You’ll rave about this grilled Piri Piri Chicken with its spicy moist flavor profile. Serve it with a side of just picked corn-on-the-cob and fresh green beans off the vine, and you’ve got a winner, winner chicken dinner on your hands.
Piri piri often hyphenated or as one word—and with variant spellings peri peri or pili pili—is a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens, a chili pepper that grows both wild and as a crop. Its name sometimes refers to the bird’s eye chili. Sauce made from piri piri chilis (used as a seasoning or marinade) is Portuguese in origin and a very popular dish there. I see why…
Like many dishes, the history of piri-piri chicken is a little vague. According to most accounts, when the Portuguese landed in Mozambique, they discovered the malagueta pepper. Naturally, they brought some of those chilies and the recipes back to Portugal with them and even brought the chili to other parts of the world including India. In recent years, piri-piri chicken has become extremely popular around the world. That’s more due to the South Africans than the Portuguese, though.
While you may be thinking you can substitute ancho, chipotle and regular chili powders in this recipe, don’t, the flavors taste off. Instead, use New Mexico (I ordered online through Amazon) or California chili powders. If you can’t find them, both are sold as dried, whole chilies that can be ground. Or simply leave it out and increase the paprika to ¼ cup (not preferable).
Fresno chilies are fresh red chilies similar in size and shape to jalapeños but with pointier tips; if they are unavailable, fresh cherry peppers work well, too. Don’t reduce the number of fresh chilies in the sauce; all eight are needed for flavor and color. To reduce spiciness, remove some or all of the seeds and ribs from the chilies before processing. And don’t substitute Thai chilies for the Fresnos; they pack far more heat.
When we first made the sauce and starting basting the chicken, we thought Holy Hot Sauce, that was one potent marinade! Oddly, once the chicken was cooked and given a final baste with the cilantro mixture, the flavor profile really seemed to mellow. Verdict is in, we’ll definitely make it again.
For a smokier flavor, add apple, cherry or hickory wood to the fire. Keep in mind that the entire process takes over two hours, so plan in advance.
Piri Piri Chicken
- 3 Tbsp. New Mexico or California chili powder
- 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
- 1 Tbsp. ground coriander
- 1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
- 1½ Tbsp. kosher salt
- 1 4- to 4½-pound whole chicken, spatchcocked
- 2 Tbsp. white sugar
- 8 medium fresno chilies, stemmed and quartered
- 3 medium garlic cloves
- ⅓ cup lemon juice (2 to 3 lemons)
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, finely chopped
- In a medium bowl, mix together the chili powder, cumin, coriander, paprika and salt. Transfer 2 tablespoons of the mixture to a small bowl, setting the rest aside.
- Loosen the skin over the chicken’s breast and thighs by gently working your fingers between it and the flesh. Using a small spoon, evenly distribute the 2 tablespoons of spice mixture under the skin, then rub it into the flesh. Set the chicken on a baking sheet.
- In a food processor, combine the reserved spice mixture, the sugar, chilies and garlic. Pulse until finely chopped, scraping down the bowl as needed. With the machine running, pour in the lemon juice and vinegar; process until smooth, scraping down the bowl once or twice.
- Measure out ¼ cup of the sauce, reserving the rest for later, and brush evenly over the chicken, including the bone side. Let stand at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, prepare a grill for indirect, high-heat cooking. For a charcoal grill, spread a large chimney of hot coals evenly over one side of the grill bed; open the bottom grill vents. For a gas grill, set half of the burners to high. Heat the grill, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes, then clean and oil the cooking grate.
- Set the chicken skin side up on the cooler side of the grill. Cover and cook for 25 minutes.
- Using tongs, rotate the chicken 180 degrees to bring the far side of the chicken closest to the heat. Cover and continue to cook until the thickest part of the breast reaches 160°F and the thighs reach 175°F, another 25 to 35 minutes.
- Brush the chicken with 2 tablespoons of the reserved sauce, then use tongs to flip it skin side down onto the hot side of the grill. Cook until the skin is lightly charred, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Transfer skin side up to a cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes. Stir the cilantro into the remaining sauce, then baste the chicken once more. Serve with the sauce on the side.