If you aren't yet familiar with Huli Huli Chicken, let me introduce you. It's a staple at Hawaiian barbecues, featuring a tangy-sweet teriyaki-style sauce with pineapple juice for a tropical flavor that transports you to our 50th state.
And this is one grilled chicken dish that you'll want to get to know and won't be able to stop eating. And this is so easy to make: We're simply making a marinade, then grilling the chicken to perfection while basting on more of the marinade as a sticky, sweet glaze.
The secret is the fire-kissed grilling method that caramelizes the sugars, developing complex flavors without charring the chicken. "Huli" means "turn" in Hawaiian, where it's traditionally cooked on a rotisserie or between two grates for easy turning, which is the key to keeping everything even.
What Is Hulu Huli?
Developed in the 1950s by a poultry farmer on Oahu, what makes huli huli chicken special is that sauce. "Huli huli" is actually a registered trademark, and the original recipe is still a secret. But we can approximate the original, which is often sold at roadside stands and large fundraising barbecues in Hawaii.
The sauce is used as both a marinade and a glaze, and as with all sugary BBQ sauces, you need to be careful not to scorch it. This is why the "huli" in the name is so important, as the chicken is turned multiple times to make sure it cooks evenly without burning.
Huli huli chicken is traditionally grilled over kiawe wood, which is sweeter but quite similar to mesquite. Make it extra smoky by adding a few mesquite chips to the coals while cooking, but that's totally optional.
Ingredients You Will Need
- Chicken - Go with boneless skinless thighs. It's all about the juicy, tender dark meat that can take the heat from the grill without overcooking. The traditional artisans on Hawaii use halved chickens, but this is by far my favorite cut for huli huli chicken, as they are much easier to handle. Skinless breasts can also be used but will cook much more quickly. As delicious as crispy chicken skin is you aren't going to get it with this dish. The sauce would burn by the time the skin got crispy. So with no crispy skin possible, it's about juicy, tender dark meat that is all joy.
- The marinade and glaze:
- Soy sauce
- Brown sugar
- Sesame oil
- Sriracha for some heat
See recipe card for quantities.
- Shallow 8x8 baking dish for marinating or you can use Ziplock freezer bags
- Sheet pans for transporting to and from the grill
- Long tongs for grilling
- Basting brush
- Probe thermometer
How to Make It
- Prep the chicken thighs: Use a sharp paring or boning knife to trim off loose pieces of chicken and excess fat left on the thighs. Slice the thighs in half crosswise, for portioning and easier handling on the grill.
- Make the marinade: Whisk all the ingredients in a small bowl. Reserve ½ cup of the marinade for basting the chicken on the grill.
- Marinate the chicken: Place the chicken in an 8x8 baking dish or a large gallon-size Ziplock bag. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but optimally at least 8 hours or overnight. Note: If cooking bone-in thighs, breasts or larger chicken pieces, then you will definitely want to marinate 8 hours or longer.
- Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to cooking, while you set up the grill. Let excess marinade drip off, then transfer to a rimmed baking sheet to transport out to the grill.
- Set up the grill for two-zone cooking with the coals on one side for a charcoal grill, or one or two burners off on one side for a gas grill. Preheat to about 400° F.
Grill Setup Tips
- Start with clean grates. Use the flames to burn off any grease or burned-on food, using a brush to clean.
- Let the flames die down. If they are too high, the chicken will burn.
- With canola oil (or another neutral oil) on a paper towel, clean the grates by wiping to help prevent sticking.
- Grill the chicken on the direct-heat side for 2 to 4 minutes until golden. Flip and begin basting on the huli sauce. Cook on the second side for another 2 to 4 minutes.
- Move the chicken to the cooler side of the grill and close the lid. Baste chicken 2 to 3 more times until the internal temp reaches 175° F, which will continue to rise to 180° F. Verify with a probe thermometer.
- Rest uncovered for 5 minutes before serving and enjoying.
Tips for Grilling the Chicken
Grilling marinated chicken is quite a bit different from grilling non-marinated chicken; the sauce can burn more easily and you're generally not able to get crispy skin with a wet marinade. How you grill the chicken is almost as important as the marinade itself, and it is often overlooked.
- Separate the larger and smaller chicken thighs. Start with grilling the larger pieces, then cook the smaller/thinner pieces as they will cook more quickly.
- Grill in batches (depending on the size of your grill), grilling the larger pieces first followed by the smaller ones that will be quicker. Be sure to turn ("huli") the pieces for even cooking!
- Once you have nice grill marks on the outside, move the thighs to the indirect side. Put the larger pieces closer to the heat, and the smaller ones farther away to help them cook more evenly.
- Don't cook the chicken over too-high heat, as it can burn and can become tough.
- Keep a close eye for flare-ups. If the chicken has beautiful grill marks, it's time to turn or move to the cooler side of the grill to continue cooking.
- To take the temp, stick the probe thermometer through the side of the chicken instead of from the top to get a more accurate reading.
- Make it extra smoky by adding some soaked mesquite wood chips to the outside of fire or in a wood chip box before you start grilling.
Serve It With
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Huli Huli Chicken Recipe
- 3 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs
- Canola oil for brushing on the grill grates
- Scallions sliced
- ½ cup ketchup
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup rice vinegar or pineapple juice
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 2 garlic cloves (smashed)
- 2 teaspoon fresh ginger (peeled and grated)
- 2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoon sriracha (optional)
- Prep the chicken: Trim off excess fat and any loose pieces on the thighs, then slice in half crosswise in the middle at the thin portion.
- Make the marinade by combining all the marinade ingredients until the sugar is dissolved. Reserve ½ cup of the marinade for basting on when grilling.
- Marinate the chicken in the marinade either in a shallow baking dish or a Ziplock bag. Make sure all surfaces of the chicken are in contact with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 4 to 8 hours, or overnight.
- Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking, transfer to a sheet pan or large plate, letting excess marinade drip off.
- Preheat the grill for medium-high heat (aim for 400° F) with a two-zone setup.
- Clean the grates and brush some canola oil on with tongs and a paper towel to help prevent sticking.
- Grill the chicken thighs over the direct heat for about 2 to 4 minutes on the first side, flip to the second side and grill for another 2 to 4 minutes. Then move the thighs over to the indirect heat side of the grill and begin basting on the reserved sauce.
- Baste/brush on the remaining sauce an additional 2 to 3 times as it cooks.
- Cook until the internal temperature of the thighs reaches 175° F using a thermometer to verify. The final internal temperature should climb to 180° F.
- Transfer to a serving platter and rest the chicken for 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with sliced scallion and a side of the reserved huli sauce. Enjoy!
- Chicken breasts can also be used. If using breasts, grill to an internal temperature of 160° F and the temperature will continue to rise to 165° F.