly a boneless chicken breast or pork chop, it means you’ve sliced it in half, leaving a flap of meat to hold the pieces together. Butterflied breasts or chops can be grilled flat for faster cooking, or you can stuff a tasty filling inside the meat pocket. You can even butterfly and stuff a pork loin or boneless beef roast.
You can’t really butterfly a whole chicken because there are too many awkwardly-placed bones. There’s just no way to divide a whole bird via the butterfly method that gives you evenly-sized pieces that will cook at the same rate.
When someone tells you they made a whole butterflied chicken, you can just smile while knowing they probably spatchcocked it.
Why Should I Spatchcock My Chicken?
There are many ways to cook poultry on a grill or smoker, but the easiest method for preparing a whole bird is definitely the spatchcock method.
The benefits include:
- Easy to prepare and cooks faster than a whole chicken.
- Requires no special equipment.
- Chicken lies flat on the grill, so all the parts cook evenly and are finished at the same time.
- The skin and fat are exposed to a constant flow of heat (and smoke), so the skin browns nicely while the fat renders out. You won’t have to constantly adjust your chicken to get a nice, crispy skin.
- Since the chicken is mostly intact, it loses less moisture as it cooks. Your meat will stay juicier than if you had cooked the pieces individually.
- It is much easier to serve it because you don’t have to carve a whole chicken. You can divide your bird into 4 or more easy-to-eat portions.
Let’s take a closer look at how this method differs from other styles of preparation.
Spatchcock vs Whole Chicken
The hardest part of making a whole chicken outdoors is getting the legs and thighs finished before your breast meat dries out and your wings burn. Some parts of a chicken cook faster than others, after all.
When you grill a whole chicken, the hollow center cavity heats up at a slower rate than the exterior of the bird. Often, the outside of your chicken is done well before the interior meat has come up to temperature.
When you spatchcock your chicken, you eliminate the cavity and flatten the chicken into one grillable package. The entire chicken is evenly exposed to the heat and smoke, and there are no cool spots to slow things down. Your white and dark meat will cook at the same rate while the fat under the skin renders out perfectly.
Spatchcock vs Chicken Pieces
If you’re going to have to cut into your chicken anyway, why not just divide it into pieces? It seems much easier to cook individual chicken pieces and pull each piece when it is ready.
There’s nothing wrong with cooking chicken in pieces, especially if you’re a big fan of a specific type of meat, such as breasts, thighs or wings. But I would argue that spatchcock chicken is easier to prepare, makes for juicer results and certainly looks cooler than serving chicken pieces.
Cutting a whole chicken into pieces takes a lot more time and skill than spatchcocking it. You have to know just where to cut through the joints to remove the legs and wings, and dividing the breasts evenly from the sternum can be difficult.
I’ve been breaking down poultry for years, and it still takes me a solid 5 minutes to butcher a whole chicken. I can spatchcock one in less than a minute. How’s that for saving time?
The other reasons I prefer the spatchcock method to cooking chicken pieces are moisture and flavor. Chicken pieces lose more of their juices as they cook because the cut edges leak fluids. Some of the fat will also drip from your meat and be lost inside your grill.
A spatchcock chicken is mostly intact, so the juices stay inside your meat. As the fat renders from the skin over the meat, it is absorbed into the flesh. Sure, some may still drip into your grill. But most of this flavor will stay with your bird.
Using this method, you get the benefits of making a whole bird without needing any special equipment or skill. But your meat also cooks evenly in about the same amount of time as pieces would, and a lot faster than an intact chicken.
How to Spatchcock a Chicken
It’s easy to spatchcock a chicken, and you don’t even need a knife to do it. You can cut out the backbone with a pair of scissors or poultry shears!
To prepare a chicken, game hen or turkey you’ll first need to be sure it’s not frozen.
Once your bird is completely defrosted, open the packaging and remove the neck from the chicken’s cavity. Be sure to check the area around the neck as well. They sometimes hide a package of giblets there underneath the skin.
- Place your chicken on a cutting board and arrange it so that the breasts are facing down. You should be looking at the bottom of your chicken, with the wings closest to you and the drumsticks pointing away.
- Locate the backbone. It’s easiest to spot if you look at the opening between the wings, where the neck stump pokes out. Place your scissors or shears to the right side of the backbone. The neck stump should be to the left of your shears.
- Cut through the ribs along the right side of the backbone, staying as close to the backbone as possible. Cut until you’ve completely severed it from the right side of the chicken.
