Are you craving a Hawaiian-inspired barbecue or luau? This huli huli chicken is marinated in a sweet and savory sauce, which turns into an incredibly flavorful glaze during grilling.
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I’m a big fan of chicken marinades to maximize the flavor before sizzling the meat on a hot grill. For this recipe, I use a tomato-based marinade that combines savory soy sauce, dark brown sugar, and rice vinegar to balance the bold flavors. The flavor pop comes from finely grated fresh garlic cloves and ginger to add a spicy and aromatic taste.
Pieces of chicken thighs marinate in the huli huli sauce for at least 3 hours to get a strong coating. You can even prepare it a day ahead, so you can just fire up the grill when you’re ready to serve. The trick is to “huli” the grilled chicken, or “turn” in Hawaiian, a few times to let the sticky sauce caramelize on the surface. Serve with your favorite side dishes like potato salad, macaroni salad, or coconut rice for a complete meal.
What is huli huli chicken?
This popular dish was created on the shores of Oahu by Ernest Morgado. In 1955, the Honolulu-based businessman would grill up delicious pieces of teriyaki-style chicken for local patrons. The traditional Hawaiian preparation is between two racks and turned, or “hulied” for even cooking, hence the name, huli huli.
The sauce can be customized, but the base is ketchup, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, ginger, and garlic. You can make the recipe with big pieces of light or dark meat, bone-in chicken, or boneless for quicker cooking.
I use boneless skinless chicken thighs for the recipe. The meat is fatter, which helps it stay moist and tender while being grilled, turned over, and basted several times. If you prefer more lean meat, use chicken breast. Adjust the cooking time to ensure that the texture does not dry out.
Skin-on, bone-in light, or dark meat can be used, although you’ll need more time to cook since the bones act as an insulator.
Make the huli huli marinade
I use equal amounts of ketchup, soy sauce, and dark brown sugar for rich molasses notes. The tomato concentrate and soy naturally contain umami flavors, which enhance the savory taste of the marinade. Unseasoned rice vinegar adds a bright and tangy taste. To infuse a stronger spicy, pungent, and sulfurous taste, finely grate fresh ginger and garlic into a paste. A microplane makes the job easy!
Add salt to make sure the meat is well seasoned, and pepper for spice. If you like the taste of sesame oil, add 1 to 2 teaspoons to the mixture. Pineapple juice is also an option to add a fruiter taste. Save a ½ cup of the sauce to use for basting. Marinate the chicken for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours. Any longer and the chicken will get too dried out and become like jerky.
Grill the chicken
What makes this technique different from your typical grilled chicken is the frequent turning and brushing with the sauce. The technique allows the meat to cook evenly on both sides and prevents the sauce from burning. I do a similar method for making chicken yakitori. Grill the chicken over medium-high heat, between 375 to 400ºF (191 to 204ºC). This temperature helps develop the initial light char marks on both sides.
I like to cook the meat for 5 minutes to get a nice sear, then flip and baste with the reserved marinade. Repeat the flipping and basting at least two more times to get a beautifully caramelized surface and fully cooked pieces. The sauce contains sugar, so it will burn if not monitored. Move the chicken to the indirect heat side if you see the surface charring too quickly.
Check for doneness
For boneless chicken thighs, target between 165 to 170ºF (74 to 77) in the thickest part of the meat. This process will take about 15 minutes, depending on the thickness, and longer for bone-in pieces.
For boneless chicken breast, target between 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºF) for breasts so that it doesn’t dry out. It will take about 3 to 8 minutes per side, depending on if it’s cut into thinner cutlets or longer with the bone.
Serve this with
- Coconut rice
- Steamed white rice
- Vinegar coleslaw
- Hawaiian macaroni salad
- Grilled pineapple
- Coconut custard pie
Yes! You can substitute chicken breast for chicken thighs if you prefer light meat. The chicken will cook faster and is leaner, so keep an eye out for doneness a few minutes earlier. Bone-in pieces will take longer to cook.
Add red pepper flakes, chili oil, sriracha, or other types of chili sauce to the marinade. Start with ⅛ teaspoon, increasing the amount to the desired heat level.
I recommend simmering the ingredients on the stovetop over medium-low heat for about 5 to 10 minutes before using it as just a sauce. This process will help evaporate some moisture, making a thicker, stickier consistency. Cooking also helps to mellow the spice from the grated ginger and garlic, which is a little harsh eaten raw.
To substitute ketchup in the sauce
Mix ¼ cup of tomato paste with ½ cup of water or pineapple juice. Measure out ½ cup of the mixture and add it to the sauce. If you’d like, add ½ teaspoon of onion powder. Ketchup is simply tomato paste diluted to a pourable consistency and flavored with sugar, distilled vinegar, salt, onion powder, and other proprietary seasonings.
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Huli Huli Chicken
- ½ cup ketchup
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ½ cup packed dark brown sugar
- ¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely grated garlic
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 3 pounds boneless chicken thighs, fat trimmed
- vegetable oil, for greasing the grill
- 1 tablespoon sliced green onions
- Make the marinade – In a bowl, whisk together the ketchup, soy sauce, brown sugar, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic, salt, and pepper. Reserve a ½ cup for basting, and refrigerate until ready to use.
- Marinate the Chicken – Add the chicken to a baking dish or resealable plastic bag. Pour in the marinade and turn the pieces to coat evenly. Tightly cover or reseal and transfer to the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or up to 24 hours.
- Preheat the Grill – Preheat the grill over medium-high heat between 375 to 400ºF (191 to 204ºC). Clean and carefully grease the cooking grates with the oil.
- Grill the Chicken – Place the meat on the grill and close the lid. Cook for 5 minutes then flip and baste with the reserved sauce. Cook covered for about 5 minutes then flip and baste. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes then flip, baste, cover, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.Cook until the internal temperature reaches about 165 to 170ºF (74 to 77ºC). If browning quickly, move the chicken to the indirect heat side of the grill to finish.
- To Serve – Cover the chicken with foil to keep warm. Rest for 5 minutes before slicing or serving. Garnish with green onions.
- Servings: About 12 smaller pieces, varies by brand
- Marinade: Makes 1 ½ cups
- Storing: Store chicken in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Store marinade for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
- Reheating: Cover and microwave the chicken on high heat in 15 to 30-second increments until hot.
- Ketchup Substitute: Combine ¼ cup tomato paste and ½ cup water or pineapple juice. Add ½ cup of the mixture to the sauce. If desired, add ½ teaspoon onion powder.
- Make it Gluten-Free: Substitute soy sauce with gluten-free tamari or coconut aminos.
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