This classic Portuguese Piri Piri Chicken calls for spatchcocked chicken to be slathered in a tasty pepper sauce while the heat of the grill works its magic. With just the right amount of heat, this smoky-charred, juicy and succulent, chicken dish makes a fantastic weeknight dinner.
You may not think you need a new grilled chicken recipe in your life but if you haven’t made grilled chicken slathered in piri piri – a sauce made from red chilies and garlic and salt and oil – then you most certainly do. Piri piri chicken, with its crisp, lightly charred, fiery skin, and delicious peppery sauce, is a classic Portuguese dish, served simply with chips or fries and a cooling tomato salad.
If you have not yet tasted this delight, then hang on to your hat, you’re in for a treat! Best of all, the ingredients and technique could not be simpler and you can adjust the heat level to your liking. Give this one a go, you will be so happy you did.
What is Piri Piri
A piri piri pepper, also known as an African bird’s eye chili, is a small red pepper grown all over South Africa and Portugal. Originally, the piri piri chili, also known as malagueta, came from the Americas brought back by the Portuguese migrants who settled in Mozambique and Angola. The Portuguese eventually brought the chili to Portugal with them where it became a culinary mainstay.
Piri piri sauce
Long before popular restaurant chains became famous selling dishes showcasing piri piri sauces, variations of the sauce had been around since the 15th century. Exactly who started making the marinades with the piri piri pepper is still a pretty heated debate as Portuguese-Angolans, Portuguese-Mozambicans, and Indians who came to Mozambique by way of Goa, all claim to have created the sauce.
Not surprisingly, piri piri sauce recipes vary greatly, though of course all of them have the piri piri chili as the common ingredient. Other main ingredients are garlic, salt, oil and sometimes lemon. Other optional ingredients might include onion, bell pepper, bay leaves, paprika (smoked or sweet), thyme and oregano. Blended into a pungent, robust sauce, a good piri piri marinade will be a little salty, a little sweet, and just piquant enough to make you crave more.
Piri piri chicken
At it’s simplest, piri piri chicken is grilled chicken that is constantly basted with a piri piri sauce. The results are so good: juicy and succulent chicken with crispy skin, a very slight amount of heat, and delicious peppery-smoky flavours. If using a whole chicken it should always (always) be spatchcocked – this speeds up the cooking process, crisps up the skin evenly, and the sauce will cover more of it, spicing up every bite.
Piri piri chicken was made extremely popular in many parts of the world by the South African chain Nando’s. For a fast-food chain, I have to say their chicken is quite delicious. In Portugal, piri piri chicken is known, and sold, as “frango de churrasco com piri piri” – meaning chicken on the grill with piri piri sauce.
Piri piri sauce is also fantastic on fish and grilled veggies.
Piri Piri sauce ingredients
Although this piri piri sauce does pack a punch, the heat and sharpness is well balanced by other ingredients so that once cooked, it completely mellows out forming an addictive spicy glaze that is pleasurable to eat without being too spicy. Unfortunately, piri piri peppers are not easily found in North America so below I recommend a mix of peppers that, in my opinion, make the base for a fantastic sauce.
- Long red chili and Thai red chili pepper: The long red chilis commonly found in supermarkets have a nice flavour but not too much heat. A combination of long red chilis with spice Thai red chilis makes a very balanced sauce. This recipe calls for 3 Thai red chilis, seeds and all, and the sauce has only a hint of spice. If you like to have a little more heat, go with 5. For reference, I have a low-medium tolerance for heat so if I tell you 3 Thai chilis barely add any heat, you can believe me.
- Paprika: I use sweet paprika with a pinch of smoked. Use whichever you have on hand.
- Lemon juice: For a bit of tang and to mellow the heat.
- Olive Oil
- Kosher Salt: Chicken needs a generous amount of salt, especially when grilled. The sauce will also need a good pinch.
- Black Pepper
- Fresh garlic cloves: This sauce has very few ingredients so aside from the peppers, a lot of garlic is essential for a great sauce.
- Brown sugar: A very small amount goes a long way to sweeten this sauce just a touch. You can easily omit it if you wish.