- Move to the left side of the backbone, which is still attached to your chicken. Cut along the left side of the backbone until it’s free. You can save the backbone to make chicken stock or discard it as waste.
- Rotate your chicken 180°, so the wings are facing away and the drumsticks point towards you. Open the chicken cavity by pressing the sides down onto the cutting board. Look for a triangular piece of cartilage right between the chicken breasts.
- Snip through this cartilage with your shears or a knife until you can see the sternum bone. Once the cartilage has been cut, your breasts will lie flat without having to break or remove the sternum entirely.
Alternatively, you can follow steps 1 through 4 and skip the last steps. In that case, you’ll need to flip your chicken over and manually press on the breasts to break the sternum. If you don’t snip the cartilage or break the sternum your chicken won’t lie completely flat and won’t cook as evenly.
Spatchcocking looks complicated when you read the instructions, but as I said above it really doesn’t take very long to do. You can also check out this video if you want to see how it’s done firsthand!
To Grill or to Smoke?
Chicken is not like other favorite BBQ meats such as pork or beef.
Chicken doesn’t have a lot of cartilage and connective tissue that can convert to gelatin in a low-and-slow cooking environment. There’s no benefit to cooking chicken much past 165°F, which is the USDA recommendation.
The differences between grilling and smoking your chicken are subtle and really depend on your gear and preferences. You can make a fantastic BBQ chicken with either method.
Grilled Spatchcock Chicken
Grilling a whole chicken is the ideal method of preparation, in my humble opinion. It gives you the tastiest rendered skin and your chicken is usually finished in about an hour!
I prefer grilling my chicken to smoking it because it’s so easy to do. Once your grill is preheated, you just set it up for 2-Zone or indirect cooking and toss your spatchcocked bird on the cool side. In a little over an hour, it will be ready to eat.
I’ve had the best results grilling my chickens at 325-350°F. Any higher and I find the skin cooks too quickly and a sugar-based rub may begin to burn.
You don’t even have to worry about rotating the chicken so it cooks evenly. The heat radiating around the inside your grill will do the job for you. Just keep an eye on your temperatures and pull your chicken right at 165°F.
It’s never a bad idea to layer on some extra flavor by using a dry rub or marinade on the outside of your chicken. While the flavor won’t penetrate far into your meat, the skin will benefit from the boost.
I like to use a seasoning or dry rub under the skin of spatchcock chicken as well as on the exterior of the bird. This way the meat picks up more flavor and it’s not limited to the outside of your chicken.
Dry rubs rarely push-back your cooking times like a marinade or injection can. A dry rub can really accentuate the flavor of your BBQ sauce too!
Marinades add some moisture to the outside of your chicken but rarely penetrate very deeply. I’m not a huge fan of marinating grilled chicken because the extra moisture prevents that crispy, rendered skin from properly developing. It also adds some time to your cooking.
You can also inject your bird with a flavorful base such as beer, broth or even a marinade. That way, your skin will still crisp-up and the flavor will be deep inside your meat. This can add moisture to your chicken but may also slow down the cooking times.
Best Flavors for Grilled Chicken
Everyone has their own favorite mix of flavors for grilled chicken. The important thing is to add your flavors without muddling them together.
If you are finishing your meat with BBQ sauce, be careful that the other flavors work with your sauce and don’t overwhelm them. Using a heavy rub under a deeply flavored sauce may be too much for your guests. Sometimes a little goes a long way.
Don’t use a rub AND a marinade, or combine an injection marinade with a strong rub and sauce. Pick a single seasoning method, and use a sauce that compliments it if you want to add another layer of flavor.
You can never go wrong with a simple salt and pepper-seasoned chicken. These flavors go with any type of sauce, and the salt will help dry out the skin so it cooks up crispy.
Of course, if you are using a dry rub or marinade you may not need to add salt and pepper separately. Most of them contain these seasonings as a basic ingredient.
Chicken is a great canvas for showcasing the classic sweet, smoky spiciness of good BBQ. I love to pair a sweet tomato-based sauce with a rub based on smoked paprika, chili powder, garlic, onion and herbs such as thyme, rosemary or sage. I usually skip using a sugar-based rub or marinade if I’m using a sweet sauce, though.
You can also go the other direction and make a lemon-herb flavored chicken with a dash of honey. Citrus pairs well with chicken and the acids in the juice can help tenderize your meat.
