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Pascal Motafferi

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Competition Chicken: The Pitmaster’s Achilles Tendon

Competition Chicken:

Smoking for fun is a hell of a lot different than smoking for competition. In a competition, everything you think you know about how to cook a good BBQ needs to be thrown out the window.

If you’re growing interest in BBQ competitions, let me break it to you real simple: if you enjoy what you eat on the regular, chances are that it would get smashed in a competition. Not that your BBQ skills aren’t good, it’s just that cooking for competition requires you to cook with very specific criterias in mind, which are often not designed to be enjoyed “by the plateful”.

A standard competition will have you cook 4 different classes: brisket, ribs, pork, and chicken.

Chicken is, and will forever be, the Achilles tendon to most pitmasters and there’s a reasoning behind that:

  1. Brisket is the holy grail of the BBQ world. Therefore, everyone cooks unjustifiable amounts of brisket leading up to competition season—everybody wants to be the king of beef.
  2. Pork and ribs are very fun, and they are somewhat inexpensive. Being more neutral-flavored, they are also the best proteins to work with if you’re testing out new rubs and sauces. Hence, because of that, people also smoke huge amounts of pulled pork and ribs leading up to competition season. 

In all of these 3 classes, the margin is often very thin between getting called and being next to last. You can very well cook the best meat you’ve ever cooked and only score 8th place. You must not take it personal, it’s just the nature of the business.

Chicken, on the flip side, takes hard work and is, if you ask me, the most technical of all classes. Brisket is overrated, and chicken gets a bad reputation, so no need to be a doctor to understand that chicken is bound to be the “make or break” class for your overall scoring.That said, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort and master the chicken, you will improve your chances of ranking higher in the overall standings and winning awards.

To help you better understand and evaluate your options on how to tackle chicken for competition, here is what I can tell you (and what I recommend you to do):

Competition Chicken Thighs

Thighs do good in competition. Always did, always will. They even allow you to have equal-shaped portions and a clean bite if you play your cards right. That said, they are a LOT of work.

The first pro tip that I can give you is to remove the skin from the thighs and to keep the thighs in someplace cool. A lot of pitmasters will inject the thighs or let them soak in a mixture of buttermilk and spices for a few hours in order to help the meat become more tender and moist.

Tip: If you choose not to soak the thighs in buttermilk, remove as much skin from the thighs as you can, but do not detach it from the meat itself. The skin shrinks a lot as it cooks, so by keeping it attached to the meat, it will be easier for it to retain its shape and size.

While the thighs bathe, you will need to start trimming the skin. Thighs are fatty and often have gunk and some broken bone chips, so you will need to get rid of all of that first.

A good chicken skin needs to be as crispy as can be and in order to do that, you will need to arm yourself with patience. Lay out the skin flat on a sturdy workstation, and scrape and shave off as much fat from under the skin as possible without tearing through the skin. This is a monk’s work, so gently work your way around the thighs with a very sharp knife and remove as much fat from the skin as you can before letting it rest on a mesh rack.

Once your meat is trimmed and the skin is shaved off, you can add some rubs. You’ll want to add a rub on the meat itself, then fold back the skin on top of it as if it was never taken off, and, finally, add another layer of rub on top of the skin. (I encourage you to use a sweet rub on the meat, and a salty rub on the skin to keep a good balance. The salt will also penetrate the skin, which will contribute to that crispiness in the long run.)

Now that you’re ready to cook the chicken, it’s time to shape your birds up.

I’ve tried for a long time to be a purist and to smoke on mesh racks, but I later sold out and started to work with loaf pans to keep the thighs in a more consistent shape. Pans also make it easier to add elements (such as sauce) and maximize the natural flavor of the chicken as it bastes in its own fat.

You will want to smoke your chicken at 275°F for 60 minutes, before adding a touch of butter on each of the thighs, covering the pans with foil, and letting everything cook for an extra 30 to 40 minutes. Once the thighs have reached an internal temperature of 195°F, remove the pans from the smoker, and, at this point, the thighs should look like little meat pillows, goldened, and dripping with juices.

Before you put the thighs in your presentation box, you will want to put them back on the BBQ real quick at 400°F to help their skin tighten back up and get a nice crisp. Then, just before you serve them, you’ll want to dunk the thighs in a mix of sauce and broth as your final touch. Once they’re drained, they are ready to be put in the box and then, the only thing that’ll be left for you to do is to pray the gods, the new and the old ones, that you did everything correctly and nailed the taste.

If you’ve done your work right, you should offer the judges a mouth-watering chicken thigh that’s got juice for days, a crispy skin, and that allows for the dreadful “clean bite”—meaning that a judge will be able to bite through the thigh, without tearing away the skin, and without touching any bone in the process. If you’ve achieved this, you should be proud of yourself!

As you can see, cooking chicken is a lot harder than it may seem. It takes a lot to bring bold flavors to such a subtle protein, but when you do it right, it’s often the box that’s going to steal the show and separate you from the already crowded classes.

Let your ego aside and keep in mind that an average score in beef, pork, and ribs combined with a 1st place chicken can get you on the podium for overalls. It’s a road less traveled, but it pays off tenfold if you’ve got the courage to take it.

Enjoy cooking chicken, and may the best one win!

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