Last Updated July 15, 2021
I’ve studied the best pitmasters to learn how they cook competition chicken thighs. I’ve attended BBQ school. And now, I’m sharing what I’ve learned to help you create a winning turn-in box.
After a couple of years of competition under my belt, this post has been updated to include two successful smoking techniques and a chicken trim video.
As a Kansas City Barbeque Society judge, I’ve seen and tasted some of the best competition chicken out there, especially when I judged the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
Most competitors prepare chicken thighs because the dark meat has more flavor and is juicier than the breast. But I have the utmost respect for any cook who turns in a well-cooked leg or breast because I love the variety after so many thighs.
Even though the thigh meat can be forgiving, they are not easy to prepare.
In addition to being a judge, I’m also the pitmaster for team Girls Can Grill. Chicken thighs used to be my least favorite competition meat to smoke because of all of the prep work involved, but now I find the process rather therapeutic.
But if you take your time and do it right, the results are so delicious and rewarding.
Let’s Break Down the Steps
Selecting Your Chicken
In all competitions, you want to buy the best meat you can afford. If you put junk in the smoker, you’re gonna get junk out.
It’s important to look for evenly sized thighs. Always have your turn-in box in mind. If you have a runt or two, you may get docked in your appearance score.
Buy extra thighs. You’re required to turn in six pieces in KCBS competitions. It’s always better to have extra for the oh-crap moments. I usually cook 10-12.
Trimming Your Chicken
This is the time-consuming part, but it really matters in the end when the judge takes that single bite, so don’t skip this step.
Chicken thighs have pretty fatty skins and some extra pockets of fat and gunk near the bone. When you cook the meat slow and low, that fat doesn’t render, so if not treated properly, the judge will get a rubbery bite.
That will get you docked in tenderness points.
To avoid this, you want to peel the skin from the thigh, leaving it connected on one side. While you have the thigh sitting bone-side down, go ahead and scrape off the excess fat connected to the meat. This isn’t a good bite.
Flip the thigh over. The bone will have a knuckle on it. Using garden shears, snip this off.
I’ve found that if I leave it, the meat shrinks around it, leaving the bone sticking out.
For a backyard BBQ, that’s fine, but for a turn-in box, judges have become accustomed to perfect little chicken pillows.
There are a few other things you’ll want to trim out. There is a fat pocket near the bone, a vein and other random fatty pieces. Use your boning knife or kitchen shears to get rid of this junk. Also, use your knife to square up the edges.
Flip the thigh back over and roll it up. If you see any scraggly pieces, trim them off, as well.
Fold the skin back over. Using a sharp boning knife at a 45-degree angle, gently scrape off some of the fat from the underside. Be very careful that you don’t puncture the outer skin. Otherwise, your appearance score will drop.
Then, lay the meat on top of the scraped skin, and trim the skin so there isn’t too much excess. Roll it up with the skin on top. How does it look? Pretty?
After all those steps, it should. Now, keep on trimming, you have 11 more to go.
The good news is you can do all of this in advance. KCBS rules allow you to trim your meat before competitions. You just can’t brine or season it until it’s inspected at the comp.
Cooking Your Competition Chicken Thighs
Appearance is one part of your score. The rest comes down to taste and tenderness.
I can’t really tell you which rub to use. Judges in different areas of the country have different preferences. Heck, judges in the same area of the country have different preferences.
My recommendation is that you make it memorable, but not overpowering. I enjoy a balance of salt, sweet, pepper and umami. I created a Chicken Rub with Spiceology that has scored really well across the west coast.
Rub your competition chicken thighs on both sides and on top and under the skin.
Fold it back together into that pretty chicken pillow.
I have two methods for smoking the chicken
Mini Loaf Pan Method
I know you’re thinking this is a BBQ competition not a baking championship.
Trust me, this pitmaster technique using a mini loaf pan is what separates the oblong thighs from the picture perfect uniform soldiers.
Put a little moisture in each cavity. I’m happy with chicken broth and butter, but I’ve seen people use Dale’s, soy sauce and other concoctions.
