No backyard BBQ is complete without the chicken. BBQ chicken, with its smoky flavor and sweet-and-savory glaze, is a reliable crowd pleaser. Plus, it pairs perfectly with all the classic BBQ sides: baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, mac and cheese, and greens.
Classic BBQ meats like spare ribs and brisket can be intimidating, especially to the beginning BBQer. But it’s actually the smaller and less-expensive chicken that tends to be the most challenging protein, even for pros.
But why? The white meat portions of the chicken are a different thickness and cook differently than the dark meat portions of the bird. Plus, because chicken is a relatively lean meat, and because it’s cooked over medium-to-high heat for a shorter period of time than, say, ribs or a brisket or pork butt, it’s easy to end up with overdone and dry meat. And getting crispy skin? That’s a challenge all on its own.
We asked our BBQ friends and pros to reveal their favorite chicken cheats and hacks, which we used to make this checklist of ways to make sure your next BBQ chicken is the best in the neighborhood. The goal? Moist, flavorful meat. Skin with a subtle crunch when you bite through. A shiny, even coating of BBQ sauce glaze.
These how-tos can be used by anyone, even the beginning cook. But we bet that with a list this meaty, even the BBQ aficionado will learn a thing or two.
1. Buy the right bird.
The first choice, of course, is whether to buy the whole bird or to buy cuts or pieces. If you’re opting for whole birds (and everyone should at least once), opt for smaller chickens. They cook faster and more evenly. Competition BBQ cookers prefer birds around 4 pounds. For home cooking, though, it’s OK to go up to 5 and a half or even 6 pounds.
2. Here’s how to split a whole chicken into halves.
One of our favorite ways to cook up yard bird is split them into halves. A sharp set of kitchen shears makes this work easy. Here’s how you do it: Cut out the backbone by making cuts on either side, from the tail to the neck. Remove the backbone from the body. Turn the chicken over. Using the kitchen shears, make a cut up the front of the bird, from the tail to the breast, then through the hard tissue and bone between the breasts. The meat beneath cuts easily once the breastbone is dealt with.
You’ll want to trim excess fat and skin. But to a beginning BBQer, to trim or not to trim might be the question. “If it looks like it shouldn’t be there, trim it off. Make it look pretty,” said Brian Wynn of M&W Smokers of Memphis, Tenn.
3. The thigh is probably the BBQers favorite part of the chicken.
Wynn, who took 2nd place at the World Championship BBQ Fest in 2019 for chicken, almost always smokes boneless chicken thighs.
“They are the best for staying moist when reheating or holding. They actually get better when reheated with Head County sauce,” Wynn said. “We shower with Head Country Original rub and smoke until done. Makes great sandwiches, sliders or just about any way you like chicken. It is a can’t-miss method and everyone loves it.”
4. Really love boneless, skinless chicken breasts? Here’s how to cook ’em.
Hey, they’re great on salads, the occasional light meal, and as a quick snack. First, be sure to pound boneless chicken breasts flat. This way, the meat cooks to 165 degrees F—the temp required to be safe to eat—evenly, without overcooking and drying out the edges. Pound chicken breasts flat by putting a breast in an open storage bag or between two pieces of plastic wrap and then pounding with a rolling pin or a heavy skillet.
5. Make homemade chicken stock.
If you took the plunge and selected a whole chicken, save the backbone and use it as the base of a batch of homemade chicken broth. You can use the broth for everything from soups to a house-made injection for your next BBQ chicken.
6. Yes, you should brine your chicken.
Brining meat does two things. First, there’s the flavor. Second, salt changes the shape of muscle proteins. This makes them better able to hold on to all those tasty juices we’re looking for in a succulent piece of chicken. And that’s a good thing.
7. There’s a thing called dry brining, and here’s how it works.
There are a few ways to get the brining done. There’s the dry-brine approach. For this, add salt—about 1 tsp. per pound of trimmed meat—to a whole chicken, including inside the cavity. Allow the chicken to chill in the refrigerator for at least 4-6 hours (better yet, a full 24). With a dry brine, you’ll have good luck retaining maximum moisture and flavor in your bird. Another pro of dry brining: you up your chances of achieving a shatteringly crisp skin. (Yum.)
