Recipe Review

I Cooked BBQ Chicken 6 Different Ways and the Clear Winner Is Unbelievably Juicy (No Other Compares)

published Jun 6, 2024
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overhead shot of six different BBQ chicken recipes labeled on a marble surface.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Barbecue chicken is a summertime favorite, with its irresistible sticky-messy, eat-with-your-hands appeal. It’s a guaranteed people-pleaser at July 4th celebrations, block parties, family reunions, or everyday dinners. You simply can’t go wrong with a platter of BBQ chicken alongside potato salad, coleslaw, and corn on the cob.

For this, we’re talking about barbecue (not barbecued) chicken, which means chicken with BBQ flavor — not necessarily chicken that’s been slow cooked on a grill or smoker. Sure, it could be cooked on a grill, but it can also be done in an oven.

To find out which recipes offer the best barbecue flavor, coupled with cooking methods that ensure tender, juicy meat, I set out to test six highly rated recipes. I am delighted to report that every single one is a keeper (they were all quite good). Although you’d be well-served with any of these recipes, one of them definitely rose above the rest as the clear winner. 

Quick Overview

So, What’s the Best BBQ Chicken Recipe?

Ina Garten’s BBQ chicken is phenomenally good. With its well-balanced sauce, rich smoky-charred flavor, juicy, tender meat, and crisp skin, it stood apart from the crowd.

Meet Our 6 BBQ Chicken Contenders

We scoured the internet for popular recipes from a variety of beloved sources — from chefs to home cooks — with different approaches to achieving delicious barbecue flavor. Half of the recipes were cooked in the oven and half on an outdoor grill. Most used bone-in chicken, while one called for boneless, skinless thighs. Almost all recipes started with a homemade sauce (typically ketchup-based), but one opted for gussied-up store-bought sauce.

  • Marcus Samuelsson: This recipe is the only one of the bunch that calls for boneless, skinless chicken. It leans on berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend, for the dry rub that goes on the chicken thighs and the sauce that’s slathered on during grilling.
  • Tyler Florence: This recipe starts with brined leg quarters and then employs the unique approach of starting them on the grill and finishing them in the oven with a homemade sauce.
  • The Pioneer Woman: The easiest recipe of the bunch, this one calls for “your favorite BBQ sauce,” which you embellish with a few extra ingredients. Bone-in chicken thighs are baked and basted with the sauce repeatedly during the cooking process.
  • Ina Garten: The recipe calls for two whole chickens, which you quarter and marinate in a homemade sauce. You then grill the bone-in pieces and brush occasionally with more sauce.
  • Millie Peartree: The homemade sauce for these baked leg quarters uses mostly traditional BBQ sauce ingredients (vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, spices) but takes a unique turn with the inclusion of dried hibiscus flowers.
  • Trisha Yearwood: For this recipe, a quick homemade sauce gets poured over bone-in thighs and drumsticks, which are baked covered, then uncovered, until the chicken is cooked through and browned. 

How I Tested the BBQ Chicken Recipes

  • I spread out the testing. I had to prepare the recipes in three separate rounds, cooking one baked and one grilled recipe per round.
  • I tasted each recipe at least twice. I enjoyed the chicken right after cooking it, while it was still hot and fresh, and again as leftovers (both cold [which was surprisingly delicious] and reheated) — just so I could revisit the flavors. Each recipe included enough sauce for basting and serving on the side, and I made sure to taste the sauce separate from the chicken as well.
  • I used the same brand of common ingredients. Most notably, those included ketchup (Heinz), cider vinegar (Bragg’s), and brown sugar (Domino). As for the chicken, I used Publix store-branded cuts.
  • I cooked using the same equipment. For the baked chicken recipes, I used the same oven, with the oven rack placed in the center (with one exception, noted below). For the grilled recipes, I used an outdoor charcoal grill with lump hardwood charcoal.

