Huli Huli Chicken Recipe: Hawaii’s Famous BBQ Chicken

Huli Huli Chicken Recipe

How to Cook Huli Huli Chicken in Your Own Backyard — Hawaii’s Most Famous Grilled Chicken Dish

If you have ever been to Hawaii chances are you’ve had the pleasure of tasting what is arguably their most famous BBQ chicken dish: Huli Huli Chicken. It may not always be called that anymore on the Hawaiian Islands (due to an unfortunate trademark dispute over the name), but make no mistake, Huli Huli Chicken is one of the best things that Hawaii has ever done for the barbecue world.

I got this recipe originally from a local chef while on a trip to Oahu in 2014 visiting Disney Aulani Resort, and I have perfected a backyard version back here at home over the past few years. The flavours and ingredients in Huli Huli Chicken offer a perfect blend of Hawaiian and Asian influences. It is easily one of the sweetest and most mouth-watering smoke-grilled chicken dishes that you can prepare. You and your guests will love it. It does require some prep work and a lot of attention while cooking, but the show is interactive and the results are out of this world.

Huli Huli Chicken On a Plate

Hawaiian Huli Huli Chicken may take some effort to prepare, but the end result is well worth the time invested.

“Huli Huli” = Turn, Turn

The name Huli Huli says a lot about how you cook this magnifient chicken dish. Huli Huli translates to Turn Turn. Cooking this chicken requires that you flip the chicken breasts every five minutes (and glaze with each turn) until they reach an internal temperature of 165F. The fun comes when you, as chef, engage your BBQ crowd with a loud “Huli Huli!” each time you open the grill to glaze and flip the chicken breasts. It’s likely that the fragrant plumes of smoke will draw them closer to your grill at each turn.

Huli Huli Chicken Ingredients

  • six chicken breasts, bone in and skin on
  • a small handful of soaked Hawaiian Kiawe wood chips (or you can substitute a blend of 1/4 mesquite and 3/4 apple or pecan wood if Hawaiian Kiawe wood is not an option)

For the brine

  • 3.5 cups cold water
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly minced ginger (you can substitute dry here, but not below)
  • 3 minced garlic cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

For the glaze

  • 18 ounces (approximately 532 ml) pineapple juice
  • 1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons freshly minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
  • If you like a bit of heat, add one teaspoon of Sriracha sauce
Smoker With Huli Huli Chicken

The sweet smell of Huli Huli Chicken rises from the smoker with the equally amazing smell of Hawaiian Kiawe wood.

Brine the Chicken Breasts

Rinse the chicken breasts and trim off any excess skin or meat that may be hanging off in an unsightly manner (depending on how they were cut).

Make the brine by combining all ingredients. Place the chicken breasts in a large or extra large Ziploc type of bag and then add the brine to cover the breasts. Refrigerate for four to 12 hours, making sure all of the chicken is covered. I usually place the chicken breasts into the brine on the morning of the day that I plan to grill the chicken.

Prepare the Huli Huli Chicken Glaze

The flavour for Huli Huli Chicken comes mainly from the glaze (along with the brine and the smoke).

Make the glaze by combining all ingredients noted above and reducing on stovetop in a large pan until a slightly thickened consistency is reached (it will reduce by 2/3 to 3/4). For me, this usually takes no more than 30 minutes at a good simmer. Note: Do not reduce the glaze too much or the taste will be ruined. I can usually judge when the glaze is done by how the bubbles look when doing the reduction. If you like you can set aside a small bit of glaze to drizzle on the chicken when serving and use the rest (the vast majority of glaze) for basting while cooking.

Huli Huli Chicken On The Smoker

Huli Huli Chicken on the smoker — cooked to perfection and ready to remove for serving.

The Cook

Thirty to 50 minutes before you start, place your woodchips in water to moisten them (you want them to smoke when they hit the coals, not burn).

Remove the chicken from the brine (do not pat dry).

Hawaiian Kiawe Wood

I buy Hawaiian Kiawe wood directly from Hawaii to keep my Huli Huli Chicken as authentic as possible. If you can’t find Kiawe wood locally or online, you can substitute a woodchip blend of 75% pecan and 25% mesquite to give an approximate flavour.

Huli Huli Chicken isn’t smoked in the strict sense, it is more of what I would call a smoke-roasting procedure. Light the hardwood lump charcoal and preheat your smoker or wood grill to 350F. This is a direct cook with a raised cast iron grate over hardwood lump charcoal. The grate should be approximately eight inches above the coals. Be sure that the grill grate is in the cooker as it preheats.

When you are ready to begin grilling your Huli Huli Chicken, drain the woodchips and add them to the top of your coals. When the smoke begins to rise, wipe down your grill grate with vegetable oil and you are now ready to go.

Arrange the chicken breasts skin-side-up on the grill.

Close the lid and begin your cook. Turn the chicken every five minutes (huli huli!) and be sure to close the lid each time, maintaining a steady 350F on your temperature guage. Starting with your third turn, begin to baste the chicken breasts with with glaze after each turn.

Your delicious Hawaiian Huli Huli Chicken will be done when an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the thickest piece of the breast (not touching a bone) reads 165F. As a guide, it typically takes me about 50 minutes (or 10 turns) to reach this point and the chicken will be sweet and incredibly moist and juicy!

I like to serve Huli Huli Chicken with my Southwest Smoked Spare Ribs and some grilled pineapple rings (marinated in brown sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice).


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Mike Belobradic
The Finer Side of Travel: A Luxury Disney Travel Blog