Ever since I tried smoked chicken as a kid, it’s been my number one favorite meat. There is something about the chicken meat texture when it’s smoked low and slow that I enjoy immensely. The smoky flavor is to die for. Chicken meat is healthier than other meats too, and it’s very easy to prepare. When I got my first grill (a secondhand Weber Kettle grill) the first thing I did was to teach myself how to smoke chicken on it. It was a success, with room for improvement, and led to countless experiments and experiences that I summarized here.
Smoking chicken, whether whole or parts, is very easy. The process boils down to these four simple steps:
- Brine the meat
- Preheat the grill or the smoker to 225F (can be higher or lower as I will point out later) and start the smoke going
- Place the chicken over indirect heat and smoke until the internal temperature of 165F is achieved
- Rest for 5 minutes and serve
Simple enough, right? It can be, provided you have the right equipment or know a trick or two to use whatever equipment you have to get the desired results.
Virtually any smoker or grill is perfectly acceptable for smoking chicken. Some are better than others, but, with some skill and luck, any is capable of producing a very decent product.
I’ve been smoking chicken for many years. As I mentioned above, my first smoker was a Weber Kettle Charcoal grill. The next smoker I got was the vertical Masterbuilt 40-inch propane smoker. Last year I added a large Big Green Egg which I now use for smoking chicken and many other meats.
To use the Weber Kettle 22-inch Charcoal Grill you will need to slightly modify the way use your Weber or buy an accessory called Smokenator 1000 to make things simpler. Basically, you need to create two zones on your grill, one is with direct heat and the other one is with indirect heat. The chicken would then be placed in the indirect heat zone for smoking. To prevent the meat from drying out it’s advisable to place a water pan inside the grill to keep the humidity up. The Smokenator has a little water tray built in for that.
My biggest challenge with with the Weber grill was maintaining the needed temperature. When I would lift the lid even for a short while the temperature would shoot up and it would be very difficult to bring it down. Try to avoid lifting the lid as much as you can. This means your charcoal and wood chunks need to be sufficient and set up correctly to produce continuous smoke for the desired period of time. There is no magic rule there, just a little bit of trial and error. After a few attempts I was able to smoke chicken like a pro. This grill is also poorly insulated, so it would work really well on normal days, but not so well during very hot or very cold and windy days, so keep that in mind. Space wise this grill is not bad, but sometimes I wished I had more space. You can do 1-2 chickens at a time, but beyond that it’s a challenge.
The Masterbuilt 40-inch propane smoker gave me a lot more control over temperature, better insulation and the ability to smoke at any weather. The 40-inch size is big enough to smoke 6 whole chickens quite comfortably. Or you can do whole chickens, breasts and wings at the same time. No problem. Some people say that charcoal smokers give the meat much better flavor than propane or electric. I am sure some people can tell charcoal smoked chicken from propane smoked. But let me tell you this -I once smoked two chickens on the Weber and 2 chickens on the Masterbuilt. Cut them into pieces and served to a group of guests. No one noticed/said a thing.
If you do decide to get, or own a propane smoker, and want to use it all year round without issues, even on the coldest days, insulate the outside of the smoker with Reflectix. I did this with my Masterbuilt and was quite surprised by the results. Wrap some leftover Reflectix cut offs around the smoker legs and it will give you good protection from wind too.
Another useful thing to consider for your propane smoker is getting a needle valve, like the Bayou Classic Brass Control Valve, or a pre-made gas assembly, like the Bayou Classic M5HPR-1 10 PSI Hose, Regulator, Valve Assembly if you are not comfortable installing the needle valve yourself. This will allow for much more precise temperature control, especially during hot summer weather. You need to make sure that the regulator on the assembly you are buying matches the specs of your burner. Needle Valves for Gassers has some insightful information on this topic.
Big Green Egg Grill/Smoker
Big Green Egg is an almost perfect smoker as far as I am concerned. It’s excellent at maintaining temperature even during very hot or very cold days. My only quibble with this grill/smoker is the rack space. I can comfortably smoke 2-3 whole chickens at a time on my Large BGE, which satisfies my needs most of the time. Stuffing more than 3 chickens at a time results in some parts being exposed to direct heat and getting overcooked.
When using a Big Green Egg grill all you need to do is use a plate setter accessory to shield the meat from direct fire and create indirect heat. To make sure it is easier for me to control the temperature I place an inverted stainless steel bowl with pre-cut holes in the center of the fire pit and snake the charcoal and wood chips around it. This way only a small amount of coals is ignited, which makes it much easier to control the temperature and have the fire run for longer.
