My family loves a good barbecued chicken. As a kid in South Africa, my family all fought over the chicken necks, then the feet and then the wings. Nowadays my kids’ choices vary: one prefers breast and the other prefers the dark meat as well as the wings and the boney bits.
Chickens, along with their eggs, are so important in many different cultures. I cannot think of one cuisine where the humble yardbird does not play a role.
On our research trip for my book Temples of BBQ, we ate chicken with white sauce at its birthplace, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama. Alabama BBQ (there’s barbecue and there’s BBQ – when I say BBQ, I’m talking about the American “low and slow” style of cooking) is renowned for its white sauce, a thick, cider vinegar-spiked mayonnaise. Alabama white sauce is mainly used on chicken and it originated at Big Bob Gibson’s. The story goes, Big Bob invented the sauce and was so generous that whenever anyone asked him for the recipe, he was happy to share it. They’ve been serving white sauce chicken at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q since they first opened in 1925, and these days, white sauce is synonymous with Alabama BBQ.
Down the road in Birmingham, a lush, green city known for its stifling humidity, we visited Jim ’N Nick’s, where we enjoyed a white sauce chicken sandwich, some other BBQ meats and of course, some soulful sides. There was a touch of Carolina vinegar and a splash of the Memphis sweet and sour sauce in Jim ’N Nick’s original sauce. The chicken had been barbecued to the perfect point of succulence with a deep, earthy flavour.
And the best BBQ chicken I have ever had? I think it just might be my version of this Big Bob Gibson white sauce chicken because I finish the slow-smoked, sticky, tasty chicken on the charcoal grill. It finishes off the smoking process like a cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae.
This barbecued bird is a real crowd-pleaser. Here are my top tips, and recipe, for making top-notch BBQ chicken:
Ultimate BBQ chicken
• I like to flatten out my yardbird to ensure even cooking. No rounded edges means no pockets of dense meat that don’t cook through. I leave the breast-bone in to protect the tender breast meat.
• Cover the chicken with some of the white sauce, about a quarter of a cup, and place in the fridge for 1-3 hours. During the cooking of the chicken, the white sauce acts like a brine and helps the bird maintain its moisture. My recipes are true to their heritage, although my version of white sauce is thinner, zestier and lighter than the original. You can make the white sauce up to a week ahead of when you need it.
• Cook the chicken on your smoker skin-side down for an hour and then skin-side up for another hour. We’ll use more white sauce to baste the chicken further on, but don’t baste during these initial stages of cooking, as smoke will not penetrate a wet item. Don’t have a smoker? No problem. There are a lot of options when it comes to this style of lower temperature cooking, from top-of-the range custom offset smokers to a device called a smoke tube that for just $50 will allow you to smoke anything from meat and fish to cheese. Read my guide to all the options here.
• After the chicken has had the initial two hours, begin to baste with white sauce every half an hour. It’s important not to cross-contaminate the sauce, so tip some into a separate bowl for basting and reserve the rest of the sauce – it’s great to have some to serve with the cooked chicken, for dipping.
• Continue cooking, and basting, until the chicken is cooked. You can use a temperature probe to check the internal temperatures in the thigh (the thickest part). I aim for a minimum internal thigh temperature of 72°C and a maximum of 82°C. You can also check for doneness by piercing the thigh meat with a small sharp knife. If the juices run clear the meat is cooked.
• I like to finish my chicken to a grill over some hot coals to ensure the skin is not flabby, but this is an optional step. You could always crank up the temperature on your smoker to crisp up the finish on the skin.
• Ensure that the bird is given a rest before cutting, to allow the internal juices to settle.
• Chicken that is cooked “low and slow” will still have a pinkish tinge to the meat. This doesn't mean that the chicken is raw but is rather a result of the low-temperature cooking process.
As well as my Alabama white sauce chicken (get the full recipe here), I’ve also got two suggestions for what to serve with it.
The sides to a good barbecued chicken are just as important as the bird and I’ve chosen maple sweet potato as the accompaniment. It’s magic with roasted meats, particularly chicken, turkey and ham. There is a difference between yams and sweet potatoes; yams tend to be more starchy and drier than sweet potatoes, they can also be harder to find at the market. The addition of the maple syrup could be considered a bit “fancy” in the world of soul food, usually brown sugar and butter can fulfil all the requirements, but I love the flavour of maple with the sweet potato. It reminds me of the food of my childhood. If this all sounds too much, remember, soul food is the comfort food of the south and is made to be sweet and salty, rich and comforting. Soghum syrup (available from brewing shops) or treacle could be used instead of maple syrup.
For dessert, you can’t go past chess pie! What is it? Well, the theories abound. This is a pantry pie of note. I call it a pantry pie because all the ingredients are usually lying around ready to the mixer and get to know each other a whole lot better. And why is it called chess pie? Some say the name comes from the pantry “chest” pie, simplified to chess pie. Then again, perhaps some humble Southern Belle described her pie as “... its jest pie”, you know, jest – chess. It also puts me in mind of my beautiful daughter Jess, the great lover of all things pie: Jess pie – chess pie! It’s quite sweet (but not sickeningly so), so make this pie when you have people to share it with, lest you eat the whole thing yourself!
This is part two in our Ultimate BBQ series. Find part one, our guide to Ultimate BBQ pulled pork, here and part three, where Lance shows us how to cook delicious sticky ribs, here. For all the recipes, including sides, desserts and drinks, our guide to American BBQ and tips on smoking, head here.
Photography by Mark Roper. Styling by Vicki Valsamis. Food preparation by Lance Rosen and Merryl Batlle.
A pioneer of American BBQ in Australia, Lance Rosen is the founder of Melbourne's Big Boy BBQ restaurant, and the author of the award-winning book Temples Of BBQ ($49, hb). Buy it here and see our review here. This article was co-written by Hilary McNevin.