Grilled Chicken for a Crowd (The Easy Make-Ahead Way)

This Grilled Chicken Recipe is perfect for a crowd. The reason is that you bake it (low and slow!) ahead of time and then sauce it and chill it until your guests arrive. Then pop it on the grill to warm through and to caramelize with grill marks.

My husband does most of the grilling at our house. And he does a great job.

Except when it comes to grilled chicken.

He worries too much about overcooking it and ends up taking it off too soon. One time, friends of ours asked to turn our patio lights up high so they could inspect their grilled chicken to see if it was red inside. It was very red. And so were my hubby’s cheeks.

The chicken went back on the grill.

Recently I found a way to make grilled chicken easier (and less embarrassing) for my husband. This works best at a summer part where the men are grouped around holding tongs and beers, women are chattering around carrying bowls of potato salad and glasses of wine and kids are running around clutching pails and juice boxes (and hopefully not spilling anything from either of them).

How to make grilled chicken ahead of time for a crowd

Amid all this insanity, having one less thing to worry about makes a big difference. I precook the chicken in the oven ahead of time so that we know it is fully cooked and ready for the grill.

This not only ensures that there’s no red meat and no red cheeks, it also means that the chicken can cook low and slow, making it much juicier than if it’s cooked quickly on the grill.

Easy Grilled Chicken for a Crowd (the Make-Ahead Way)

 

Here’s what you do:

Step#1

With a big group coming over, buy bulk packs of bone-in skin-off chicken thighs and drumsticks. Up to two days before the party, season the chicken with a spice rub and bake at 300ºF for about an hour.

Step#2

Then you remove the chicken from the oven and let it cool down a bit on the counter.

Step#3

Brush the chicken with your favorite barbecue sauce. One of my favorites is this Mango Lime Chipotle Sauce. If you want something quick and don’t have a lot of ingredients in the house, you could instead try my most basic BBQ sauce here.

Step#4

Refrigerate until dinner time.

Step#5

Transfer the chicken pieces to a medium-heat grill that is prepped for direct heat cooking. Cook, turning occasionally, until there are grill marks on all sides and the meat is heated through, about 8 to 10 minutes total. You can baste them with sauce halfway through if you’d like (this can dislodge or hide the grill marks. I don’t usually baste midway through for that reason).

Step#6

Serve with lots of napkins.

Easy Grilled Chicken for a Crowd (the Make-Ahead Way)

And now, here’s my easy make-ahead Grilled Chicken for a Crowd recipe.

Grilled Chicken for a Crowd (The Easy Make-Ahead Way)

Ingredients:

  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 6 lbs. skinless bone-in dark meat chicken (drumsticks and/or thighs)
  • BBQ sauce

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 300ºF.
  2. In a small bowl combine the salt, pepper, garlic powder and brown sugar. Rub it all over the chicken pieces and then arrange chicken in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour.
  3. Let cool for 15 minutes on the counter. Brush each piece with about 2 tablespoons of sauce. Cover and refrigerate until guests arrive.
  4. Minutes before eating, prepare grill for direct cooking over medium-high heat. Add chicken pieces and cook until grill marks appear on underside, 4-5 minutes. Flip and cook until heated through, another 4-5 minutes. You can baste with more sauce halfway through but we find that this isn't necessary and all it really does is hide your beautiful grill marks.
This recipe was originally published in July, 2014. It was completely updated in April, 2016.

35 Responses to “Grilled Chicken for a Crowd (The Easy Make-Ahead Way)”

  1. Allan — August 30, 2016 @ 1:59 pm (#)

    I was just wondering 300Deg F is about 150 deg C, which is not the required temperature for chicken to cook through fully, which is 165 deg C. Is it ok to cook chicken partially and then store it for a day or two? Do you achieve full cooking temperature on grill.

    • Christine Pittman — August 31, 2016 @ 11:52 am (#)

      Allan, Nothing to worry about. The safe temperature for chicken is actually 75 deg C (165 deg F). So cooking the chicken at 300F for that long definitely gets it safely and fully cooked.

  2. shirley jackson — August 23, 2016 @ 4:14 am (#)

    if using boneless skinless thighs does the time for precooking in the oven change

    • Christine Pittman — August 24, 2016 @ 1:17 pm (#)

      Shirley, I’ve never done boneless skinless thighs at such a low temperature but I’m guessing it would be around 30-40 minutes. I’d say give them 30 minutes at 300F and then test them with an instant read thermometer or cut into a bigger one and make sure it’s no longer ping inside.

  3. Allan — August 9, 2016 @ 4:08 pm (#)

    Can you please let me know the temperature of refrigerator? Do you freeze them in freezer or just the normal 40 deg F temperature? If you freeze them, how long can you keep them and how to thaw? Thanks for your recipe

    • Christine Pittman — August 10, 2016 @ 11:18 am (#)

      Allan, My refrigerator is at about 36F. You can refrigerate them for up to two days after baking. Alternatively, once they’re cool, put them in a single layer on a tray in the freezer. This keeps them separate so they don’t freeze in a clump. Once frozen, put them in a freezer bag. They are good in the freezer for a month. To defrost, put the bag in the refrigerator overnight. Grill as instructed in the recipe. You might want to add more sauce before grilling though.

