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Cooking with Fire

Cooking With Fire: Competition Chicken

Justin Cary

Long before the world of prime time TV food competitions, the barbecue world was hosting contests to find out who made the best ribs, brisket and more.

These competitions were originally held for bragging rights and small trophies, but have gained steam over the years to now include competitions that have more than 500 teams competing head-to-head for their share of hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.

The largest sanctioning body in the U.S. is the Kansas City Barbeque Society, or KCBS. Started in 1985 by three friends, the organization grew rapidly in the 90s with over 1,400 members joining after just eight short years.

Read: How did Chef Tom's chicken recipe fare in the Kansas City Barbecue Society's competition?

The group began sanctioning contests around the country, solidifying rules and judging criteria, and lending a hand to make sure these events were fair and well-run. The organization now boasts over 19,000 members and 450 contests held each year.

But what about the food? At most contests, the meat turned into the judges is going to have a similar flavor profile that is defined by regional tastes as well as the cuts needed for turn-in. In KCBS that is chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and brisket; and since it's the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the sweet-and-a-little-heat flavor profile is the most common. This also makes it the perfect style to impress your friends and family at home.

And speaking of impressing your friends, here's the latest episode of Cooking with Fire, where Chef Tom will break down exactly how to cook competition-style chicken thighs that are perfect for your next summer gathering.

Competition Chicken Thighs


  • 6 skin-on chicken thighs
  • BBQ marinade (recipe below)
  • BBQ rub (recipe below)
  • 1/2 cup clarified butter
  • Hot BBQ sauce
  • Sweet BBQ sauce

 For the BBQ Marinade:

  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup clarified butter
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp ground black pepper

 For the BBQ rub:

  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne


  1. Remove the skin from the thigh. Place the skin on a cutting board with the outside of the skin touching the board, fat side up. Using a sharp boning knife slice the fat from the skin, taking care to not puncture the skin. The skin should be very thin when finished.
  2. Looking at the backside of the thigh, you’ll notice that one end of the thigh bone has a rounded end that sticks out further than the other. Using poultry shears, cut the end of the bone off. You may need to slice around the end of the bone to get your shears in there. This should allow the flesh to cover the end of the bone, and keep the bone from protruding from the end, negatively affecting the shape of the finished product. Trim any excess fat from the meat of the thighs. Continue to trim any pieces of the flesh that will stick out or cause an uneven shaped thigh. You may need to go back and do more trimming as you assess the group of thighs as a whole. You want them all to be shaped and sized as evenly and similarly as possible.
  3. Combine all BBQ Marinade ingredients in a bowl and mix well with a whisk.
  4. Place the thighs in a zip top bag along with the BBQ Marinade and soak for one hour. You do not need to soak the skins. Just wrap them in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator.
  5. Preheat your smoker to 275ºF.
  6. Remove the thighs from the bag and pat mostly dry with paper towels. Combine the BBQ Rub ingredients and mix well. Lay out your skin(s) and lightly season the side that will make contact with the flesh. Season the top side of the thigh. Carefully place the seasoned side of the thigh on the skin. Season the bottom side of the thigh. Wrap the skin around the thigh, covering as much flesh as possible. Excess skin can be trimmed and/or tucked under the thigh. A little excess is good, as the skin will tighten as it cooks. Too much excess will negatively affect the bite. Season the top side of the skin.
  7. Apply a layer of the clarified butter to the bottom of a half sized foil pan. Carefully transfer the thighs to the pan, shaped and arranged as identically as possible with the skins precisely in place. Transfer the pan to the smoker and cook for 30 minutes.
  8. After the initial 30 minutes, cover the pan with foil and continue cooking. At this point you can mix your sauce. Combine equal parts hot and sweet bbq sauce in a sauce pan. Stir to combine. Warm the sauce by placing the pan in the cooker.
  9. Use an instant read thermometer to monitor the internal temperature. When the thigh(s) reach an internal temperature of 150ºF, remove the pan from the cooker. Place a wire glazing/cooling rack on the smoker. Carefully dip one thigh at a time in the sauce. Mind the skin, doing your best not to smudge the sauce as you remove it from the sauce. Transfer the thighs to the wire rack after dipping. Continue cooking until the internal temperature reaches 170ºF.
  10. Remove from the cooker and store in a cooler or cambro until ready to box.