This week the Longhorns take on the Iowa State Cyclones. Considering their mascot is some sort of strange concoction between a tall tale and an unknown fowl, I figured it was time to get Tastes of Texas back to its BBQ bread and butter and tackle a topic I've been avoiding: BBQ Chicken.
BBQ Chicken is somewhat of an aardvark in the BBQ world. It's one of the easiest meats to cook well, but it's one of the hardest to perfect. When most of us picture BBQ we think of cooking meat for hours at a very low temperature with lots of smoke. This is not the best way to BBQ chicken. In fact, the best way is really a cross between grilling and BBQing. We'll get to that shortly, but in order to talk about what you should do, we need to cover what not to do when BBQing yardbird.
Beer Butt Chicken
This method of BBQing chicken is really popular, and it's easy to see why. The whole chicken looks funny standing up on the pit with a half full beer can shoved inside it, and the beer is supposed to keep the meat moist while imparting flavor as it evaporates. Makes perfect sense, right? Unfortunately, this method is far from the best way to cook chicken for several reasons.
First, you have to cook the chicken whole which is ill advised because different parts of the chicken are different sizes. This means your drumsticks and wings are going to be ready well before the breasts are, and there is the risk those smaller parts will dry out while you're finishing up the breasts. It's far better to break the chicken down into individual pieces, so you can put different pieces of chicken over different parts of the fire and get everything ready at the same time.
The second reason I don't recommend beer butt chicken is the beer can. There is paint on the outside of all beer cans today, and these cans haven't been approved for this sort of culinary use. Perhaps I'm being a bit paranoid, but I'd rather avoid any unknown substances getting into my meat.
Finally, the beer itself doesn't do all that much. I've cooked beer butt chicken before, and there is about the same amount of beer left in the can at the end as there was in the beginning, so clearly the "evaporation keeps the meat moist" principle is an overblown proposition. The logical spinoff from this point is that if the beer isn't evaporating, it also isn't adding any flavor. If you want to add internal flavor you're much better off experimenting with sauces and injections.
So, we aren't going to cook beer butt chicken. What's the next common pitfall pitmasters make?
Low and Slow
This is going to be a bit controversial, and it is largely a matter of personal preference, but it needs to be addressed: I don't recommend smoking chicken. Chicken takes on smoke flavor easier than almost every other meat, and I firmly believe that cooking chicken with the traditional "low and slow" approach imparts entirely too much smoke into the bird, and the flavor becomes overpowering.
The second, probably more important issue with smoking chicken is that the temperature in the pit doesn't get high enough to crisp the skin. When the internal temperature is just right you're left with an over smoked piece of meat with rubbery skin that is tough and difficult to bite through, and no one wants that.
So, what should you do?
Grillbeque That Bird!
I just made that word up. As nonsensical as it sounds, it does illustrate the best method for great BBQ chicken which consists cooking the chicken over direct coals, but at a temperature lower than you would normally use for grilling.
Before you begin you'll need to prep the bird. At the bare minimum cut the chicken in half, but I highly recommend breaking down the chicken into its individual pieces so you can move them to different parts of your fire as needed. Regardless of which method you choose, rub your chicken down with your favorite rub, or let it sit overnight in a marinade. The most important aspect here is to use a rub with little to no sugar because sugar will burn when cooking over direct heat.
Once you prep your chicken the most important part comes next: building your fire. You need to build a fire out of charcoal or let wood burn down into coals. The fire should be hot enough to get a good sear on the chicken and crisp the skin, but cool enough that the outside of the chicken doesn't get too done before the interior meat near the bone. Old school barrel pits work incredibly well for this method. Barrel pits allow you to build a really large fire that will last throughout the entire cooking process but won't cook the chicken too quickly because it is a long way from your cooking grates.
Regarding the fire, I also recommend setting up hot and cool zones. The hotter areas will allow you to sear and crisp the skin while the cooler areas will let you get the smaller pieces away from the direct heat and hopefully get everything ready at the same time.
Before cooking the chicken ensure your coals are completely white. I can't stress this enough. Chicken has a lot of fat in it that will drip onto your coals during the cooking process. This is a good thing because the fat will cause the coals to smoke, putting just enough smoke flavor into the chicken during cooking. But, if there are any coals that haven't fully caught and burned down you will have a massive flare up on your hands.
Now that your fire is all set, put your chicken on the pit skin side up. You'll want to cook the chicken with the skin side up for about 2/3 of the process to keep from overcooking the skin and the meat. Flip the chicken periodically and move the pieces to various cooking zones if you see some pieces cooking faster than others. The chicken is done when the juices are running clear out of the top. Another good indication is when the meat and skin is slightly drawing up on the drumsticks. Depending on the size of your birds, it should take somewhere between 45 and 75 minutes using this method, and you might have to stoke your coals a few times during cooking.
A good way to finish the chicken is to baste on your favorite sauce right at the very end of the cooking and let it caramelize. This will add another delicious level of flavor, but it can make your crispy skin get rubbery again. If you do decide to utilize this method, don't put the sauce on until the very end because most sauces have a high sugar content that will burn.
The end result should be moist chicken with perfectly seared, crispy skin and a subtle smoke flavor that isn't overpowering.
BBQ Chicken. Beat Cyclones.