Marinade your chicken for a few hours in a mix of lemon, lime or orange juice, freshly grated citrus peel, salt and pepper, thyme, ground rosemary and a dash of honey or sugar. Then you can serve it as-is or top it with a sauce that compliments the citrus and herbal notes.
Smoked Spatchcock Chicken
If you want your BBQ chicken to have a deep, woodsy flavor the natural way, then you should fire-up your smoker. Smoked chicken is a backyard favorite, and it goes really well with a sweet tomato or vinegar-based sauce!
You’ll get a very intense flavor if you cook your chicken entirely on your smoker. The skin has a lot of moisture the smoke can stick to, even though the meat won’t pick-up much of that flavor on its own. The downside to smoking chicken is that the skin rarely gets as crispy as grilled chicken.
The lower smoking temps can reduce the amount of fat that renders from the skin, making it less-crispy. Also, the smoke causes the skin to develop a slightly leathery texture. Even if you finish it on your grill or under the broiler of your oven, smoked chicken is rarely as crispy as the grilled versions.
No matter which method you opt for, there’s one thing you need to know. Chicken is usually smoked at a higher temperature than beef or pork, to avoid the amount of time it spends in the danger zone.
Bacteria and other food-borne nasties are common in chicken meat, so don’t undercook it or leave it between 40°F and 140°F for very long!
While you can slow cook a brisket in a 225°F smoker until it’s done, that’s a bit too low for cooking poultry safely. I usually aim for a cooking temp of 325°F for spatchcock chicken.
Some smokers have trouble hitting that temperature, in which case you just do your best and cook the chicken longer. How long to smoke a spatchcock chicken? In a 325°F smoker, most chickens will hit 165°F in about 1.25 to 2 hours.
There is no point in smoking a chicken beyond 2 hours because it’s already picked up as much smoke flavor as it can by that point. If your spatchcock chicken is still under 165°F after 2 hours, I would finish it on a grill or in your oven.
Best Flavors for Smoked Chicken
I think the best flavors to complement smoked chicken include paprika, chili powder, garlic, onion, and cumin. It’s very easy to over-salt smoked chicken, however. Since the meat will dry out a bit as it smokes, go easy on the salt until you know your preferences.
As with grilled chicken, you don’t want to overload your smoked chicken with too many contrasting flavors. Be sure your rubs, marinades or injection liquids work with any sauces you are using.
You can use a sugar-based rub on your smoked chicken, but I would avoid using a rub that contains smoked salt or a seasoning like smoked paprika. It may leave the chicken tasting a bit too smoky and almost bitter in flavor. You have to find a balance that tastes good to you and your family.
I usually avoid using marinades for smoked birds, since the flavors are usually covered by the smoke anyway. Herbs and citrus flavors also tend to get lost in the smoker as well.
You can certainly use an injection marinade, however, so long as the flavor complements the smoke and any sauce you use on your chicken. It’s a great way to get more flavor deep into your meat!
Basic BBQ Chicken Rub
While you can always buy a commercial product, making your own dry rub for BBQ chicken is easy and inexpensive. The best part is you can alter the ingredients to your tastes, easily adding more heat to the mix or reducing the sugar so it pairs well with a sweet sauce.
This recipe, adapted from the BBQ spice rub on Allrecipes.com, is the perfect blend of sweet, savory and heat. You may even decide to skip a sauce when you use this flavorful rub! Since there’s only a quarter-cup of sugar, the sweetness shouldn’t be too much with the typical BBQ sauce either.
To make a basic BBQ chicken rub, blend the following ingredients in a blender, spice mill or mortar and pestle until everything is finely powdered and evenly mixed. You can store the extras in a sealed container for up to a year. This recipe makes about a cup of dry rub.
- ½ cup smoked paprika
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons table salt, or the equivalent amount of sea salt
- 2 tablespoons granulated garlic
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
To increase the heat, add a teaspoon of cayenne pepper or chipotle powder to the mix before you blend it.
You might also add in herbs such as dried parsley, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, or savory. You could even add a tablespoon of a store-bought mix like Herbes de Provence to your spice rub.
If you are going to be smoking your chicken you might want to alter the rub’s recipe a bit. You could use regular paprika instead of smoked paprika and reduce the salt by a tablespoon. But I’ve had great success smoking a bird with the original version of the basic chicken rub too.
Grilled BBQ Spatchcock Chicken Recipe
This simple recipe uses our basic BBQ chicken rub and skips using a sauce. If you decide to add in a BBQ sauce, you might reduce the amount of rub you use by about half, so the flavor isn’t overwhelming.