8. Some of our pros swear by the wet brine. Others aren’t so convinced.
Some prefer wet brining, which means allowing poultry to soak in salt water (or a salty mixture) for extended periods of time before cooking. Some of our pro BBQ competitors swear by it. Not everyone is a believer in wet brining, though. “It’s a waste of time, energy, and money,” said Doug Scheiding. Scheiding is based in San Antonio and cooks under the name Rogue Cookers—with myriad awards to show for his years as a competition BBQ cook, he is also a BBQ World Champion. “It will help with retaining moisture. But you get a lot more flavor from injecting.”
9. If you want to try wet brining, here’s where to start.
A standard recipe for brine for a whole chicken is one gallon of distilled water to 1 C. of table salt. From there, cooks add everything from melted butter to peppercorns to citrus fruits. Allow the bird to bathe in the brine for at least an hour—our experts say anywhere from 4-10 hours is best, depending on your brine formulation. Keep in mind that when using a wet brine, you’ll need to have plenty of room freed up in your refrigerator for a large container, or you’ll want to use a cooler with plenty of ice to make sure the bird stays at a food-safe temperature.
10. Another idea: try injecting your bird.
Another option for driving flavor and moisture? Injection. For flavor that runs deep, mix up a signature injection—we base ours on stock, homemade when we can, and then we trade a few bucks for a hypodermic meat-injector.
A word of caution from Scheiding: “Don’t do injections that have particles you can see,” he said. “Thyme, rosemary, anything green. You don’t want to see that in your chicken.”
11. Chickens don’t like to be wet.
Ever hear how chickens can drown in the rain? Well, that’s not what we’re worried about here. But we are worried about crisp skin and making sure your seasoning mix sticks. After you process your chicken pieces the way you like, after wet brining, and before you start seasoning or injecting, be sure to pat chicken until thoroughly dry. Alternately, spread chicken pieces on a large baking tray and allow to dry in the refrigerator overnight, uncovered.
12. Chickens don’t fly, but when it comes to seasoning them, the sky is the limit.
Chickens don’t need as much seasoning as, say, a rack of ribs or brisket. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix or match seasonings to get exactly the flavor you want from your bird, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you want to under-season. Start with a dusting of a salt-forward rub, like our Original Championship Seasoning, or a mix of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Then layer on other seasonings to your heart’s content, being sure to sprinkle seasoning from 8-12 inches above the bird (this helps the seasoning fall evenly over the chicken) and to use a light hand.
13. Don’t just season the outside of the chicken.
Phong Vuong of Xtreme Texas Cookers, who places in the top 10 for chicken at major BBQ competitions on the regular, always seasons under the skin as well as over the top. “Add a little butter or olive oil, then put a little on the outside, also,” he said. Don’t forget to season the bone-side of chicken pieces like thighs and breasts.
14. Here’s the perfect set-up for your grill for cooking chicken.
Fire up the grill to 325 degrees F. “325 is the magic number,” Scheiding said. “The chicken cooks fast, and you don’t burn the sugar in your rub. Sugar burns between 325 and 350 degrees F.” Some of our cooks prefer the two-zone method, where the heat source comes from just one side of the cooker. (For a charcoal grill, you can do this by piling coals on just the left or right side, or piling them to the left and right while leaving a space in the middle where there are no coals.)
Tom Fuentes of Smokin’ Onions, who helped drive Mama and Papa Joe’s BBQ to Reserve Grand Champion in the 2022 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo BBQ Cookoff, has fuel for cooking chicken down to a science. It varies slightly by brand, he said, but with briquettes, use between 52-63 briquettes piled on one side of a standard kettle grill. Cook the chicken on the other (indirect heat) side of the grill. “That’s the perfect temperature for cooking chicken,” he said. “That puts you right at 325 degrees.”
15. Here’s how to cook chicken on the grill, step by step.
Place chicken on the grates, skin side up, and close the lid of the cooker. If you’re using the two-zone method, place the chicken on the indirect-heat side. Cook for 45 minutes to one hour, or until a digital thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the breast (not near a bone) reads 160 degrees F or in the thigh (again, not near a bone) reads 170 degrees F. More on this below.
16. Make sure your bird migrates.
Want an evenly cooked bird? Make sure you move your chicken pieces on your grill about every 15 minutes. Vuong says this guards against uneven cooking and accidentally overcooking your bird.
