Smoked Chicken

Nearly every time we’re out grocery shopping, I pick up a whole chicken. It seems like at least once a week we end up roasting or grilling a whole bird, and using its carcass for chicken stock and its leftover meat for soup. The flexibility that comes with buying a whole chicken just can’t be beat, plus everyone gets to fight over their favorite pieces (luckily, we have varying preferences). Furthermore, it is often more economical than buying individual parts, and when buying quality chicken, every penny counts; there is probably no bigger price disparity than between industrially-raised and well-raised chicken (eggs are a close second).

A few years ago, I posted a smoked turkey recipe that continues to be popular today; we’ve smoked a turkey for every Thanksgiving since first developing this method. Similarly, I’ve come to enjoy using a similar approach for smoking chickens, which has much lower stakes since it’s not the centerpiece of a holiday meal.

While this preparation is very simple, I’ve tagged it as “moderate” difficulty in the recipe box below, if only because there are quite a few tools and techniques involved. You’ll need a grill (gas or charcoal) or smoker, smoking wood, aluminum pans to hold the wood, and a thermometer. We’re going to smoke the chicken at 300F, which might initially seem high when compared to other smoked meats, but a higher heat produces a well-flavored chicken without rubbery skin. To keep the chicken moist, I recommend brining it beforehand, and have provided instructions below.

Smoked Chicken (Gluten-free, Paleo, Primal, Perfect Health Diet, Whole30 adaptable)

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Brine:
1 cup hot water
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp kosher salt
cold water and ice cubes

Basic BBQ Rub (Pork & Poultry):
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 tbsp coarse-ground black pepper
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp ground mustard

1 (3-5 lbs) whole chicken

Sides: (see #5 below)
pickle chips
pickled onions
pickled green beans

1. Prepare the brine. Combine the hot water, honey, and salt in a small bowl; stir until absorbed. Place the chicken in a large bowl or stockpot, then fill with enough cold water to cover the chicken. Stir in the water/honey/salt concentrate and a few cups of ice cubes to keep everything cold; place in the fridge or leave on the counter for 1 hour (you can brine for up to 4 hours, but be sure to stick it in the fridge or re-fill ice cubes every hour). As the chicken brines, combine the Basic BBQ Rub ingredients and set aside.

2. About 30 minutes before chicken is done brining, prepare your grill (see the illustrations below the recipe for a better look at the setup) or smoker. For each method, bear in mind that the ideal temperature is 300F (+/- 25 degrees is fine). For your smoking wood, I recommend mild-flavored wood like apple, cherry, or hickory.

– If using a charcoal grill, bank the charcoal to one side and add some wood chunks to the charcoal. On the other side of the grill, place a large aluminum pan filled with about 1″ of water or hard cider; you’ll place the chicken above the liquid, not the charcoal. Light the charcoal using twists of newspaper or a chimney starter.

– If using a gas grill, place two small aluminum pans on one side of the grill; put wood chunks in one pan, and wood chips in the other. This will allow the wood chips to smoke through first, then the wood chunks will finish off the job. On the other side of the gas grill, place a large aluminum pan and fill it with about 1″ of water or hard cider; you’ll place the chicken over the liquid. If using a gas grill, only light the burners that are underneath the small pans.

– If using a smoker, prepare the smoker as indicated by the manufacturer; place enough wood pellets, chips, or chunks to provide smoke for at least 1 hour. For my personal smoker setup, I use my MasterBuilt electric smoker combined with about 1/4 tray of wood pellets in this A-MAZE-N smoker, placed at the bottom of the smoker. I also place one small aluminum pan and fill it with about 1″ of water or hard cider.

3. Once the chicken is brined and the smoker is set, let’s prepare the chicken. Pull it out of the water and pat it dry with some paper towels, then butterfly (aka spatchcock) the chicken – my friend Michelle at Nom Nom Paleo has a good guide here. Pat it dry again with some paper towels then liberally add the Basic BBQ Rub all over the chicken – inside and out. Add an even amount so that the skin is well coated, as in the picture above.

4. Place the chicken on the grill or smoker, away from the heat source. Maintain a temperature of 300F (+/- 25 degrees) until the breast and thighs register 165F; for best results, use a remote thermometer (this one is my old standby, but I also use and like the iGrill series because I can monitor the temperature via my phone). It should take 1-2 hours depending on the heat temperature and size of the bird.

5. Remove the chicken from the heat, and set aside to cool for 10 minutes, then carve. I like to deconstruct the chicken by cutting out the thighs, drumsticks, and wings, then carving out each whole breast and slicing them against the grain.

6. Serve with your favorite pickled vegetables. Personally, we like to get our pickles from our local farmer’s market and health food store, to support artisans in their craft (and it’s super convenient). But we also make our own pickles from time to time – here are three from this site: Pickled Watermelon Rinds, Takuan (Pickled Daikon Radish), and Kabees el Lift (Pickled Turnips).

*** For Whole30, omit the honey in the brine.


illustrations by Alex Boake

13 thoughts on “Smoked Chicken

  1. Very interesting strategy to use two pans to combine both chunks and chips. Have you found this to make a big difference? I’ve often heard that the meat only ‘picks up’ smoke while cold.

    Also with the internal temperature I generally like to insert the probe into the breast close to (but not touching) the keel bone as this is the area I find is the last to come to doneness. I like to pull the chicken off the cooker when the temp in this area hits 145- 150, and let it carry over for the last 10-15 degrees to well-done. I find this helps minimize the outer breast meat being overdone.

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  2. Can’t wait to get smoked chicken in my skill set ! What would be the alternative to cooking with aluminum pans ??? Buy a dedicated cast iron for smoker ?
    Thanks !

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    1. Hi Rebecca, you can find plenty of cast iron “smoke boxes” that will work as re-usable alternatives! I used one myself for years, my biggest advice is to make sure you clean and store it indoors after every use, so that it doesn’t rust :)

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  3. oh, thank you so much for the visual illustration of the setup! I don’t know if I’m ADD or what, but it’s so much easier to see it than read it. Thanks again, and looking forward to another delicious hit!

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