  4. Gigi — June 7, 2016 @ 10:38 am (#)

    This is great for camping! Did the pre baking 2 days before and didn’t have to worry about raw chicken on the fire. My family says I need to do this every camping trip. Thank you for sharing.

    • Christine Pittman — June 9, 2016 @ 9:23 am (#)

      Gigi, I’m so happy it worked out for you! Thanks for letting me know :-)

  5. lois — May 5, 2016 @ 5:28 am (#)

    Can you do this recipe with skin on chicken thighs. I have to cook for a motorcycle run for 150 to 200 riders.

    • Christine Pittman — May 6, 2016 @ 1:00 pm (#)

      Lois, I’ve never tried it but I worry that it wouldn’t be as good. I think the chicken is cooked at too low of a temperature in the first stages and the skin wouldn’t get crisp. Then it’s not on the grill for long enough to get crispy either. I don’t think it would be bad, just not as good.

    • Christine Pittman — May 10, 2016 @ 2:13 pm (#)

      Lois, I just had an idea. I bet if you followed this method over here http://thecookful.com/bake-chicken-wings-crispy/ for baking crispy chicken wings, but use drumsticks or thighs, you could go with the skin on. You’ll need to cook the chicken at the high temperature specified in the wings recipe. Cook it just until the chicken is cooked through. Then let them cool and refrigerate. Don’t sauce them yet. When ready to grill, sauce the chicken pieces and grill until heated through. I think I’m going to do a thorough test of this method this week. If it turns out well, I’ll post about it on May 22nd. if your event hasn’t happened by then, come check and find out.

  6. Amy — July 9, 2015 @ 2:52 pm (#)

    Use boneless skinless thighs and no worries on drying out!

    • Christine Pittman — July 13, 2015 @ 11:23 am (#)

      Amy, Great tip. Yes, I would definitely advise that if people don’t want bone-in chicken they go with thighs rather than breasts for this one. Chicken breasts are great on the grill but not as good when pre-cooked in the way described in this recipe.

  7. Cathy — June 26, 2015 @ 1:30 am (#)

    Do you know what the time and temp for chicken breasts

    • Christine Pittman — June 29, 2015 @ 10:23 am (#)

      Cathy, I haven’t tested it. Honestly, if I was doing boneless skinless breasts I probably wouldn’t use this method. Instead, I’d flatten the breasts to an even thickness (put them one at a time in a ziptop bag, unzipped, and bash the thickest part with a rolling pin until it is as thin as the thinnest part. Repeat with remaining breasts. Then they only take about 3-4 minutes per side to grill and since they’re even thickness you don’t end up with half of the breast dried out waiting for hte thicker part to cook through. Baste with BBQ sauce halfway through grilling. You could just bake the breasts (300F for about 30 minutes, I’m guessing). But I’d worry about them being dry if you then grill them as well. As to bone-in breasts, I would guess about 45 minutes at 300F. But do cut in and check to make sure they’re not pink in the middle. I am concerned that these will be dry as well. White meat doesn’t stand up to the slower cooking the way that dark meat does. If you try any of the above, let me know how they turn out. Have a great day!

  8. Michele — May 20, 2015 @ 12:37 am (#)

    do you think I can use legs WITH skin on?

    • Christine Pittman — June 18, 2015 @ 11:52 am (#)

      Hi Michele, Sorry for the delay. Here’s the thing. I’m worried that the skin will still be rubbery after the slow cook in the oven. It will crisp a bit on the grill but not a ton. I would suggest adjusting the recipe so that the chicken cooks at a higher temperature for a shorter time (400F until cooked through, about 35-40 minutes). Then proceed as instructed. Let me know how it turns out!

  9. Sheila — July 8, 2014 @ 9:32 am (#)

    Great tips for summer entertaining. It is a must to be able to do as much prep ahead of time!

  10. addie | culicurious — July 6, 2014 @ 10:53 am (#)

    What a great idea! Grilling chicken is one of the most challenging things in the BBQ world. Good solution. :) Also, I love your recipe in the Mango cookbook. I also have one in there for a crab salad! :)

  11. Wendy — July 4, 2014 @ 11:24 pm (#)

    Thanks for this tip! So obvious yet I never thought of precooking chicken for the grill! This makes so much sense, especially when you are cooking for a crowd and would rather be spending time with your guests not standing at the grill!

  12. Jess @ whatjessicabakednext.com — July 3, 2014 @ 11:32 am (#)

    This looks delicious! Grilled chicken is the ultimate BBQ food!

  13. kristy @ the wicked noodle — July 3, 2014 @ 10:05 am (#)

    What a great way to make cooking chicken easier! I have never heard this tip but I absolutely love it and am going to try it soon!

  14. Jen — July 2, 2014 @ 11:30 am (#)

    I love grilling steak!

  15. Becca from It's Yummi! — July 2, 2014 @ 9:54 am (#)

    I love grilling fresh veggies… but this chicken is just downright drool worthy!

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