Smoked chicken. Hot, juicy, and tender. Comfort food with a southern twang, perfect on long summer nights as the sun goes down.
For some, smoking meat is more than just cooking food. It’s an art form, learned through years of barbecuing in the backyard. Hours are spent preparing, cooking, and crafting a succulent slice with that unmistakable smokey flavor. It takes time, patience, and a few secret ingredients.
For newcomers to the meat-smoking scene, the options are endless, and can be overwhelming. Charcoal or wood? Dry rub or brine? Paprika or chilli? So many questions, all in the pursuit of delicious chicken. To save time and stress, I have done the hard work for you! Here you’ll find some of the best tricks of the trade to smoke your perfect chicken:
Okay folks, let’s start with the tools. It goes without saying that authentic smoked chicken cannot be achieved without a smoker. So let’s add that to the top of the list.
The Cookin’ Cousins, a group of barbecue experts and founders of The Greatest Barbecue Recipes, use a vertical wet pan smoker for backyard smoking. The Epicurious site uses a kettle grill with a chimney starter for their recipe, while Jeff Phillips from Smoking Meat recommends a wood-fired smoker.
As with most things in life, the choice comes down to personal preference. Or whatever is available. I’m going to follow Cookin’ Cousins, so I’ll be using a vertical smoker for my chicken.
Once you get your smoker, the next tool on the list is a probe thermometer for testing the temperature of the meat. As Smoking Meat’s Jeff Phillips states, “successful smoking of a chicken lies in not overcooking the chicken.” Also, heavy duty fire gloves and long, strong tongs (say that five times fast) are smart tools to include in your kit.
Chicken is rated as one of the easiest meats to smoke and the quality of the meat is super important for achieving juicy, cooked chicken. Fresh is best (rather than frozen), and for even better results, go for free range. After all, happy birds make tasty meat. The best size is 3 to 5 pounds and the chicken should be patted dry before the rub is applied.
To Brine or Not to Brine, That Is the Question
The big question in the world of chicken smoking: to brine or not to brine your meat? Again, it comes down to personal taste as brining will result in a saltier chicken. Brining involves submerging the bird in a liquid mixture for several hours before cooking. It allows salts, herbs and spices to be absorbed by the meat, like marinating.
You can even marinate or brine your bird in a vacuum sealer.
The Cookin’ Cousins don’t brine their chicken, they go straight for the dry rub. Epicurious advises one or the other, definitely not both brining and dry rub. However, Jeff Phillips does just that—he brines the chicken, and uses a dry rub afterwards.
Anyways, for all you crazy cats out there that want to venture into brining territory, here is Jeff Phillips’ technique:
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup coarse kosher salt
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
To finish, add any other ingredients you fancy. Herbs, spices, wine, fruit juice… go for it. Bring mixture a boil, then let it cool. Place the chicken in the mixture and refrigerate for four hours. Rinse off with water and pat dry.
Spices are key for achieving that smoked chicken goodness. But where to start? There is a whole world of dry rub recipes out there, all claiming to be the best. One thing they have in common though is a combination of dark brown sugar, kosher salt, ground black pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Optional extras include espresso beans, onion powder, ground coriander, ground cumin, chilli powder, and sweet Hungarian paprika.
The classic recipe by Cookin’ Cousins promises mouth watering flavor. That’s good enough for me, so here it is:
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup sweet paprika (Hungarian if possible)
- 3 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tbsp freshly ground pepper
- 1 tbsp garlic powder or 2 tbsp granulated (not garlic salt)
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp chili powder
- 1 tbsp cayenne powder
Mix all the ingredients together and generously apply all over the fresh chicken. This can be done 1 to 3 days before, but at least a couple of hours before smoking.
Now that everything is prepared, it’s time to cook that bird! Fire up your smoker to about 235°F (113°C). Aim to keep a steady temperature by keeping the top vent open and regularly checking the built-in thermometer. Place that rubbed (or brined) (or both) chicken in the smoker and cook for around four hours, turning the meat after two hours.
Try not to peek too much during the cooking process to keep the heat and smoke in. Before serving, stick the probe thermometer in the thickest part of the meat to make sure it’s fully cooked at 160°F (71°C). Let it rest for 10 minutes before indulging in your juicy, succulent, perfectly smoked chicken. Finally, sit back, relax, and enjoy good times with good friends and great chicken.