17. Cook chicken to temp, not to time.
Do not rely on the oft-quoted guideline that chicken is done when the juices run clear. As long as a properly inserted meat thermometer reads 165 degrees F, the chicken is safe to serve. For pieces like thighs and drumsticks, take the temperature up to 175 degrees F for the best texture. Just remember, “it’s not the temp of the grill, it’s the temp of the meat,” Wynn says.
If you don’t want to probe the breast (and lose precious juices from that lean meat in the process), you can also probe the thigh instead. Look for a temp of about 175 degrees F. “That tells me the breast is 165,” Fuentes said.
18. Here’s how you glaze BBQ chicken.
We’d never turn down an un-sauced chicken, but nothing has that taste of home quite like a big bite of rich, tangy, saucy chicken. Glaze your bird with straight BBQ sauce, or create your own glaze recipe. We recommend starting with a base of your favorite flavor of Head Country Bar-B-Q sauce, then trying additions of butter, honey, fruit or pepper preserves, apple juice, and apple cider. Have fun with it and experiment.
19. Heat your glaze for the perfect candy coating.
Whether it’s straight BBQ sauce or, as the pros usually do, a mixture of sauce with other ingredients, glaze will coat chicken more smoothly and adhere best if it’s heated first. Also, pour the heated glaze directly over the chicken. This saves you from having to paint on the glaze—and from unsightly brush strokes.
“When boxed [for competition], it almost glows. Dripping candy paint. That’s money,” said Ace Marquez of the Houston-based Slab City Barbecue competition BBQ team.
For pieces like drumsticks and wings, dunk the piece of meat directly into the sauce. “If you’re a boss, you can dunk,” Wynn joked.
20. Keep it clean.
With meats like chicken, it’s important to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen or prep space. How to do this? Don’t rinse chicken in the sink. There’s no reason to do it in terms of flavor, and rinsing spreads germs. Use fresh utensils, and never use utensils used on raw chicken to process or cook other dishes or ingredients. Our pros swear by using gloves. When people come over for BBQ, “you’re going to look like a pro. ‘Oh, this guy knows what he’s doing,’” Wynn said.
21. Need a trusty, basic BBQ chicken recipe?
This one is the perfect one to grow on:
2 whole chickens, about 5 pounds per bird
1/4 c. canola oil
4 Tbsp. Head Country Original Championship Seasoning
1 Tbsp. Head Country Championship Seasoning in either High Plains Heat or Sweet & Spicy
1 20oz bottle Head Country Bar-B-Q sauce in your favorite flavor: we love our Honey sauce in this recipe
Grill or smoker
First, divide the chickens in half. Using kitchen scissors, remove the backbone of each chicken, cutting along each side of the bone. Flip the chicken and use the scissors to cut from the tail up through the breast, cutting through the breast bone and any remaining tissue holding the halves together.
In a medium bowl, combine canola oil and Head Country Original Championship Seasoning.
Using your finger or a spoon, gently separate the thigh and breast skin from the meat. Use a spoon to add the seasoning mixture into these spaces between the skin and the meat. Spread remaining seasoning mixture over the top of the skin, plus the underside of the bird.
Light a full chimney of coals and spread them over the entire bottom of your grill. (Or, heat your gas grill to medium-high or your pellet grill to 325 degrees F.) Allow grill to preheat to 325 degrees F. Add chicken halves directly to the grates, skin side up. Close the lid of the grill.
Begin checking the internal temperature of the chicken after about 40 minutes of cook time. Rotate chicken halves about every 15 minutes throughout the cook. Allow the chicken to reach 160 degrees F.
Glaze chicken halves with your favorite Head Country Bar-B-Q sauce, poured straight from the bottle. Close the lid of the grill and allow glaze to set for 5 minutes, or until chicken reaches 165 degrees F. Remove chicken from the grill; allow to rest for 5-10 mins. Slice or serve, and enjoy!
Still itching to discover the full potential of BBQ chicken? Give these recipes a spin.
Honey BBQ Sauce is Amazing on These Chicken Recipes
Instant Pot BBQ Chicken Mac & Cheese
This Instant Pot mac and cheese takes what everyone loves about this favorite comfort food—the perfect chew, creamy cheese, and the ideal canvas for any original pasta masterpiece—and makes it super quick and easy for a weeknight. The added smoke from our BBQ sauce, the spice of jalapenos, and the bright flavors of fresh scallions and parsley appeal to the grown-up tastes of any kid-at-heart.