Why You Should Trust Me as a Tester 

I have spent the last 25 years in food media — 20 as a magazine editor, five as a freelance recipe developer and food writer. Over the course of my career, I have written, tested, and developed literally thousands of recipes. I know how to evaluate a recipe for flavor, texture, and clarity and success (or failure) of the process.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

1. The Sticky-Sweet Standard: Tyler Florence’s The Ultimate Barbecued Chicken

Overall rating: 7/10
Get the recipe: Tyler Florence’s The Ultimate Barbecued Chicken

This recipe starts by brining chicken leg quarters in a simplified wet brine for a couple of hours. While the meat soaks, you make a thick, sweet barbecue sauce with sautéed onion and garlic, ketchup, brown sugar, molasses, vinegar, and spices. You’ll then remove the chicken from the brine, pat it dry, and grill it just until there are some good grill marks. Then the chicken goes in the oven, where you’ll cook it for a bit, baste it with sauce, and continue cooking until done. 

It delivers sticky-sweet leg quarters that are perfectly cooked and juicy, with a bit of char flavor from the brief time on the grill. The sauce is quite thick and splatters on the stovetop as it simmers, so it’s a bit messy to make. The flavor of the sauce was a bit too sweet, giving a baked beans vibe. I’ll likely make the recipe again, as I loved the grill-oven approach (char flavor from the grill combined with the steady and easy-to-control heat from the oven); I’ll just eliminate the brown sugar and go with molasses only in the sauce.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

2. The Crowd-Pleaser: Trisha Yearwood’s Oven BBQ Chicken

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

3. The Easiest Option: The Pioneer Woman’s Oven BBQ Chicken

Overall rating: 7.5/10
Get the recipe: The Pioneer Woman’s Oven BBQ Chicken

The first ingredient in this recipe is “your favorite BBQ sauce,” and I used a local-to-me favorite from Dreamland Bar-B-Que. You simmer it with peach preserves and grated fresh garlic, and that’s your sauce. For this recipe, you’re working with 12 bone-in thighs, which you’re instructed to arrange on two sheet pans — so I arranged one oven rack in the top third of the oven and the other in the lower third. You bake the chicken, skin-side down, until it’s almost done, then flip it over and start basting with sauce every few minutes until the chicken is done and the skin starts to brown. 

Spreading the chicken out over 2 pans is a smart move: It allows more of the chicken juices to evaporate as the meat cooks, so that the skin ends up almost crisp even after being repeatedly basted with sauce. The flavor is totally dependent on your choice of store-bought sauce. Because I knew I’d be adding peach preserves, I went with a brand that I knew was less sweet to begin with. (If you’d also like to go less sweet but don’t know what brand to choose, look for one with the least amount of added sugar on the nutrition facts panel.) The meat itself is wonderfully moist, and the recipe is dead-simple (although it does require you to be on hand for basting duties).

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

4. The Tart and Tingly Knockout: Millie Peartree’s Baked Chicken with Hibiscus BBQ Sauce 

Overall rating: 8/10
Get the recipe: Millie Peartree’s Baked Chicken with Hibiscus BBQ Sauce

As noted above, the homemade sauce for this recipe is comprised of mostly classic ingredients — except for the star component, dried hibiscus flowers. I’ve made many batches of margaritas with this ingredient (which I typically get from a local Latin foods market), so I was familiar with its tangy flavor and stunning magenta color. True to form, it lent both elements to this sauce. The sauce also included a full 1 1/2 teaspoons each of red pepper flakes and cayenne pepper, plus a pierced whole habanero chile. I was worried about the heat level, but put my trust in the recipe; I’m glad I did.

