Back in 2004, during my first year of judging the New England Barbecue Competition, I remember having a piece of chicken which was an epiphany. This was a dry-rubbed chicken thigh perfectly cooked with a great savory spice rub. The skin was crispy, the meat was tender and juicy, it was cooked perfectly all the way through without falling off the bone or becoming mushy, and it tasted like it had actually been barbecued, not cooked in an oven. That still stands as the single best piece of chicken I’ve judged since becoming a barbecue judge.
The topic of what is "good chicken" in competition is hotly debated. Most teams submit chicken thighs – a few will do legs, and only a rare handful will even attempt chicken breast – it dries out too easily.
Thighs are great for barbecuing since they have a lot of flavor and fat, which keeps them from drying out. However, this also means that they have a lot of fat under the skin which can become rubbery and soggy if not cooked thoroughly. The new KCBS judging guidelines say to not judge a piece of chicken up or down depending on whether it has skin or not. I agree with that. However, a piece of chicken that has good skin will always get higher points from me, since I think it simply has better taste and texture – two of the three things the entry is being judged on.
What is "good skin"? It is skin that has been cooked so that at least most of the fat has been rendered out. Crispy skin is a plus, but simply cooked to the point of tenderness is fine. "Bad skin" is anything that is fatty, rubbery, and takes away from the taste and texture experience.
However, in the end, the judging isn’t about the skin – its about the meat. So the biggest complaint I have about many chicken entries is that too many of them taste like they have barely been on a grill or smoker. I’m not sure how teams manage to cook a piece of chicken over a charcoal or wood flame and not get some smokiness or grill taste in there. They are juicy, tender and have a nice sauce or rub on them, but they simply don’t taste barbecued. I’m not looking for something with dark black grill marks, but something that shows and tastes like its been in contact with either an open flame or the grill above an open flame would be great.