FULL RECIPE: Instant Pot BBQ Chicken Mac & Cheese
Tailgating Pull-Apart BBQ Chicken Bread
Everyone loves a meal where you can get messy. This Tailgating Pull Apart BBQ Chicken Bread is crazy fun, and not just because there’s no way to dig in and not get a little BBQ sauce and cheese on your fingers. The pull-apart chicken bread is perfect for a pre-game tailgate or to serve coffee-table style for your next game party.
FULL RECIPE: Tailgating Pull-Apart BBQ Chicken Bread
Sweet BBQ Sheet Pan Chicken Drumsticks
Why are drumsticks so fun to eat? We’ve known it since we were kids. These drums are the excuse you’ve been looking for to sit at the kids’ table again, even if it’s just for one night, and chow down on a pile of these, paired with a scoop of creamy mac and cheese.
FULL RECIPE: Sweet BBQ Sheet Pan Chicken Drumsticks
Smoked Sweet BBQ Chicken Wings
Are you Team Drums or Team Flats? We know it’s bad manners to discuss matters of religion at the dinner table, but just like whether wings are best smoked or fried, you get a pass to duke this one out when it’s time for wings. This recipe brings a BBQ flair to the original Anchor Buffalo Wing style. Some advice: have plenty of wet naps handy.
FULL RECIPE: Smoked Sweet BBQ Chicken Wings
Bacon Wrapped Stuffed Chicken
All the right things show up for this recipe: fresh chicken breast. A cheesy, savory stuffing. Bacon. And plenty of Head Country Bar-B-Q Sauce. Make the stuffing ahead of time to get these bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken breasts on the grill in a hurry on a weeknight, or break out this recipe the next time company comes over. Serve with whipped mashed potatoes and creamy macaroni and cheese.
FULL RECIPE: Bacon Wrapped Stuffed Chicken
BBQ Chicken Cornbread Skillet
This casserole-in-a-skillet is packed with all your favorite comfort-food flavors, from cornbread to BBQ chicken to two kinds of melting, bubbling cheese. Top with plenty of sliced green onion, and serve with sweet tea.
FULL RECIPE: BBQ Chicken Cornbread Skillet
Slow Cooker BBQ Chicken Thighs
Chicken thighs might just be our favorite part of the bird. They’re the most flavorful of the chicken cuts, and the juiciest, too. Plus, they’re easy on the budget. These slow cooker BBQ chicken thighs get fall-off-the-bone tender braised with your favorite flavor of BBQ sauce, making them the perfect comfort food for folks who don’t have all day to spend in the kitchen.
FULL RECIPE: Slow Cooker BBQ Chicken Thighs
Classic Slow Cooker BBQ Chicken
Slow cooker barbecue chicken is versatile, easy, and delicious. Simply add a few pounds of chicken, together with the right seasonings, sauce, and vegetables, and while you work or spend time with the kids, magic happens. Make a big batch of BBQ pulled chicken on Sunday and use it through the whole week: tacos, nachos, empanadas, baked potatoes, pizza, and casseroles.
FULL RECIPE: Classic Slow Cooker BBQ Chicken
3-Minute BBQ Chicken Tacos
When you shop your pantry and dip into the BBQ you couldn’t quite finish over the weekend, these shredded chicken tacos are ready in just 3 minutes.
FULL RECIPE: 3-Minute BBQ Chicken Tacos
Weeknight BBQ Chicken Pizza
Need a quick dinner idea for school nights? This BBQ chicken pizza recipe is ready in minutes. Here’s how to make homemade pizza with store bought dough (read: pita or naan bread from your deli is the shortcut of dreams) and make sure that once everyone’s at the table, it’s phones down and forks up. Use our Sugar Free sauce and deliver a healthy homemade pizza night.
FULL RECIPE: Weeknight BBQ Chicken Pizza
BBQ Chicken Puffs
With the help of a few sheets of puff pastry and an Instant Pot, these saucy chicken appetizers are just as quick and easy as they are mouth-watering. Serve piping hot for maximum cheese- pull action and to get the most from the savory, flaky crust.
FULL RECIPE: BBQ Chicken Puffs