When you aren't starting with a whole chicken, the thighs are the best part. And these should definitely be eaten with your fingers. No knife and fork required.
Flavor-packed with a dry rub and a sweet-and-tangy BBQ sauce, this could be the best BBQ chicken you have ever tasted. The thighs get nice and smoky, especially if you add some wood chips when you start grilling.
While they are best on a grill (I prefer charcoal) because they pick up so much extra flavor from the fire, BBQ chicken thighs can totally be made in the oven or the air fryer.
One of the keys to making the best barbecue chicken is to get a good amount of caramelization on the chicken without actually burning it. This flavor development comes in a few ways. One is from the rub, which should contain some sugar. The second is from the sauce, which is applied when the chicken is transferred to indirect heat. When those sugars caramelize, it creates that wonderful flavor that we think of when we taste great BBQ chicken.
Advantages of Thighs
As wonderful as it is to grill the whole bird, making BBQ chicken from just the thighs has some serious advantages:
- They cook evenly because they are all the same size.
- Thighs are forgiving. Unlike with breasts, if you go over on your temp by a little, they will still be great.
- No need to brine. The meat will stay juicy.
- The dark meat makes the thighs the most flavorful part of the chicken.
- They are easy to manage on the grill.
- Thighs are really inexpensive.
The Rub Is the Marinade
The best BBQ chicken marinade is actually a dry rub. Marinating the BBQ chicken with the dry rub a day in advance will infuse a ton of wonderful flavors. Let the rub sit on the chicken for at least 2 hours, but preferably overnight.
You don't want to marinate chicken with a wet sauce that contains a sugar, because the sauce will burn before the skin gets crispy when you grill it over direct heat.
You can use your favorite rub. The chicken rub I make and use for BBQ chicken contains: kosher salt, dark brown sugar, smoked paprika, ground black pepper, dark chili powder, cayenne pepper (just a little for heat), celery seeds, ground cumin and granulated garlic.
Simply combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl and stir them up to fully combine. You can move it to a shaker for easy application or just sprinkle on with your fingers. It's best to apply the rub from 12-18 inches away from the chicken to get an even spread.
Preparing the Grill
Two-zone grilling is key for perfect BBQ chicken. If using charcoal, keep the coals on half of the grill. If using a gas grill, only turn on half of the burners and leave the other side for indirect cooking.
Clean grill grates are also key to keeping the chicken from sticking. Just before grilling, dip a rolled-up paper towel into some canola oil and rub it onto the grill grates.
Make It Smoky!
If you are grilling with charcoal (which I highly recommend), there will already be some great smoke flavor infused into the chicken during the cook. But to kick up the flavors even more, add some wood chips when you first grill the thighs to really boost the smokiness. I prefer to use applewood chips (affiliate), which go great with your favorite sweet and tangy BBQ sauce.
Don't Apply the Sauce Too Early
If you marinate the chicken in your preferred BBQ sauce, or apply it before or during it is over direct heat, the chicken can burn because of all the sugar in the sauce. Wait to apply your sauce until you have transferred it to the indirect heat side of the grill.
How Long to BBQ Chicken Thighs?
You will cook the thighs 6-10 minutes over direct heat, then swicth to indirect. Overall, it takes approximately 45-50 minutes to fully cook the thighs to an internal temperature of 175° F in a barbecue that is around 350° F. There are a lot of variables including the temperature of the barbecue, the size and starting temperature of the chicken. I always recommend verifying the temperatures with an instant-read probe thermometer (affiliate).
Yep, You Can Make BBQ Chicken in the Oven or Air Fryer!
If you happen to not have your grill handy, you can make BBQ chicken in the oven and it comes out great too. The flavors will be different than if cooking outdoors over charcoal or on a gas grill, but it will still taste great.
The concept is similar. Add the dry rub ahead of time. Pre-heat your oven to 400° F and place the thighs skin-side down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for about 20-25 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven and crank up the temp to 450° F. Brush on about ½ cup of BBQ sauce to both sides of the thighs. Place the chicken back in the oven with the skin-side up. Roast for about 10 minutes, then brush more sauce on. Back in the oven until it finishes cooking and reaches an internal temp of 175° F. Enjoy!
Special Equipment Used
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It's Great Cold the Next Day
If you happened to make too much (oh no!), you are in luck. BBQ chicken thighs are good for the next few days, and I don't even bother to reheat them. Try them sliced or shredded on a sandwich, in tacos, on a salad or even in a cheesy quesadilla.
What to Pair With BBQ Chicken
- Apply the dry rub to the thighs and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 2 hours.
- Remove the chicken from the refrigerator to bring up to room temperature while you set up the grill for two-zone cooking with the direct side on medium-high.
- Lightly oil cooking grates, then place the chicken thighs skin-side down over direct heat with the lid closed until browned, about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn thighs over and cook on the second side until browned.
- Move the thighs over to the indirect heat side of the grill and use a heatproof basting brush to apply about ½ cup of BBQ sauce to both sides of the chicken (finish with skin side up).
- Close the lid and cook for about 20 minutes before brushing both sides again with about ¼ cup more BBQ sauce.
- Continue to cook until the internal temperature of the thighs reaches 175° F, about 20 minutes longer. (Verify with a probe thermometer.)
- Transfer the chicken to a cutting board or serving platter and rest uncovered for 10 minutes before serving with more BBQ sauce.
- This recipe serves 4, but can easily be scaled up to any quantity.
- Optionally, you can drizzle a little oil as a slather on the thighs before applying the dry rub to help it stick.
- Temper the chicken (bring to room temperature) before grilling for quicker and more even cooking.
- Maintain a grill temperature of around 325° to 350° F with the lid closed after the initial sear.
- Want to skip the dry rub? No problem. Of course, it will be less flavorful, but you can substitute simple kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper if you are in a pinch.
- If the chicken is sticking to the grill grates, don't touch! It needs to cook a little longer.
- If the sauce is too thick, heat it up a bit, so it's easier to baste on the chicken.