How to make piri piri chicken
Some recipes call for marinating the chicken in the piri piri sauce before grilling it. I skip this step. The method I prefer is to grill the chicken seasoned only with olive oil, salt, and freshly cracked pepper, then basting it with the piri piri sauce as it cooks. This way, the sauce has plenty of time to flavour the chicken, but it doesn’t burn.
Here is the step by step;
- Preheat a grill to med-high.
- Make the Sauce. Meanwhile, chop the chilies and garlic, then add them to a small food processor or blender. Add in the rest of the ingredients and pulse until well blended.
- Spatchcock the chicken. If you don’t buy it already butterflied from a butcher, here is a very entertaining how-to video. My kitchen shears are old and I still get this done in about 2 minutes.
- Pat dry and season the chicken. Place the chicken on a baking sheet. Pat dry with paper towels then rub all over with olive oil and season well with salt and pepper.
- Grill the chicken. Place the chicken skin side up on the grill grates. Cover the barbecue and cook undisturbed for about 10 minutes.
- Baste the chicken. After 10 minutes, start brushing the chicken with the sauce. Continue basting, making sure the punchy chilli sauce seeps into every crack of the chicken’s blistering skin, about every 5 minutes or so. Flip the chicken for the last 10 minutes of cooking time and baste again. Chicken is done when internal temperature is 165 degree or slightly charred all over; the total cooking time is about 35-40 minutes, depending on the size of your chicken and how hot your grill is.
- Serve. Remove the chicken from the grill and let rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
A few tips
- Avoid very large whole chickens. If possible, buy a smaller chicken. 3-4 pounds is ideal – it will be easier to cook and is generally a little juicier.
- Spatchcock the chicken. As noted above, it is important to spatchcock the chicken for grilling. I like to take it a step further and cut the chicken in half which makes it a lot easier to handle, especially on the grill. Alternatively, you can use chicken legs or thighs.
- Rest before cutting. As always, once cooked meat should always rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting. Otherwise, you will lose all the lovely juices.
- Wear gloves when handling hot chilis. It is just not fun to have burning finger tips. Wear gloves.
- Adjust heat levels. Removing the seeds from the chilis will make a milder sauce. For a spicier sauce add up to 3 more more Thai chilis than this recipe calls for.
- Double the recipe. Piri piri chicken makes fantastic leftover meals and lunches – double the sauce and grill up two chickens to have delicious lunches for days.
In Portugal, piri piri chicken is almost always served with crispy potatoes or fries, and a tasty tomato salad. Sounds heavenly to me. But for a quicker side, and until summer tomatoes are available in Ontario, I love it with store-bought plantain chips, and a cool creamy cole slaw. Easy and simply divine.
More Grilled Chicken Recipes
Piri Piri Chicken
For the Piri Piri Sauce
- 2 long red chilis or fresno chilis, coarsely chopped, stem discarded
- 3-5 Thai red chilis* coarsely chopped, stem discarded
- 6 garlic cloves chopped
- 1 tablespoon Paprika**
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1 teaspoon kosher Salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black Pepper
- 1/4 cup olive Oil
For the Chicken
- 1 3-4 lb whole Chicken spatchcocked***
- 3 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- Preheat a grill to medium-high.
- Make the piri piri sauce: Place all the sauce ingredients in a small chopper, process until almost smooth. If too thick, add a little more oil or a splash of water. Set aside.
- Prepare the chicken: Place the spatchcoked chicken on a baking sheet, ceramic dish, or metal tray. Pat dry with paper towels then rub the chicken all over with olive oil and season with 3 teaspoons salt and 2 teaspoons freshly cracked pepper.
- Grill the chicken: Place the chicken skin side up on grill. Cover barbeque, grill for 20-25 minutes basting every 5-10 minutes with piri piri sauce. Flip the chicken to grill the skin side for 10-15 minutes more, basting once or twice more. *Note, if the grill seems too hot for the skin side, shut the burner off that is directly under the chicken.
- To serve: Let chicken rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting and serving.