The sauce did not taste as spicy as I thought it might, but it definitely had a medium-hot kick. The flavor was tangy and not too sweet, with that lovely bit of fruity heat from the habanero along with the more “hot” heat from the dried pepper elements to complement the hibiscus notes. The sauce gets brushed onto seasoned chicken leg quarters that bake almost completely without sauce (it goes on just for the last 5 minutes or so). As a result, the sauce sort of sits on top and doesn’t feel quite as one with the chicken. But wow, that flavor! I loved the sauce so much that not only did I dip bites of chicken into it, but I also drizzled a hefty amount onto steamed rice so I could enjoy even more.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

5. The Biggest, Boldest Flavored Chicken: Marcus Samuelsson’s BBQ Chicken with Coleslaw & Rice 

Overall rating: 8.5/10
Get the recipe: Marcus Samuelsson’s BBQ Chicken with Coleslaw & Rice

I only made the chicken component from this recipe; I skipped the coleslaw and rice. This recipe begins by coating boneless, skinless chicken thighs with an intense spice paste that prominently features the Ethiopian spice blend berbere. While the chicken sits in that marinade for an hour, you make the sauce with sautéed onions, ginger, and garlic; honey and brown sugar; chopped tomatoes; ketchup; more berbere; brewed coffee; water; and herbs. You then grill the thighs, basting both sides with the sauce.

First off, this recipe is flat-out delicious. However, the recipe requires some on-the-fly judgment calls. It lists 2 cups of olive oil for sautéing onions, ginger, and garlic for the sauce. That sounded like a lot, so I started with 1 cup — and that was still too much to allow for the caramelization that was supposed to happen. So I ditched the ingredients and started over with a 1/2 cup of oil (using the amount called for in Ina Garten’s recipe below as a guide), which seemed right. Next, the ingredient list included a mere 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce, which seemed odd, and I wondered if tomato paste was the intended ingredient. Sure enough, tomato paste (not sauce) was called for in the instructions, and luckily I had some on hand and used it instead of tomato sauce. Also, you add 4 cups of liquid (3 cups of water and a cup of brewed coffee) and then cook the sauce down for an hour so that it’s reduced by half. I understand the flavor development that happens when you cook a sauce down, but why not start with a bit less liquid and cook for a little less time? All in all, it had the feeling of a large-scale recipe that didn’t quite translate when scaled down for the home cook. 

But the flavor, oh my, was outstanding. Berbere brought a big, bold, intense flavor to the chicken and the sauce — a mixture of spicy heat and heady, earthy spice that was rounded out by the sweetness of the ketchup and brown sugar. Even though it was the sole recipe to call for boneless, skinless chicken, the thighs remained juicy inside, with a crisp, seared crust on the outside. The chicken picked up crusty bits where the spice paste and sauce charred on the grill, and the flavor was divine. I would 100% make this recipe again, as long as I make some adjustments. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

6. Simply the Best BBQ Chicken: Ina Garten’s Barbecued Chicken

Overall rating: 10/10
Get the recipe: Ina Garten’s Barbecued Chicken

This recipe calls for quartering two whole chickens and removing their backbones, which is pretty easy to do (you can Google how to do so if you’ve never done it before). You marinate the chicken quarters in a homemade barbecue sauce that sets itself apart in several ways. First, it was the only one that didn’t use ketchup. It did, however, use an entire cup each of tomato paste, cider vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, and hoisin sauce; and it also called for a 1/2 cup each of Worcestershire and soy sauce, plus an ample amount of chili powder, cumin, and pepper flakes. After the chicken marinates for a few hours or up to overnight (I went with the latter), you grill it for about 45 minutes, turning only once or twice and basting occasionally with the marinade.

This recipe gave me everything I could ever want from BBQ chicken. The sauce was beautifully balanced — rich, thick, tangy, complex, a bit spicy, and not too sweet. And it felt fully integrated with the chicken (the marinating time helped the flavors infuse into the meat and skin). The meat stayed juicy and cooked to perfect tenderness on the grill, and the sauce gained lovely bits of char from the fire. The skin was mostly crisp, which was a tasty surprise. 

One thing to note: The ingredients for the sauce do add up and might seem pricey, but the delicious results are absolutely worth it. It does make a lot of sauce, and you can likely get by with a half-batch if you want to scale back. When I served this recipe to my family, everyone ate in silence, eating all the skin and meat, and licking every luscious bit of sauce from their fingers — so much so, that every bone was picked clean. Even cold leftovers tasted phenomenally good the next day, straight from the fridge.