Choosing, preparing, cooking, and presenting chicken halves for an IBCA BBQ Competition: If you are looking for a few tips and ideas that might help you improve your chicken scores, you have come to the right place.
The recipe you use to cook BBQ Chicken in the back yard at home is probably very different than your recipe to cook chicken halves or thighs for a BBQ Competition. In South Texas, most of the BBQ competitions we (The Smoker King BBQ Team) compete in are sanctioned by IBCA. The rules specify that you are to turn in one fully jointed chicken half. This means you basically cut the chicken in half along the backbone, trim it up, prepare and season it, cook it, and that is it. Cooking a chicken half can be a little tricky because the breast and the thigh cook differently and are usually done at different times. It is essential that you do not overcook the breast, but you have to make sure there is no blood coming from deep inside the thigh close to the bone. You also want to try and achieve a nice, dark-golden color on the outside of the chicken while making sure the inside is done. This can be tricky too. I have provided some tips and formation to help you cook a better chicken half, and hopefully increase your score at IBCA BBQ Competitions.
I always recommend using natural, antibiotic-free chicken at home and during competitions. Many packages are labeled Free-Range, but make sure they say antibiotic-free too. I believe the natural chicken is juicier and retains moisture very well when compared to regular chicken. IBCA requires that you turn in a fully jointed chicken half for the competition, and maybe even two halves, depending on the number of teams competing. A rule of thumb is if there are 50 teams or less, you are probably only required to turn in one chicken half.
Make sure the fat on the chicken is a rich yellow color. Try to avoid chickens with whiter fat. Yellow fat is mostly found on birds that are free range, eat lots of grass, insects, and grains, and get all the nutrients they need to grow at a healthy pace. White fat occurs in chickens that are most likely fed only grains and not allowed to roam freely. A chicken with yellow fat may have more flavor too. Try to find chickens that don't have antibiotics or other things injected into them. That's easier said than done, so take your time and read the package the best you can to find chickens that were grown the most natural way possible. Choose a chicken that weighs 4.5 to 5 lbs. Any bigger and you will have a hard time getting the turn in box closed.
You can ask your butcher to split the chicken for you or you can do it yourself. I always buy the whole bird and split it myself before I season, brine, inject, or whatever I am going to do. If you split the bird, get a pair of poultry shears and cut down each side of the backbone. IBCA allows you to remove the backbone so the chicken half fits in the box. Make sure you make clean, straight cuts and you leave a little extra skin along the edge where you cut along the backbone because skin will shrink and you don’t want to take a chance that it shrinks so much the judge disqualifies you for marking your chicken. Trim off excess fat from the bird and make sure it looks clean.
Every team prepares chicken differently. Some teams like to inject their chicken halves with everything from butter and seasonings to different types of fruit juices like grape and strawberry. There is no perfect answer to which method is best, but one thing you want to remember is the judges are trying many entries and you want a flavor profile that gets noticed in a good way. If it is really hot, saltier flavors may work better. Judges may like a flavor with a little bit of fire the further South a competition is, especially in Texas. Tip: I recommend is to use contrasting flavors, and flavors that will light up every taste bud on the tongue. Sweet, sour, tangy, salty, and a little bit of heat are good flavor profiles to work into the flavor of the chicken. If you decide to inject the chicken, butter with garlic flavor work great! If you choose to brine the chicken, use about ½ cup salt and 3/4 cup sugar to one gallon of water. That is the base of the brine. You can add many flavors from there like molasses, soy sauce, different seasonings, garlic cloves, etc. The possibilities are endless.
Once the chicken is brined or injected, and I recommend doing one of those, then it is time to get the bird ready to cook. If you brined your bird, make sure you wash it really well before you season it. Use a good chicken rub and apply a nice layer of seasoning to the bird. It should now be ready to cook.
A chicken half may take a few hours to fully smoke at 225 to 250 degrees, and if you smoke it at that temp the skin will most likely become very dark and even burnt before it is done. Many cooks are now cooking their chicken on a BBQ grill instead of smoking them, and they are doing very well with that method. I use different techniques to keep the skin from burning, but I can’t give you all my secrets – especially when we are taking home first place trophies with our recipe lately!
Try different methods of BBQing the chicken, including cooking at a higher temperature so the skin gets a little crispy. Make a foil tent over the chicken to help prevent the outside from from burning if the chicken is getting a little dark too early. Don’t apply any tomato based mops or rubs, or anything containing sugar to the skin until the end of the cooking process. Sugar and tomato both cook quickly and may burn early in the cooking process. Cook the chicken until the internal temperature is 170 or so, and all juices are clear. Just make sure the chicken is done! You will certainly get a DQ if you turn in a chicken that is not fully cooked. You can re-season the chicken a little before you put it in the turn in box if you feel it needs a little extra kick. If you apply a final glaze or sauce, make sure you do it during the last 10 minutes of cooking or so. You don’t want the sauce dripping off of the chicken when you put it in the turn-in box or the IBCA judge will send you back to wipe away the pooled sauce.
Never hesitate to experiment with different flavors in your rub, sauce, or finishing glaze. Our BBQ team never received a call the first few competitions we were in, but as soon as we placed in the top ten a few times we knew we were on to a good recipe. If you place in the top five, don’t change the recipe. Try to perfect what you are doing and you should continue to place. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.