How to Cook Competition BBQ Chicken that Walks
Thanks for checking out this post detailing how to cook competition chicken that walks. This write-up represents the final installment of a series on cooking competition BBQ meats. You can find the others here:
As a Master Judge for the Florida BBQ Association and a Certified KCBS Judge with double-digit competitions under my belt, I feel I’m pretty well placed to share with you my views on what it takes to cook competition chicken and win.
As with all other entries, getting your presentation down helps put judges’ minds in a good place for scoring your entry. However, if your competition chicken entry looks great but fails on taste and tenderness, that top score for presentation won’t save you come awards time.
Let’s take a look at what I think should be your focus when prepping and cooking your competition chicken. (Be sure to view the video below on prepping chicken for competition.)
How to Cook Competition Chicken – The Mind of a BBQ Judge
I’ve eaten a lot of competition BBQ chicken. My best guess for how many pieces of competition chicken I’ve tasted as an FBA and KCBS competition judge is around 300. Some of these BBQ chicken samples have been amazing, others really, really good, and a few well… let’s call them spitters. Or, as a buddy of mine likes to say, they were 3 or 4 cracker entries – meaning of course that you have to eat a handful of the saltine crackers provided to judges chased with water in order to get the taste out of your mouth.
If you’re reading this post on how to cook competition chicken, you’re likely wondering what we judges consider to be a top scoring yard bird sample. That’s really the trick, right? Here’s my take.
The list you see here is my personal take, and what I score as a top entry may vary from what others consider winners. However, I think I’m pretty close.
Here’s My Take on a Winning Competition Chicken Entry
- Appearance: the entry should always be sauced, offering up a nice ‘clear coat’ of color.
- Taste: the sauce, injection, and rub should all combine to form a unified flavor profile.
- Tenderness: skin needs to have just a tiny hint of “presence” to it, but still be bite through.
- Tenderness: the chicken meat should offer just a little bit of bite resistance and offer up a little juice.
Competition Chicken Appearance
Point one above about the sauce being more like a clear lacquer than a heavy coating is key. Avoid leaving the chicken on the smoker too long after saucing. The time you use to “set” the sauce will vary depending on your temps. Just be sure to let “color” be your guide.
If I see a dark looking entry, my first thought is that the chicken is overdone. I know that this isn’t always the case, but it’s where my mind goes. Controlling the judges perception from the jump gets you a long way. Color and shine are what you want to push here. If you have a few flecks of black pepper in your sauce, that’s totally fine, as is a clear sauce. Just try to get as much of a gloss going as possible. Dry or “tacky” looking entries are to be avoided.
I’ll finish this out by saying that the appearance of your entry establishes where your entry ranks among all the best looking chicken a BBQ judge has ever eaten. Is that fair? Hell no. But it is what it is. Get your pieces to be as close to the same size as you can, and make them shine. These two things will rev up the RPMs in the judge’s mind and get it ready to engage on all that’s positive about your chicken’s taste and tenderness.
Competition Chicken Taste
Heath Riles of Victory Lane BBQ told me once that he does best in all of the four competition BBQ categories when he produces the best “average” BBQ he can. He’s on to something here, and you should heed what he’s saying. Any one flavor that “spikes” above the others or stands out in any way will work against you. This includes the amount of smoke your meat takes on.
The idea here is that you don’t want to give judges one single thing to pick on. In any given round of competition BBQ chicken, your entry should have an even balance of sweet and savory. Watch the spice as well. If you burn up a judge’s mouth, you’re done. So, go easy. This goes for salt as well. Remember – balance.
If you want to play with heat, go with a heat that’s more warm than spicy/acidic. Make the judge think they’ve bitten into a little bit of lightly smoked sunshine.
Brine and injection wise (yes, try both) consider adding to that ‘sunshine’ metaphor by imparting flavors more closely aligned with your Granny’s homemade chicken soup. So, we’re talking carrot, celery, onion, etc.
For the brine, I’ve seen folks use Italian dressing mixes, fresh-cut vegetables, and the like with good success. Injection wise, there are a few really good products out there that folks are winning with. I’ll list some below.
The last thing I’ll advise you to do is to watch the amount of smoke your competition chicken takes on. If you’re using lump charcoal, consider leaving out any extra wood chips or chunks. The lump charcoal imparts enough smoke on its own in my opinion. If you do use some wood, go with a fruit wood.
If you’re using a pellet smoker, pecan or a competition blend of pellets might be a good choice. Pellets impart a lot less smoke than other types of smokers, so you’re probably in good shape here as is.
Here is a list of brines and rubs I have seen used to win the chicken category at FBA and KCBS competitions:
Competition Chicken Tenderness
When it comes to competition chicken tenderness, I’m happiest when entries feel like I’m biting through a tasty cloud of chicken meat that offers up just a tiny bit of bite resistance.
There should be a noticeable bite mark when you bite into the side of a chicken thigh, and the skin should release cleanly when bitten. What I mean here is that there shouldn’t be any ‘hanger on’ bits of skin lapping over the bite mark. It should all come off clean without dragging the rest of the skin along with the bite.
Be sure to get rid of the vein that’s inside the thigh, as well as any extraneous tendon action. In terms of the bone, I’m happiest as a judge when there’s a bone in the thigh, but go head and clip off the ends.
Regarding the dreaded chicken skin prep… scraping the skin with a knife is your best bet when you’re starting out. The video in this post shows how this is done.
For instructions on how to cook your chicken thighs to get great texture, head over to the Gateway Drum Smokers blog and read this post. You’ll find some good pics along with a solid bit of “how to” info.
VIDEO: How to Prep and Cook Competition Chicken
I’ll round out this post on competition chicken with this excellent video from Jim Elser of Sweet Smoke Q. Jim’s been a good friend of the BBQ Beat for some time now, and it’s likely you’ve seen the video he allowed me to take covering competition pork prep. This video on prepping and cooking competition chicken is just as good, and it’s provided here with Jim’s blessing.
I think you’ll agree that the information Jim shares in this video is pretty awesome. Hope you took some notes! Please be sure to check out the Sweet Smoke Q website and his awesome line of injections and sauces. I use the injections myself, and they’re awesome.
That’s about all I have for input on how to cook competition chicken. In closing, I’m including a list of relevant articles as well as some links to products I think you’ll find useful in your yard bird pursuits!
Remember, aim for the “Best Average BBQ Chicken” you can make! I wish you many walks and wow’s from judges, friends, and family alike!