Dear BBQ Friend:
Rubbery chicken skin could be the biggest problem area in all of BBQ. More pro and backyard pitmasters have trouble with chicken than any other area. Sure... I know how to cook chicken with bite through tender skin in a competition, but it involves a lot of scraping of the fat layer until there isn't much skin left to start with. That's too bad because
I think the skin is the best part. I don't think there is a backyard chef or even a restaurant pitmaster on this Earth who goes through the trouble of scraping chicken skin.
Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) mission states "Recognizing barbeque as America's Cuisine, the mission of the Kansas City Barbeque Society is to celebrate, teach, preserve and promote barbeque as a culinary technique, sport and art form."
You tell me... how is encouraging BBQ competitors to scrape chicken skin, by consistently giving them high scores, preserving American BBQ? Seems like they are encouraging a distortion of traditional American BBQ by promoting something
that has traditionally never happened and only currently happens in competitions. But I digress!
So the goal is to get tender bite through skin, not necessarily crispy skin, with not a whole lot of extra work because back yarders and restaurant chefs just don't have the extra time.
In my search for the holy grail of chicken skin, I came across many different recipes that claimed to produce tender or even crispy skin. Low and slow - 250 deg for 5 hours in your oven. This recipe on a popular online recipe site has 1000's of comments by users who claimed it worked to perfection. But when I tried it, it flopped miserably. I guess people don't know the difference between rubbery chicken skin and bite through tender skin.
OK... move on to the next test. I knew the rotisserie chicken always produced bite through skin and I assumed it was because of the constant basting provided by the natural juices and the rotisserie. So, I figured I just needed to keep the skin moist. So I tried the 250 deg in the oven method again but I basted the skin every 30 minutes with olive oil. Eureka!!! New discovery... if I could talk to Firestone or Michelin and get them to tread their new tires with this chicken skin, they would last forever!
This is going to be harder than I thought... Here's what I knew:
I also knew that tender skin is produced in other situations too... have you ever cooked a bunch of chicken quarters for a big group and threw them all in the cooler to hold until you were ready to serve? Cooking a lot of chicken at
one time with all that fat and water dripping down and evaporating inside the cooking chamber creates a lot of steam. Then more steam is created in the cooler with all that moist chicken in there.
So... I tried some steaming methods that I heard some pro cooks were using. Like cooking for the first hour in a pan of butter with the pan covered with foil (butter contains a lot of water these days). Some teams actually cook the whole time covered. I don't know what you call that method, but it ain't called barbecue! These steaming methods flopped too.
Alton Brown claims to make some pretty darn good oven wings by steaming them first for 10 minutes and then baking them. Alton is a scientist, right?! I figured this would work for sure! Nope - still rubbery and they tasted bad too.
Other things I just knew from experience that I didn't try this time include baking powder, drying uncovered in the refrigerator, much higher heat (over 400 deg), lower heat (lower than 220 deg), crisping on a hot grill, brining, etc.
Just for the fun of it, I tried cooking some thighs in a regular 300 deg smoker and then holding them for 1 hour in a very light steam to try and simulate that cooler action on large group cooks. This actually worked surprisingly well. Just cook your BBQ as usual and take off the smoker about 30 minutes early. Put in a steamer and just hold for at least 1 hour. You don't want a hot steam - just a cooler steam - maybe just get your steamer up to temp, put your chicken in, and turn the burner off and let them set in the warm, moist environment. This is the technique that came in second place for me.
First place was a cross between fried chicken and smoked chicken. Basically, you pan fry your chicken in about ½ inch of vegetable oil about 5 minutes on each side. Make sure your oil is around 350 deg. Drain on paper towel. Place in refrigerator until you are ready to smoke. Do not store in refrigerator with the oily paper towel. I used chicken thighs for my test. Then just smoke them as you normally would subtracting about 30 minutes because they are already slightly pre-cooked... i.e. 300 deg for 1.5 hours would work nicely with a 15 minute glazing at the end. The skin will turn out nice and tender almost like fried chicken and the meat comes out surprisingly moist.
This technique would also be legal in KCBS and FBA contests. You just have to cook using a wood fire and no deep frying is allowed in KCBS. Pretty much anything is allowed in FBA cooking - boiling, deep frying, etc. Note that just because it is allowed does not mean it will score well. I once turned in fried wings at a barbecue ancillary contest and came in last place. They were some damn good wings too! But if you follow my directions above, smoke them, and then sauce them, I don't think the judges will even notice that they were eating fried and smoked chicken!