Ask competitors which category keeps them staring at the ceiling at night, and most will answeer "chicken." The time it takes to prep, the ever changing flavor profiles judges respond to, the various cooking methods, and that pesky little salmonella thing to top it all off, how can one get ahead in the poultry game? I talk with pitmasters every day and I constantly try to probe them for information. Here is what's trending on the competition circuit right now.
The chickens you and I can get in the grocery stores are not what the top teams on the circuit are using. Just like the move to Waygu beef and Berkshire hogs, cooks are looking for a quality edge in chicken sourcing. White thin skins, all natural, cage free, and as close to the same size as possible is the trend right now. Steroids and hormones are illegal in chicken and never used even though some labels brag "hormone free".
The vast majority of folks use thighs, try to make them round (they don't come like that off the bird), poach them in pans partially submerged under a lot of butter, and try for a sweet/sugary flavor profile. Some even use muffin pans to shape them.
Some teams will cut off the "knuckle" joints, but during my talks with some of the top teams, many remove the whole bone because they feel that the judges don't want to bite near a bone, the boneless thigh give them a better eating experience.
Then there is the skin. Some pitmasters take it all the way off, some leave it barely attached, and then they lay it out like a page of a book, skin side down. Either way, they then take a very sharp knife and trim it and then scrape away any fat that lies underneath. This step helps the produce the coveted "bite through skin". They don't want the judges biting in and having the skin come off all in one mouthful. While there are many factors that go in to a successful chicken cook, bite through skin is long believed to be a big determining factor in the overall score. Teams who take the chicken skin all the way off will reattach it prior to cooking with toothpicks which they will remove before turn-in. I have been told by more than one pitmaster to never use colored toothpicks as they will leach color in to the meat. Can you imagine being a judge and seeing green or orange streaks in the meat? YIKES!! It is suggested to use regular wooden toothpicks or stainless steel toothpicks to secure the skin while it is cooking. Just remember to take them out before you run the box to the judging tent! That will get you a DQ just as fast as missing the turn-in window.
As far as rubs go, there are plenty to choose from. "Yard Bird" Rub from Plowboys is a favorite, Smokin' Guns sweet and/or hot does well and Big Poppa Smokers "Happy Ending Rub" is popular. As contradiction would have it, the best chicken cook in the KCBS right now, Parrothead Smoker's pitmaster John Nilges, makes his own rub for chicken. He does not use any commercially made product and he said it has been the only thing that hasn't changed since he started competing many years ago. The top teams are applying rub to their chicken anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour in advance of hitting the cooker. There was a team last year that finished very high in the overall chicken ranks that applied rub 9 hours in advance! Of course, that is more the exception than the rule.
About a year or so ago, I started asking pitmasters on my BBQ Central radio show if there was ever going to be a movement where they would start injecting their birds. It is common place to inject briskets and pork butts but ribs and chicken had been left out of that business. When I attended the Smokin' At The Run BBQ event in March 2013, I was told by multiple cooks that they have started to inject their chicken to stand out from the rest. Some injection manufacturers are now selling injections just for chicken. I don't know if we can call this a full on trend yet, but if a team starts winning with it regularly you know there will be other teams lining up to try it as well.
Here is something to be on the look-out for as a possible new trend, or at least something you might be hearing more about in the coming months. More and more pitmasters are offering multiple segments in the box rather than only thighs. You might see six pieces of breast and six wings or six thighs and six wings, etc. When cooking wings, they never turn in tips, usually just drumettes. While doing some research on this, I was told that this has been going on for some time now, but, for whatever reason, it is not being talked about as much as, say, muffin pan chicken was a year or so ago. If cooked properly, this could be a way of standing out on the judging table when being compared to the onslaught of the same old chicken thighs the majority of teams will put in their turn-in boxes.
As far as pit temperatures are concerned, there is a range that starts with 250°F on the low side and moving to 375°F on the high side. Most pitmasters are running somewhere in between these benchmarks, typically at the 275-325°F range. The overall cooking times varied depending on what temperature they were cooking at. I personally believe in temping the meat to make sure it is safe, but many seasoned pitmasters do it solely on time. Their familiarity with their pit and the style of cook they implement is so refined, the need for thermometers has become unnecessary. If that does not describe you, I suggest using a thermometer just to be safe.
Apple wood smoke seems to be one of the more popular species. Cherry and hickory are also popular selections on the competition trail right now.
Finishing temperatures for chicken range a bit depending on who you ask. USDA says to cook chicken to 165°F, and the majority still go in to the 160s, but Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ, the team that won the year end chicken category for KCBS in 2012, finishes at, hold your breath, 145°F internal! There is an important fact to take note of: Once the 145°F internal temp is reached, it must be held at that temperature for 10 minutes to make it safe. You actually keep the heat on it and hold it there for 10 minutes. This ensures the meat is safe from the "bugs" that might hurt you. Meathead explains this concept in his meat temperature article. I will go out on a limb and say that this will never become as vocal a trend as say the muffin pan was. But remember, if someone is winning a lot, others want to know what they are doing and will mimic that process as best they can in order to get the desired result.
Let me bottom line it for you, especially for the folks who don't compete. What you would taste on any given Saturday at a competition is nothing like you would make at home, and legions of pitmasters would agree with me. It is some kind of bastard chicken, braised in butter and sweet sauce, mashed in to a shape that isn't natural, butchered down to something 1/4 of its original size and turned-in with hopes that it doesn't offend anyone both visually and on the palate. If you are good with that, then you are well on your way to mastering the bird!