In the long list of meats that can be smoked, chicken is maybe not the most forgiving for a beginner, but it does result in a fabulously juicy, flavorful end product that can be stored for a bit longer than your average roasted chicken. The skin tends to get a bit tough, but this forms a protective barrier that helps seal juices into the meat itself. The smell is also wonderful. It’s rich, savory, and smoky, but not as heavily meaty as pork or beef. This is a more intermediate to advanced bit of cooking, and may take a little practice to get right, but the results are worth it.
Before I get down to the details of actually smoking the chickens, let’s discuss prep a bit. This post does include a recipe for a basic smoked chicken, and sometimes simplicity is best, but there is a lot of room for experimentation in the details.
There are multiple ways to prep the chicken, and most of it comes down to personal preference. The birds pictured in this post have been spatchcocked (also known as butterflied). You can also plop them in the smoker with giblets removed and nothing else done to them. Why did I spatchcock these? I find they cook more evenly and the meat itself, not just the skin, seems to end up with more smoke flavor when I prepare them this way. Plus, I can reserve the backbone for making stock or bone broth later. You can also cut your bird into halves or quarter them. Anything smaller than that, or anything de-boned, may not smoke up right when following this guide.
Next, brine or dry rub the bird. I strongly recommend using a brine. This will require starting prep a minimum of 4 extra hours before you’re planning to start smoking them, preferably 6-8 hours, but it will dramatically improve the flavor of your end result. It simply requires more planning. You will need about 2 quarts of brine per whole chicken. I will break down the how and why of a good brine in another post, but the short, simplified version is that you mix salt, sugar, water, and the spices of your choice, submerge the bird in this mixture (the brine), and let it sit covered in the refrigerator.
In absence of a brine, you can also apply a dry rub to your bird shortly before sticking it in the smoker. This can be plain salt and pepper, or any imaginable combination of other spices that floats your particular boat. Dry rubbing is done by mixing your spices together and sprinkling them over the skin of the bird. After that, you gently rubbing them until they’re well adhered.
After butchering or not, and seasoning the chicken, it’s time to smoke it. There are so many types of smokers out there. I’ve had the pleasure of playing around with a built in barbecue pit, a traditional smokehouse, and a couple of DIY smokers over the years, but most of my experience is on a relatively cheap offset smoker.
Offset smokers are the kind of grill and smoker combo you’ll most typically see at your local hardware store. Offsets generally not ideal. Every pit master I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing is probably about to disown me for saying this, but when you learn your way around the one you’re working with they can give great results too. The recipe below lays out how I use mine, but each one will have their own quirks. Once you use it enough to find the best ways to adjust temperature, hold it steady, and keep the fuel burning as slow as possible, you’ll be golden.
Last, but certainly not least, before you put your birds in to start smoking, you need a source of heat and a source of smoke. There are a few options here. Some people prefer to smoke meat using only wood for both heat and smoke. Others use chunks or chips over another heat source. I personally like a mix of the two. My preferred method is to use charcoal for heat, with a log or some branches from the wood I want to flavor my smoke tossed onto of the hot coals. I like pecan, apple, and hickory for flavor. I also recently experimented with peach wood, and that was really tasty.
Basic Smoked Chicken
- 1 whole chicken (3-5 lbs.)
- 1 whole bay leaf
- 4 tbsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 8 cups water
Prep chicken by butterflying it. Use kitchen scissors to remove spine, cutting carefully along each side of if, then flip and apply pressure on breastbone until you hear a pop and chicken lays flat.
Place whole chicken in gallon sized ziploc bag. You may need a two gallon sized bag if your chicken is on the large side.
Add salt, sugar, and half of water (4 cups) to a sauce pan. Stir over medium heat until salt and sugar are dissolved.
Add remaining water and spices (bay and peppercorns) to mixture to make the brine.
Pour brine into bag with the prepared chicken and refrigerate for 4-8 hours. Overnight is great.
After chicken has been brined, start the smoker. Add roughly 5 pounds of charcoal briquettes, letting them burn until the temperature inside the smoker is approximately 210F. At this point, add a small log or a handful of chunks of the wood you intend to smoke your chicken with (I'd recommend apple wood) on top of the coals. Close up the smoker, allowing a small amount of airflow through the ventilation slits on the side of the smoke box.
Keep an eye on temperature, but avoid opening the smoker as it cooks. About once per hour, add a few more coal briquettes, and another log or handful of wood chunks. Keep temperate steady at 210F as best you can. Some fluctuation (within 10F each way) is expected.
Allow chicken to smoke for roughly 4 hours, until internal temperature of the meat is 165F. While this should take about 4 hours, cook to temperature, not time for a better result.
When meat has reached 165F in the thighs and breast, remove the chicken from the smoker and allow it to rest for another hour. Placing it in a large cooler to rest will insulate it, keep it a bit warm for when you're ready to serve it, and also protect it from bugs and others who may be seeking a little sample of your handiwork.