This is a very flexible recipe. You can play with rubs and sauces, try out different cooking temperatures and basically alter the recipe to suit your tastes.
6 to 8 tablespoons of basic BBQ chicken rub, or your favorite commercial rub.
One 3 to 5-pound roasting or frying chicken, spatchcocked.
(Optional) Your BBQ sauce of choice. This recipe is suitable for tomato and vinegar-based sauces.
It takes about 20 minutes to prep your chicken and preheat your grill. The total cooking time will vary depending on your grill’s temperature and the size of your bird. How long does it take to grill a spatchcock chicken? A typical grocery store chicken is usually finished in 45 minutes to 1.5 hours on the grill.
To prepare your grill and chicken:
- Start your grill and preheat for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Rub the spice mixture on your chicken’s skin and into the meat under the skin. Add some to the underside of the bird too.
- Set your grill for 2-Zone or indirect cooking. You can use a piece of foil or an aluminum pan as a drip tray underneath the grates beneath your chicken. Your grill’s temperature should be 325°F to 350°F.
To grill your chicken:
- Place your chicken on the cool side of your grill, skin side up, and close the lid. If you’ve set-up 2-Zones inside your grill, arrange the chicken so that the drumsticks point towards the fire. You can tuck the wing tips under the wings to prevent them from burning.
- Cook your chicken for 30 minutes at 325°F to 350°F. Monitor the temperature of your grill and chicken. If you are using a lower temperature, your chicken will take longer to cook. Grilling at higher temps may lead to faster cooking times, but the sugar in the spice rub could also start to burn.
- After 30 minutes, lift the lid and check on your chicken. Adjust the fire if needed and continue to grill with the lid closed. Smaller birds may be nearly ready.
- When your chicken hits 155-160°F (between 45 minutes to 1 hour), check the color of your skin and see if it is crispy. If you want a crispier skin you can increase the heat for the last bit of cooking. This is also the time to glaze your chicken with a sauce if you decide to use one. Just be sure the sauce doesn’t burn!
- Pull your chicken when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F.
- Rest, uncovered, for 5-10 minutes.
- Divide the bird into 4 portions and serve!
Smoked BBQ Spatchcock Chicken Recipe
Smoking a spatchcock chicken is actually very similar to grilling one, and you can often use the same recipe for both methods. You may need to adjust your temperatures or cooking times, of course.
5 to 8 tablespoons of basic BBQ chicken rub or your favorite commercial product. Use less rub if you plan on finishing with a BBQ sauce.
One 3 to 5-pound roasting or frying chicken, spatchcocked.
Cherry, apple, hickory or mesquite wood for smoking.
(Optional) Whiskey BBQ Sauce (recipe here) or your favorite commercial product.
It takes about 20-40 minutes to prep your chicken and preheat your smoker. It’s best to make the BBQ sauce in advance, although you could make it while your chicken smokes if you prefer.
It usually takes about 1 to 2 hours to smoke a spatchcock chicken, depending on the cooking temperature and the size of your bird.
Some smokers may have a harder time reaching the recommended 325°F cooking temperature. In that case, your chicken will take longer to cook. You may also need to finish it on a hot grill to crisp up the chicken skin.
To prepare your smoker and chicken:
- Start your smoker and preheat for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Rub the spice mixture on your chicken skin and into the meat under the skin. You can also season the underside of the bird.
- When your smoker hits 325°F it’s ready for the chicken.
To smoke your chicken:
- Add your wood chips or pellets to the smoker. Place your chicken in the smoker, close to the heat source, skin side up. You can tuck the wing tips under the wings to prevent them from burning.
- Smoke your chicken for 30 minutes at 325°F. Add more wood as needed, but avoid opening the door as much as possible. Monitor the temperature of your smoker and chicken. If you are using a lower temperature, your chicken will take longer to cook.
- After 30 minutes check on your chicken. Adjust the smoker if needed and continue to smoke your chicken. Smaller birds may be nearly ready.
- When your chicken hits 155-160°F (between 1 to 1.5 hours), check the color of your skin and see if it is crispy. If you want a crispier or darker skin you can increase the heat for the last bit of smoking. This is also the time to glaze your chicken with the optional Whiskey BBQ sauce. Just be sure the sauce doesn’t burn!
- Pull your chicken when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. If your chicken is still under-cooked after 2 hours of smoking, finish it indirectly on a hot grill or in your oven.
- Rest, uncovered, for 5-10 minutes.
- Divide the bird into 4 portions and serve!