It is one of life’s great mysteries: you put raw chicken breasts, thighs, or tenders on the grill, close the lid to let them cook uninterrupted, and for no apparent reason, the chicken turns gray by the time it’s done.
There’s more than one reason why this can happen, and, to help you troubleshoot, we will scrutinize each and every one of them.
Chicken can turn gray on the grill if the meat was spoiled or the heat wasn’t high enough to promote browning. Gray chicken on a gas grill may signify that the air shutters need to be cleaned. On a kettle grill, chicken will turn gray if grilled over wet charcoal or green wood.
Depending on the cause, this color can take different forms. If insufficient heat is the problem, the whole piece of meat will turn gray. If the cause is heavy smoke or soot, the chicken will get gray spots, sometimes black spots, instead of a uniform color.
While the above should already give you a clue as to what most probably happened, below is everything else you need to know.
The Chicken Was Spoiled
When chicken meat is spoiled, it starts to smell bad, its color turns gray, and it feels sticky when you touch it. And contrary to what some people think, cooking spoiled chicken does not make it safe to eat.
You probably would have noticed that the chicken had gone bad when you seasoned it and threw it on the grill. The foul odor and sticky texture are hard to miss.
However, if for some reason you suspect that you have grilled spoiled chicken, play it safe and make sure that no one at your barbecue party will eat it by throwing it away immediately.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million Americans contract foodborne illnesses each year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. One thing is for sure: You do not want to be on either side of that statistic!
Your Grill Wasn’t Hot Enough
When meat, whether red meat, poultry, or seafood, isn’t cooked over coals or a burner that’s hot enough, it will turn gray and bland instead of brown and tasty. Below, I explain why.
Food browns in the temperature range between 284°F and 355°F when the proteins and carbohydrates in it collide and fuse, forming hundreds of new aromatic and flavor compounds that impart it with an appetizing smell and savory taste.
This is called the “Maillard reaction,” or the “browning reaction,” and it is the same chemical reaction that makes grilled steaks so tasty, rotisserie chicken so delicious, toast so good, and roasted coffee so addictive.
Cook your proteins at a temperature of less than 284°F, and they can cook through to the minimum internal temperature on the inside, but they won’t brown on the outside. As a matter of fact, most proteins cooked over low heat tend to turn gray.
(Try preparing a steak sous-vide without searing it in the pan before or after, and you will see firsthand what I am talking about. This is because the boiling point of water is 212°F, well below the temperature at which browning takes place.)
Cook your proteins at a temperature higher than 355°F, and they will burn as a chemical reaction called “pyrolysis” takes over from browning. They will char beyond salvation and end up tasting bitter and acrid—not like something you’d want to eat.
This is the main reason why most recipes instruct you to use a medium to medium-high heat for cooking meat fully through.
As Goldilocks once found out, the secret is in the “right” amount of heat. You want to grill your chicken at a heat that is neither so low that it turns gray nor so high that it turns black. What you want is to induce browning.
Your Gas Grill Needs Cleaning
To those of you who cook with a gas grill: When was the last time you all cleaned your unit? I say this not to be condescending to you but to tell you that I have made this mistake myself, and I know it ain’t pretty.
For starters, take a close look at the air shutters at the base of your burners. They provide a good air-gas mixture so that the burners of your gas grill produce a blue flame.
If the air shutters on your gas grill are dirty, the burners will produce yellow flames—a sign of incomplete combustion—and lots of soot that will land on the surface of your food.
Clean the air shutters with an old toothbrush (or the soft bristle brush from a gas grill cleaning kit). To do this, reach under the grill, find the ends of the burners where they meet the valves, and brush them gently.
You Grilled Over Green Wood
Nothing, and do I mean nothing, adds aroma and flavor to your chicken (and steaks, chops, burgers, and hot dogs) like cooking over wood. As the wood smolders, the chicken absorbs the smell and taste of the smoke and becomes more delicious than with any other cooking method.
That being said, you can have too much of a good thing:
For grilling and smoking meat, you should only use seasoned or kiln-dried wood—never freshly-cut wood—as the latter produces a strong smoke that can make chicken meat taste funny and, in some cases, turn gray.
To prevent chicken from turning gray on the grill, use fresh meat, cook over dried firewood and a high enough heat, and keep your unit spick and span.