When using an electric smoker (my buddy got this electric smoker a couple of years ago a swears by it) things are much easier, and no modifications/tricks are really necessary. Although, you may want to use Reflectix to insulate it if you will be using it during cold days.
The smoke generators
To smoke the chicken you will naturally needs smoke. I find it the easiest to generate good smoke on a charcoal grill/smoker. All you have to do is throw a few chunks of your favorite wood on top of the charcoal and they will generate perfect smoke as the charcoal is burning. Some sources recommend soaking the wood in water to get good smoke and prevent the wood from quickly burning out. That has not been my experience and I found practically no difference between wet and dry wood. But, feel free to experiment.
As you can see on the picture below, I don’t have any wood chunks toward the beginning and the end of the charcoal strip. There is a reason for that. I want to hold off the smoke at the beginning to let the chicken skin/surface to dry first. That way it will take on smoke better and acquire better color. I also don’t want the chicken to take on too much smoke, so I limit the smoke time to about two hours or so, while the overall cooking time for a whole chicken would be about 3 – 3.5 hours in my experience.
To generate smoke in my vertical gas smoker I like using the A-MAZE-N Smoker filled with cherry wood pellets or sawdust. I like pellets better though as they are easier to the smoke going with and they generate more smoke. The A-MAZE-N Smoker is also perfect for electric and horizontal gas smokers.
A Stainless Steel Smoker Box is a good alternative to the A-MAZE-N Smoker if you use a gasser. This will not work with an electric smoker. I like the fact that I can use wood chips/chunks with it, and can get a lot more smoke generated that from the A-MAZE-N Smoker.
A friend of mine uses a fairly expensive Smoke Daddy Smoke Generator with his electric smoker. He likes it, it’s very easy to use, but he wishes it generated more smoke. I am not sure if that is the issue specifically with his unit or generally with these types of smoke generators.
Tip: there is a notion of ‘thin blue’ smoke as the ‘correct’ smoke being perpetuated on various forums and blogs. This can’t be farther from the truth. After dozens of failed attempts to get ‘thin blue’ smoke at lower temperatures (I can easily get it at high smoking temperatures though) I spoke to several experts and their advise is as follows: ‘if the smoke smells good, it’s a good smoke for smoking food’.
A reliable dual probe BBQ thermometer is an absolute must, in my opinion. You may have a built-in thermometer in your smoker that has been calibrated and is accurate. It’s great, but it will likely located quite far away from the grate/rack and will be showing an incorrect temperature. For example, my BGE’s thermometer is located near the top of the dome, and always shows reads about 25F higher than the temperature at the grate.
The second probe will be inserted into the meat. That way you don’t have to open the smoker periodically to check the temperature of your chicken and disturb the temperature in the smoker.
I’ve use many BBQ thermometers over the years, some are better, some are worse. In the end I splurged on a fairly expensive ThermoWorks K Type Thermocouple BBQ thermometer with two very durable high heat probes. I’ve had it for 2.5 years or so and it’s still working like new. Definitely worth buying if you do a lot of BBQ-ing and smoking.
Of the less expensive BBQ thermometers, I’ve use the Maverick ET-732 and Maverick ET-733 BBQ thermometers and liked them a lot, other than their probes tend to burn out quickly if you are not too careful with them and expose them to very high heat and direct flames. Another good BBQ thermometer that is very popular right now is the ThermoPro TP08.
Brining Chicken Meat
Brining, or soaking in salted water, is essential if you want to smoke chicken. It lets the chicken meat stay moist and juicy. Brine also includes vegetables and spices to add complex flavor to the meat, which penetrates the chicken all the way through. Check out my How To Brine Chicken article for more information and the chicken brine recipe.
There are, of course, exceptions. I don’t brine chicken breasts, but I have a good reason for it. I will discuss this further in this post.
Smoking whole chicken and parts
You can smoke chicken whole or parts. My personal favorites are whole chickens, chicken wings and chicken breasts, although chicken thighs and chicken legs can be smoked just as easily and with great results.
