If you’re contemplating a cookout—say, for one of the biggest cookout days of the year—you may be wondering what you should make. Should you get a whole brisket and go for awestruck wonder? Should you get ribs and show your guests how much better you cook than restaurants? Pulled pork is easy for a crowd…
But do you know what America wants? What meat America craves? Chicken. The answer is chicken. If you put down a plate of chicken, you’ll pick it up clean. Yes, the BBQ trinity may hold mystical powers over the minds of picnic-ers, but chicken will fly off the plate like nobody’s business.
If you disagree, you’re probably thinking of your friend’s overcooked, dried chicken breasts that took a whole quart of your preferred summer beverage just to swallow. What we’re going to talk about today isn’t that chicken. It’s chicken thigh. BBQ chicken thigh for Memorial Day—or any other barbecue-y holiday—is the simple secret to satisfied friends and family.
In this article we’ll discuss the why’s and how’s of chicken thighs, especially from a temperature standpoint, plus talk about how to prepare chicken that meets the standards of competition BBQ masters.
Why chicken thigh
The dark and the light meat in chicken cook in fundamentally different ways. Light meat is lean and naturally tender, while the dark meat of the wings, legs, and thighs is fattier and more full of connective tissue—especially collagen. That’s why it’s so easy to overcook and dry out chicken breasts: they have no moisture reserves.
Thigh meat, with its collagen-gelatin transformation capabilities, is easy to cook without drying out. Plus they are usually cheaper than chicken breasts, so they are better on the pocketbook for feeding a crowd.
How to cook chicken thighs correctly
I have a theory about people who say they don’t like dark meat. I think that many of them don’t like it because it’s not well prepared most of the time. If you cook a whole chicken, you don’t want the light meat to dry out, so you cook the bird to a just-barely-safe temperature of 165°F (74°C). But dark meat needs a higher temperature than that soften, meaning you get dark meat that is technically cooked, but far from finished. Often the dark meat is left with a rubbery, chewy texture that can be off-putting to many. But if you properly cook the meat, it becomes tender with an almost silky bite that is very enjoyable
What this means for your BBQ chicken thighs is that you should not just cook them to the “chicken is ready to eat” temperature of 165°F (74°C), but to a “connective tissues are broken down now” temperature of 175°F (79°C). This critical temperature will give you tender, juicy, delicious chicken thighs that will wow your friends.
There is another advantage to cooking chicken thighs that I didn’t mention before: time. Yes, the thigh has more connective tissue, but it’s not brisket! You don’t need to cook these at low temp for 6 hours, rather you can cook them at 300°F (149°C) for a relatively short time.
To smoke the thighs, get your smoker up to temp while you prepare the thighs. Put the thighs on the smoker and insert a probe from a leave-in thermometer in the deepest part of the meat. Set the alarm on the probe for 140°F (60°C) and cook. Have any sauce you want to use warmed and ready to use. When the alarm sounds, at 140°F (60°C), baste the chicken with the sauce. Applying the sauce at this temperature will give the it time to thicken and even partially caramelize on the surface of the meat, giving the chicken the sticky-fingers appeal that people associate with BBQ chicken.
Of course adding a wet sauce—no matter how pre-warmed it is—to the exterior of the chicken will give you some evaporative cooling, inducing a minor stall. But don’t worry, it’s not like the brisket stall! By my figures, the sauce may add as much as 20 minutes to your cooking time. And while we don’t advocate for sauce in the case of ribs or brisket, we’re all about saucy chicken!
You can see the lower slope of the chicken temperature indicating a stall in the graph below.
Once the chicken is sauced, reset the alarm for 175°F (79°C) and cook to completion. Verify the temperature with a Classic Super-Fast® Thermapen®.
How to cook chicken like a competition cook
If you want to go above and beyond the standard chicken, you can try going full competition-BBQ style. Competition style chicken is rather a bother to make, and it is actually the most worrisome thing for pitmasters, but it is a challenge that is fun to take on so that you can present the very, very best.
Ask competitors which category keeps them staring at the ceiling at night, and most will answer “chicken.”—AmazingRibs.com
All about the judging
The reason competition chicken is so daunting for most pitmasters is that you don’t have any time to win the judges over, and you don’t have any room for bad bites. And that means that you have to work on the chicken to pare away every bite that isn’t just perfect.
One thing you don’t want to happen when a judge bites into your chicken is for the skin to be too rubbery to bite through easily, or to all come off with the first bite. The judge—or your guest— should be able to bite through the skin easily without it all falling off. This is the “bite test” for chicken, equivalent to the one for ribs.
Another thing you don’t want for the judges to encounter is little bits of overcooked, hard chicken. To avoid this, competitors will usually trim their chicken in ways that you wouldn’t think of for a week-night dinner. They will cut the knob off the bone, remove extra meat, and wrap the whole thing into what some call a “pillow trim” shape. This pillow is roughly cylindrical, meaning there are no bits sticking out into the heat, getting overcooked. Plus, the presentation is really nice this way. Some Q-fiends go further, using pincers to remove the tendon before cooking, some remove the bone altogether. The point of all of this is to get evenly cooked chicken that has no “bad” bites in it, only “excellent” bites that can win a competition.
Note: If you don’t have the time, patience, or knife skills to do all the trimming that professionals do, that’s fine. But we do recommend squaring up the meat a bit and trying to form the thigh into a cylindrical shape to promote even cooking.
BBQ Chicken Thigh Recipe
- 4 Chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on
- ~3 Tbsp of your favorite chicken BBQ rub
- ¾ C your favorite BBQ sauce for chicken
- Preheat smoker to 300°F (149°C)
- If you want competition-style thighs, trim them by removing the ball joint, squaring up the meat, trimming excess fat, and scraping the fat off the inside of the skin. See the video below, or watch a much longer explanation on Slap Yo’ Daddy’s channel.
- Even if you don’t do all the trimming, it’s a good idea to peel the skin back and sprinkle some rub underneath it. Skin is designed to keep things out. Put some rub under it to flavor the meat better.
- Apply rub to the whole exterior of the chicken thighs.
- Place chicken on the smoker with a leave-in probe attached to a thermometer. In this case we have used the SmokeTM dual-channel thermometer with the Gateway Wi-Fi bridge.
- Set the high-temp alarm for the meat to 140°F (60°C). For the air, set a high alarm for 325°F (163°C) and a low alarm for 275°F (135°C).
- Close up the smoker and smoke the chicken.
- Warm your barbecue sauce, either on the stove or by placing it in the smoker for 10 minutes prior to basting time.
- When the alarm sounds, baste the chicken with the BBQ sauce. Alternatively, you can lift each piece and dunk it in the sauce before returning it to the smoker.
- Replace the alarm probe and set the alarm for your 175°F (79°C).
- When the alarm sounds, verify the temperature with a Classic Super-Fast Thermapen. If you see any readings below 175°F (79°C), allow the chicken to cook for a few more minutes.
- Remove the chicken from heat, allow to rest for 5-10 minutes and serve.
May is National BBQ month, so go out there and smoke yourself and your friends some chicken! It’s simple, it’s cheap, and with attention to the 175°F (79°C) critical temperature, it’s bound to be delicious!