For rich and flavorful BBQ chicken, without sauce, try a dry rub! This Tennessee-inspired recipe for Memphis style barbecue chicken can be made with thighs, drumsticks, or chicken breast.
Memphis barbecue is the result of a delicious crossroads of barbecue flavors. Southeast of Memphis, you have Alabama style barbecue with its distinct white barbecue sauce. To the east, you have Carolina style, which in itself includes a variety of sauces depending on what side of Tobacco Road or Charlotte you are on. To the northwest, you have St. Louis and Kansas City style barbecues, where differences exist in the cuts of ribs, sauces, and smoking.
Like Alabama, Memphis style barbecue includes chicken. However, Memphis is distinct in its barbecue style in that its chicken does not require a sauce. Such distinction grabbed my attention.
How does chicken stay moist, flavorful, and sufficiently cooked on a barbecue grill? The answer lies in the technique. Memphis style barbecue comes in both “wet” (with barbecue sauce) and “dry” (without barbecue sauce) styles, where dry relies on a sugar-based rub for flavor. The rub not only provides the seasonings for the meat but when cooked the sugar caramelizes to form a layer of bark around the chicken that locks in the moisture.
Tips for perfect barbecue chicken
There are a few common characteristics between Memphis and other regional styles of barbecue to consider. Most importantly, indirect heat is crucial in ensuring even cooking. Direct heat will cause the meat to finish cooking on the outside but remain undercooked in its center. This is okay for beef, but will likely result in food poisoning for chicken.
The second consideration is the type of wood to use for the smoke. For Memphis style chicken, hickory is the preferred type of wood for infusing smoke. If you are unable to find hickory, pecan wood also works.
Lastly, do not skimp on the preparation time. For this recipe, it is ideal to let the dry rub work its magic on the chicken in the refrigerator the night prior.
When I make this recipe, I usually use chicken thighs over chicken breasts. Chicken thighs offer me the best combination of flavor and value. If you prefer chicken breast or drumsticks, though, go for it! I just wouldn’t recommend wings. If you’re looking for a good wing recipe for the grill, try this one.
Since this is barbecue and not grilling, do not flip your chicken during cooking or expect to have grill marks.
I have seen other dry rub chicken recipes where grill marks are prominently shown, but the crust is also perfect. But here’s the thing, without artificially adding grill marks after cooking, there’s no way to get perfect grill marks *and* perfectly coated dry-rubbed chicken. The sugar-based rub will fall and get patchy if you flip. As you cook the chicken, the sugar in the rub will melt and create a delicious crust on the chicken. If you flip the chicken, the skin will peel off as the sugar fuses the chicken and the grates. Instead, pay more attention to your grill and meat temperature, and let the colors of the dry rub create a work of art as you barbecue.
Thank you, Memphis, and enjoy!
- 4 chicken thighs (see notes)
- 2.5 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 2 teaspoons ground chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Disposable aluminum pan
- Hickory or Pecan wood chips
- The night prior, mix all dry rub ingredients in a bowl until it appears uniform. Apply the rub to the chicken thighs and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight.
- An hour prior to barbecuing, soak the wood chips in water in the aluminum pan.
- Prepare the grill by dividing the charcoal into two piles on the sides of the charcoal tray, leaving enough room in the center for the aluminum pan to fit.
- Set the grill temperature between 300 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Add charcoal or restrict airflow through the grill as needed.
- Set the chicken thighs on the center of the grill, directly on top of the aluminum pan. Cook for at least 45 minutes, or when the internal meat temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Remove the chicken thighs from the grill, and allow them to rest for at least five minutes before serving.
- If you'd prefer not to use thighs, you can use drumsticks or chicken breasts. If using chicken breast, you'll get the best results buying bone-in, skin on. The skin gives the rub a way to "stick" and the bone provides structure and flavor during cooking.
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