Monday, April 30, 2012

Piri Piri Grilled Chicken

Whole butterflied chicken marinated with homemade piri-piri sauce and grilled to crispy perfection over hot coals is like a taste of southern Portugal and beaches and sunshine.

Years ago, we were driving around the Algarve in southern Portugal, looking for a meal.  Trying to avoid the usual touristy places, we pulled over to a little outdoor grill, with big uncovered barbecue pits, burning natural wood charcoal.  The old grill guy had a cigarette dangling from his lips but most of the smoke was coming from the fire.  He was grilling fresh sardines and butterflied whole chicken, slathered generously with homemade piri piri sauce.  The aroma was heavenly.  

It could have been the long day at a beautiful beach and the fresh sea air or the fact that I was pregnant with younger daughter, but: It was one of the best meals ever.  EVER.  I’ve recreated it a few times in the interim 19 years, tweaking the piri piri sauce or trying different marinades, but last weekend was one of the best yet.  

We sat and ate this, licking our fingers in a most uncivilized fashion and talking about what a great holiday that was and how we had never seen chicken grilled whole but split open before. Such a revelation! (Or perhaps we are easily impressed. Remember, this was way before Nigella.) But seriously, it is so much easier to deal with a whole chicken than to shift lots of pieces around! The Portuguese are brilliant. And so is this chicken.

For the piri piri sauce:
2.5 oz or 70g hot chili peppers
6 cloves garlic
1/4 cup or 60ml fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup or 120ml apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon flakey sea salt, like Maldon  
1 1/2 cups or 355ml extra virgin olive oil

(This is going to make way more than you need for one chicken, but it will keep in the refrigerator for two to three weeks.  Once you have tried it on chicken, you will need to add it to everything you are grilling: prawns, pork ribs, whole fish and who knows what else.  Trust me, you will.)

For the chicken:
1 whole chicken, cleaned and excess fat removed
Sprinkle of flakey sea salt to serve

Cut the stems off of your chili peppers and put everything for the sauce but the olive oil in a blender.  

Blend until the peppers are in tiny, tiny pieces, occasionally scraping the inside of the blender down.

Add in the olive oil and blend again.  Set this aside in a covered bowl and deal with your chicken.

Using a sharp knife or poultry scissors, cut right up the backbone and then turn the chicken over and press down on the breast to flatten the chicken out.  Make a couple of slashes with your knife in the thigh meat.  This will let the piri piri sauce penetrate but will also help the thighs to cook faster so the breast meat doesn’t dry out on the grill.

Pop the chicken in a Ziploc bag and add in about 1/2 cup of the piri piri sauce.  Massage it all around from the outside of the bag.  Let this marinate all day or overnight, but for at least an hour or two.  If it's more than an hour, put the bag in the refrigerator.

When you are ready to grill, light your fire with natural charcoal, if you can get it.  Otherwise, some briquettes with a couple of handfuls of damp smoking wood added as you put the chicken on will have to suffice.  Our barbecue pit is much less deep (and wide) than the traditional Portuguese grills so we had to use the lid to keep the flames from completely consuming the chicken.  On the other hand, using the cover to control the flames also allowed for a whole lot of smoking to go on and that only adds to the flavor.  

Grill your chicken, skin side up for about 10-15 minutes, basting regularly with more of the piri piri sauce. (I think we used about another 1/2 cup during the grilling.)  

Then turn it over and grill the skin side for another 10-15.  Again, baste often.  

Do be careful not to let it burn!  A little charring is a good thing though.  Control your fire by keeping the lid on but just a bit ajar to allow oxygen in or your fire will die.  Depending on the size of your chicken, 30 minutes over very hot coals, with the lid mostly on, might just do it.  

Baking and grilling with the lid mostly closed.  And it is smoking like crazy!
Remember that it is baking as well as being grilled.  If you are concerned, do check the thigh/leg joint and leave it in the barbecue pit, if needed, for a further 10 minutes or until it is just cooked through.

Remove from the grill and cut the chicken into serving pieces.  Give the whole thing a light sprinkling of flakey sea salt.

(As you can see, we were pigs and took a half each, since our only side was a tomato and herb salad and our chicken was so tiny.  But I ended up eating only my breast and wing for dinner.  The leg and thigh were devoured the next morning, straight out of the refrigerator – cold.  Such enormous flavor!  Still brilliant.)



  1. Wow!! Love piri piri, but have always used it to make wings and have only used the bottled sauce to make my marinade. Yours looks great. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Griffin! It's really easy and delicious. Let me know if you give it a try. By the way, I wanted to leave you a comment on your blog but I couldn't find a way. Just wanted to say that I have GREEN EGG ENVY.


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