Whole chicken is cheaper so it makes sense to buy it for smoking, which I often do. I also like how the chicken tastes when smoked whole, especially the chicken breast, which comes out extremely tender and juicy. After I finish smoking whole chickens I bring them inside and immediately start cutting one into pieces. The whole family is right next to me eagerly waiting to try a piece. As I cut into the chicken, juices are gushing down. And everyone is asking for a piece of chicken breast – this is the tenderest, the most flavorful, and the juiciest part of smoked chicken. The breast is everyone’s favorite part in our family, surprisingly.
To smoke a whole chicken, I first brine it for about a day. This gives the best flavor penetration. When I am pressed for time I will cut whole chickens in half and brine for about 4 hours, frequently massaging the meat to promote faster brine penetration.
After the chicken is brined, place it on the smoker without the smoke for about 30 minutes to let it dry, then apply the smoke for about 1.5 – 2 hours, then finish without the smoke, until the internal temperature in the thickest part has reached 165F.
It’s common to place a tray of water near the source of heat to keep the humidity in the smoker high, which prevents the meat from drying out during extended smoking time. I don’t normally do that and rarely do I have dry chicken meat problem.
Seeing how the breast is the most popular part of the smoked chicken in our family, I often smoke chicken breasts on their own. The problem is that they don’t come out as tender and juicy when smoked on their own, even when brined. Then, one day as I was watching BBQ Pitmasters I got the idea how to make smoked chicken breasts come our super tender and juicy. The answer is smoke them in a tray filled with a little bit of chicken stock and butter. The chicken breasts come out so good that you will forget about any other chicken breast recipe, at least for a while.
I described the preparation process in the Baked Chicken Breast recipe, where everything is the same, including the cooking temperature, except you will be smoking the breasts instead of baking. Oh, and try to use bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts for smoking, they come out noticeably more succulent when protected by the skin and the bone during smoking.
I think smoked chicken wings really benefit from brining. Brined smoked chicken wings come out plump and explode with flavorful juices as you bite into them. I am sure you one can make dry or wet rubbed smoked chicken wings that are to die for, without brining, but that’s just what works really well in our family.
When using the brine recipe found in the How to Brine Chicken post, 2.5 hours of brining is enough for chicken wings. A little longer and they may come out a bit too salty. Once the wings are done brining, remove them from the, brine, pat dry with a paper towel and put on the smoker. I let the wings dry on the smoker for additional 15-20 minutes then apply the smoke for the rest of the cooking process. At 225F the wings are typically done in about 1.5 hours.
Smoking chicken at different temperatures
The temperature at which the chicken is smoked affects not only the cooking time but the appearance and the texture of the meat. Here is a young turkey that I smoked at 180F-200F. I used cherry wood and applied smoke for about 3 hours. Still, the color on the turkey is fairly pale and light. The meat, on the other hand was absolutely delicious – moist, juicy and very tender. The breast was fabulous. I like it cold when smoked at a low temperature like this, on a sandwich. The smoking time was … well, long. I did not time it, but it close to 6 hours.
I used the brine that uses Sodium Nitrite (Cure #1) as the smoking was done at a temperature below 200F and for an extended period of time.
These chickens below were smoked at 225F for about 3.5 hours, with the cherry wood smoke applied for about 2.5 hours. Very similar tenderness, juiciness and the texture as when smoked below 200F, but you can tell the difference. The main give away is the texture, which is ever so slightly grainier, I would say.
I used the same brine with Cure #1 that I used to smoke the turkey above. The reason for using Cure #1 is extended cooking process taking more than 3 hours. Better be safe than sorry.
The chickens below were smoked at about 250F. Brined without the use of Cure #1 and took about 2.5 hours to cook. The smoke was applied during the entire cooking time, except the first 15-20 minutes to let the skin dry.
The meat came out very juicy, though noticeably grainier in texture and resembling roasted chicken, though with awesome smoky flavor that no roasted chicken has. I used the same cherry wood chunks to generate smoke.
Finally, these chicken halves were smoked at a very high temperature, about 325-350F. They were not brined. I find that brining is not critical for short cooking times at high temperatures for chicken meat. I applied a rub that consists of salt, pepper, fresh garlic, vegetable oil and onion powder and let the chicken in the fridge for 30 minutes while the smoker was being prepared and warmed up.
Total cooking time as about 40-45 minutes. I used the stronger flavored Mesquite wood to counteract relatively short smoking time. As always, the meat came out super juicy, smoky and very flavorful. The meat, while being very moist, was not nearly as tender, with the texture reminiscent that of roasted chicken. If you want to tenderize the meat, try marinating it overnight before smoking.