“Just wait until you try the chicken!” I was told several times by various people during a dreamy four-day high-end camping party hosted by dear friends at their ranch in northern New Mexico, where catch-and-release fly fishing and hiking are the daytime pastimes, while delicious feasts, with incredible wines and lively conversation, fill the evening hours. Barbecue chicken has become a tradition for the final meal and with good reason. It’s the best darn chicken I’ve ever had.
The birds were not mopped with a gloppy barbecue sauce. No, these chickens were simply cooked in what the local caterer, Tori Hurd, who prepared every meal for sixteen people for the holiday, called a barbecuer. The contraption looked similar to a smoker grill I found online, but it was much larger. The barbecue cooker was custom-made in Texas for a co-owner of the ranch from a section of oil pipe—the steel pipe used in pipelines—and jury-rigged so that it looked like a giant enclosed barrel hoisted on legs, which allowed it to rest on its side. Cut into half of the top side was a door, giving access to the sliding rack inside. Two tall chimneys perched on top. It was an impressive piece of equipment.
Because of Gourmet Live’s current issue on grilling, I grilled Hurd to find out exactly how she produced such marvelous birds. “I stress out more about these chickens than anything else during these trips,” she admitted. No one would have known; she was the epitome of calm.
Hurd halved eight chickens—halves work the best, she said—and marinated them in a mixture of buttermilk and sliced lemons for about three hours. Meanwhile, she built a fire with a big pile of scrub oak (a.k.a. gambrel oak, a shrub-like oak that grows among the pines and aspen on the ranch) in one half of the barbecue unit, then let it burn down for an hour to get the coals to the right point.
I watched as she arranged the drained chickens, skin-side up, on the rack, and with a long metal poker, pushed the rack away from the coals over to the other half of the unit, before closing the door, so that the chickens slowly cooked and smoked over indirect heat for one hour. In a well-rehearsed dance based on years of experience, Hurd opened and closed the vents and the chimneys during that hour to keep the coals at a slow burn without inundating the chickens with so much smoke that they’d taste like the ashes from the nearby fire pit, where the cocktails were being served.
“It’s better not to peak, but its hard not to,” said Hurd, and about halfway through, she did peak, and decided to switch the chickens closest to the coals with the ones farthest away. When they were done, the skin was taut and burnished to the most beautiful shade of copper-brown, without a trace of burnt char.
Even though a whole half-chicken used to be a serving, quarters have worked better in recent years, so that guests can choose between a breast quarter (white meat) or a whole leg (dark meat). My leg quarter was exquisite. Beneath the still-crisp skin, the flesh was moist and tender, with a discernable hint of wood smoke. It was everything I’ve always wanted in a barbecue chicken. Call it perfection.