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Do you put BBQ sauce on chicken before cooking?

Whether to put barbecue sauce on chicken before cooking is a debated topic among backyard grill masters. There are benefits and drawbacks to consider when deciding if pre-saucing chicken makes sense for your preferred cooking method and flavor goals.

Quick Answer

The quick answer is: It depends. For grilled chicken, applying barbecue sauce before cooking can lead to burning or undercooking. It’s usually best to wait until the last few minutes of grilling to brush on sauce. When baking or slow-cooking chicken, pre-saucing is fine since there is no direct heat source. The sauce caramelizes as the chicken cooks, enhancing flavor.

How Does Pre-Saucing Affect Grilled Chicken?

Putting barbecue sauce on chicken pieces before grilling can be problematic for a few reasons:

  • The sugar in the sauce burns easily. This can make the sauce taste bitter and cause charring.
  • The sauce inhibits browning. Lightly browned skin is desirable, but pre-saucing limits the Maillard reaction.
  • Marinades work best when sauce penetration is limited. Too much time in sauce makeup leads to mushy texture.
  • Flare-ups can occur from sauce drippings. This can lead to uneven cooking.

For these reasons, most grill experts recommend saucing chicken only during the last 5-10 minutes of grilling time. This allows the meat to cook through properly while avoiding charring or burning.

However, there are a couple scenarios where you may want to pre-sauce chicken for the grill:

  • If using a very thin, vinegar-based sauce that won’t burn easily.
  • If cooking over indirect low heat, such as on a kamado style grill. The sauce will caramelize without risk of burning.

So for most backyard grilling, hold off on sauce until the end. But a thin or finishing sauce can be applied earlier in the cook if desired.

Is Pre-Saucing Better for Baked or Slow Cooked Chicken?

For oven-baked, air-fried or slow-cooked chicken, pre-saucing works very well. The sauce has time to permeate the meat and cling to the skin. Caramelization still occurs, just at lower temperatures over a longer timeframe.

Benefits of putting barbecue sauce on chicken pieces before baking or slow cooking include:

  • Sauce flavors fully penetrate the meat.
  • Skin gets tacky and saucy.
  • No risk of burning since oven or cooker temps are below 300°F.
  • Sauce thickens and browns for extra flavor.

So while saucing too early can be problematic for grilled chicken, it’s ideal when oven cooking or using a slow cooker. The sauce just gets thicker and more concentrated as it cooks.

Should You Sauce Bone-In Chicken Pieces Differently?

Whether using bone-in parts like chicken thighs, drumsticks or wings, the same general rules apply:

  • Hold off on sauce for grilled chicken until the last few minutes.
  • Pre-sauce is fine for baked or slow cooked bone-in chicken.

However, the thick, bony parts of chicken do benefit from some extra time in a sauce or marinade. Letting it penetrate for a few hours, or even overnight, allows the seasonings to get down to the meat near the bones.

Just avoid thick, sugary sauces if marinating raw chicken. Stick with thinner vinegar-based mops or herb-infused oil marinades. The high sugar content of thick barbecue sauce makes it risky for raw meat.

Tips for Pre-Saucing Chicken

If you do want to coat your chicken in sauce before cooking, here are some tips:

  • Choose a thin “mopping” sauce for grilling or quick cooking methods.
  • Use sauce straight from the fridge or freezer so it doesn’t drip.
  • Allow oven-baked chicken to rest 5 minutes before serving to thicken sauce.
  • Brush off any burned or blackened sauce before eating.
  • Toss sauced wings or drums with a little cornstarch to help it stick.

And of course, make sure chicken is fully cooked through before serving. Use a meat thermometer to confirm internal temperature reaches 165°F.

Should You Sauce White Meat and Dark Meat Differently?

Chicken thighs and legs are harder to overcook compared to white breast meat. So for grilling, you have a little more leeway to sauce dark meat first. Just watch closely to avoid burning.

With bone-in thighs and drumsticks, consider leaving them unsauced during grilling. Then brush on sauce during the last few minutes, once they reach safe internal temperature. This gives you the benefit of sauce flavor with lower risk of charring.