Place your seasoned thighs in the pan skin-side down, and top each with a thin pat of butter. This allows that skin to really soften so there is no tug when the judge takes a bite.
Smoke it in the pan at 275-300F degrees for about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
It’s time to flip the birds, so they’re skin-side up to help firm up the skin. You don’t want to ruin all of that hard work you did making these so darn pretty, so be gentle about it.
I use seafood forks to lift the thighs because they’re delicate.
Sprinkle with a little more rub or salt and continue smoking for about 45 minutes.
Regular Loaf Pan Method
Lately, I’ve transitioned to this method, and it earned me a first place call in 2019 against 63 teams.
Instead of a mini-loaf pan, you’ll use multiple two-pound aluminum loaf pans.
Season the thighs the same way. Add about 1-2 tablespoons of marinade in the pan with a couple pats of butter. Place 3-4 thighs in each pan skin side up, and place a thin slice of butter on top.
Smoke at 275F degrees for 45 minutes. Then, cover with foil and cook for 20 more minutes.
The reason I use a loaf pan, instead of a regular 13×9 aluminum pan is because I find that the thinner pan helps maintain the shape of the thighs better.
No matter which method you use above, When you have about 45 minutes before turn-in, remove the thighs from the pan(s) and place them on a baking rack
Combine your favorite sauce in a bowl. I add a little bit of the broth to the sauce with some extra flavor secrets. (Sorry can’t tell you everything.)
Using those seafood forks, dunk each thigh into the sauce, coating them all over. Place them back on the baking rack.
Place the rack on the smoker, and smoke for 10 minutes to let the sauce set.
Select your best six competition chicken thighs (or 8 if you want to be generous), and arrange them in your box on top of your leafy greens (if you’re using garnish).
Clean up your box to remove any sauce smears. Don’t forget to take a photo and tag #GirlsCanGrill when you post it. Then, gently deliver it to the judges, and pray to the BBQ gods.
Competition Chicken Thighs
- 9 chicken thighs skin on
- 1/4 cup Christie Vanover's Chicken Rub
- 1/3 cup chicken broth for mini method
- 1/2 cup Moore's Marinade for regular method
- 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
- 1/2 cup barbecue sauce
- kosher salt
Trim The Thighs
- Peel the skin from the top of the thigh, leaving part of it attached. Scrape off any fat that is still stuck on the top of the thigh.
- Flip the thigh over. Using shears, cut off the knuckle. Square up the ends with a knife.
- Using scissors and a knife, trim out the fat pocket and vein near the bone, and trim off any extra fat.
- Using a sharp knife at a 45-degree angle, gently scrape the fat from the underside of the skin.
- Fold the skin back on top of the thigh. It should wrap around the meat like a present. If there is excess skin, trim it off.
- Season the chicken on all sides with Chicken Rub, both under and on top of the skin.
- Fold the skin back around the meat, focusing on appearance.
Mini Loaf Pan Method
- Heat your smoker to 275-300F degrees.
- Place two teaspoons of chicken broth into each cavity of the mini loaf pan. Add a thin sliver of butter (about 1 teaspoon) to each cavity.
- Place the seasoned chicken in the molds, skin-side down. Top with another thin slice of butter.
- Smoke over indirect heat for 1 hour and 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the cook.
- Using seafood forks, carefully flip the thighs over. Place them in the pan skin-side up. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
- Smoke 45 minutes, rotating halfway through.
Regular Loaf Pan Method
- Place 1-2 tablespoons marinade and 2 pats of butter in a 2-pound aluminum loaf pan. Add 3-4 chicken thighs to each pan, skin side up. Repeat with 3-4 pans.
- Smoke at 275F for 45 minutes.
- Cover with aluminum foil, and cook for 20 more minutes.
Setting the Sauce
- Remove the thighs from the pan and set aside.
- In a shallow bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the pan juices with 1/2 cup barbecue sauce and a pinch of salt.
- Dunk each thigh into the sauce, and place on a baking rack.
- Return to the smoker for 10 minutes to set the sauce.
- Dunk in the sauce again. Box and turn-in.