First of all, there is no requirement that the skin of any chicken entered in a KCBS contest has to be tender enough to be bitten through. This is a trend in preparation, not a cooking requirement for tenderness judging. The trend arose, I think, out of many cooks’ desire to make the tasting experience as positive as possible for the judge. The only KCBS requirement directed at judging is that the skin should be tasted if it is included in the entry (skin is optional, but most often there). Other KCBS requirements for chicken exist, but relate to doneness and are not focused on the treatment of the skin in either cooking or judging.
That being said, much effort is expended to produce that much desired “bite-through” experience and the process has seen an evolution over the last few years. Herein I will deal with the classical method of producing such skin and also present two workable variations that will also produce tender skin.
The Classic Method
Not that long ago, it was common to see what might easily be called “grilled” chicken in KCBS presentation boxes. Most often thighs, the chicken was prepared over relatively high heat and the skin received special attention in the process to make it crisp, resulting in a texture that was both pleasing and easy to bite through. Frequently, cooks used extra care to create attractive grill marks on the skin while at the same time avoiding creating any general charring of the piece. Charred pieces generally do not do well in appearance judging.
This approach has fallen from favor in recent years, and now it is unusual to see chicken with grill marks or even with crisp skin. I think the reason is that it took one more “dedicated” cooker to make it this way (usually a charcoal grill) and managing the temperature and grid placement required a lot of practice (and maybe even some luck) to repeat consistently. Cooks looked for a way to make chicken skin tender on their main cooking apparatus (most often a smoker of some kind, not a grill) and at the temperatures they usually maintained for smoking. So . . .
Skin Scrape Method
Removing the skin from the chicken pieces (again mostly thighs) and scraping it carefully until it is paper-thin developed as a method that would produce bite-through tenderness. Sometimes, you will see this method carried to such a level that the skin has almost disappeared it is so transparent!
This method is labor intensive. The cook must carefully remove the skin in one piece, then “adjust” the sizing of it to any trimming done to the meat and bone structure. Further, getting the skin to adhere to the piece again, once removed, can be a problem. I’ve been told that small dabs of butter or margarine work, along with some re-application of rub, sauce, and even honey.
The cooking of skin-scraped chicken pieces is most often done at smoking temperatures (usually mid 200’s) and there are lots of recipe approaches concerning timing, rubs and saucing. Basically, removing the fat layer under the skin creates only a minimal amount of skin to cook and the result is tenderness by default. However, as the old saying goes, “fat is flavor” and to both retain some of that desired fat taste and to even further reduce the amount of preparation labor, yet another (and I think the currently most popular method) has evolved . . .
The brands most often used by cooks I’ve talked to are I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and Parkay. The desired product is the “squeeze” semi-liquid variety, not the spray. In this approach, the cook continues to use his or her favorite method of trimming along with their usual rubs and sauces. The major difference is the cook timing and method plus using the margarine to create skin tenderness.
Although I’ve heard of many approaches, I’d say it is most typical that a cook would apply two or three relatively thick and wide “strips” of the squeeze margarine to the pieces (once again, thighs are most common) across the skin side following the application of the rub. The chicken is then cooked “open” (meaning uncovered, but often in an aluminum pan) for about half the total cook time, then covered for the remaining half. This works well with thighs, especially, since they stand up well to extended cook times.
Standard smoking temperatures (mid 200’s) allow the chicken to be cooked right along with the other meats instead of on another device. Another plus is that pieces can and should be trimmed skin-on so re-fitting isn’t necessary. Finishing involves only touching up any spotting with fresh rub, and then saucing is most often done by dipping the pieces in heated sauce or glaze.
What is it about the margarine that works? I don’t know. I’ve heard of butter being used, but margarine is the most often applied product. Similarly, I’ve tried using the spray versions of some margarines, but the results were not as consistent as the wide, thick strips of semi-gel margarine.
Any of these three common approaches requires testing, adaptation, and practice. Competitors are ill advised to just go out and “do one” in a contest situation. As has often been stated, pits and cooks differ in abilities!