For boneless, skinless breasts, wait until the very end to sauce. Hold off until they are nearly finished cooking through. White breast meat can go from perfect to dry in a hurry once sauce is added.

When baking or slow cooking chicken of any type, go ahead and sauce both white and dark meat from the start. The gentle, indirect heat allows sauce to caramelize without burning.

Should You Adjust Sauce Ingredients When Pre-Saucing?

Thick, tomato and sugar-based barbecue sauces aren’t the best choice for raw or grilled chicken. Opt for a thinner sauce without much added sugar when marinating or pre-saucing.

Some better options include:

  • Thin vinegar mops
  • Herb-infused oil marinades
  • Yogurt-based marinades
  • Fruit juice and puree sauces
  • Simple spice rubs

Reserve those sticky-sweet tomato and molasses sauces for the last few minutes of grilling or when baking/smoking. The lower heat allows their sugars to slowly caramelize.

When making your own sauce to use before cooking, cut back on the sugar content. Prioritize ingredients like vinegar, mustard and fruit juice instead.


Deciding whether to sauce chicken before cooking comes down to your preferred cooking method and flavor goals.

For grilled chicken, wait until the last 5-10 minutes to brush on sauce. This prevents burning.

Pre-saucing works very well for baked and slow cooked chicken. The gentle heat allows sauce to caramelize over time without risk of charring.

Thin “mop” sauces are better for raw chicken. Avoid thick, sugary sauces which can burn. Adapt sauce ingredients based on your cooking technique.

Properly sauced chicken provides incredible depth of flavor. Just follow these tips to sauce chicken at the right time for your desired cooking outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I put BBQ sauce on chicken before grilling?

It’s best to wait until the end to sauce grilled chicken. Putting on thick, sticky sauce too early can lead to burning, charring, and uneven cooking. Only use a thin sauce at the start for flavors to penetrate. Brush on thicker barbecue sauce just during the last 5-10 minutes of grilling time.

Does barbecue sauce burn when you bake chicken?

No, pre-saucing chicken works well for oven baking recipes. The sauce won’t burn at oven temps below 300°F. Instead, it slowly caramelizes and adheres to the chicken skin for finger-lickin’ results. Feel free to coat chicken pieces liberally before baking.

Should I sear chicken then add BBQ sauce?

Yes, searing or partially cooking chicken before adding sauce is a great technique. Quickly brown the outside of chicken pieces over direct high heat on the grill or stove. Then, move to indirect heat, add sauce, and finish cooking until chicken is fully done. This gives you the best of both worlds.

What happens if you put BBQ sauce on raw chicken?

Thick barbecue sauce on raw chicken isn’t recommended. The high sugar content poses a bacteria risk. Use a thin mop, herb marinade, or diluted sauce instead. Even better, wait until chicken is partially or fully cooked before heavily saucing.

Should I boil BBQ sauce before putting it on chicken?

Boiling down a sauce into a glaze can help thicken it while cooking off some moisture. This works well for oven and slow cooker recipes. However, boiled down sauce has an even higher sugar content. So don’t use a reduced sauce for raw chicken or early in grilling.

Example Sauce and Chicken Cooking Time Tables

BBQ Sauce Ingredients by Cook Method

Cooking Method Ideal Sauce Ingredients
Grilling Raw Chicken Thin, vinegar-based mops
Grilling Partially Cooked Chicken Thicker tomato and sugar sauces
Baking Any thickness, tomato or vinegar-based
Slow Cooking Thick sauces with tomato, sugar, molasses

Approximate Chicken Grill Times

Chicken Type Total Time Time to Sauce
Chicken breast 12-15 minutes Last 2-3 minutes
Chicken thighs 22-25 minutes Last 5 minutes
Drumsticks 30-35 minutes Last 10 minutes

Oven Baking Times for Chicken Parts

Chicken Type Oven Temp Cook Time
Boneless breasts 375°F 15-20 minutes
Bone-in breasts 375°F 25-30 minutes
Thighs or legs 400°F 25-35 minutes