Your barbecue guide to the easiest meat to mishandle

The summer is upon us, and grills and smokers all over the DMV are heating up as well. For the series “Fired Up with Jake and John,” WTOP’s Mike Jakaitis and John Domen talk with some of the region’s best pit masters about their methods, with the goal of helping you level up your barbecue game.

This summer, we’ve talked about pork, beef, seafood and vegetables, but we haven’t done a deep dive on the meat that is easiest to screw up: poultry.

We’ve probably all had the unfortunate pleasure of eating dry, flavorless chicken at a barbecue. We’ve probably also had the pleasure to experience moist, juicy, succulent chicken.

So what’s the secret?

“Not overcooking it,” said Drew Darneille, the owner of Smoke Craft Modern BBQ, in Arlington, Virginia. “A perfectly moist chicken is really challenging.”

A good brine is one of his keys for poultry perfection.

“Water, salt, sugar, with different flavors — herbs, whatever you want to put in it,” Darneille said. “That will help retain the moisture inside the meat, so, as it cooks, it doesn’t dry out.”

Fernando Gonzalez, at 2Fifty BBQ, in Riverdale, Maryland, smokes wings, leg quarters and whole chickens at his restaurant. He is also a big proponent of brining poultry: “It avoids surprises.”

If you don’t brine your chicken, you could end up with “very good smoky flavor, but it’s dry inside.”

Gonzalez brines his chicken for at least 24 hours, smokes it at 275 degrees and doesn’t pull it off the pit until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 175 degrees — a little higher than the USDA recommendation. “Just to make sure everything is falling off the bone, really tender, really nice.”

Gonzalez said not all chicken parts are created equal.

“Whole chickens tend to be ready in three hours. Chicken wings, you can finish them in one hour, an hour-and-a-half. Chicken leg quarters, something in between (whole chicken and wings).”

Darneille has taken part in many barbecue competitions and has been invited to compete in what is widely considered the world’s most prestigious barbecue contest: the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, set for Lynchburg, Tennessee, in October.

He said he’s made one barbecue mistake that sounds counterintuitive.

“Smoke. Believe it or not, at a barbecue competition, judges don’t like smoke, especially chicken.” Some judges used to comment that his chicken was too smoky, so he made adjustments.

“It’s understanding how to use the smoke as a slight ingredient — like a salt or pepper — versus overwhelming it.”

Fired Up with Jake and John

But even with all the brines, seasonings and smoke, Darneille said there’s one important thing to remember when it comes to smoking poultry.

“Chicken, at the end of the day, is supposed to taste like chicken.”

Listen and subscribe to the “Fired Up with Jake and John” podcast on Podcast One.

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