With its ability to produce unique and delectable flavors, smoking is one of the best ways to cook chicken. Whether you're cooking a whole chicken or a few chicken breasts or wings, they'll have a mouthwatering flavor after being exposed to the flavorful wood smoke. In terms of flavor, smoked chicken is unparalleled when compared to grilled, baked or broiled chicken.
Unfortunately, many pitmasters struggle to achieve a crispy exterior and juicy interior when smoking chicken. If this sounds familiar, you should consider the following tips. With a little preparation, you can smoke delicious chicken that's both crispy and juicy.
Go Easy the Oil and Sauce
Avoid smothering your chicken with an excessive amount of oil or sauce. Contrary to popular belief, liquids don't penetrate deep into meat, including chicken. Even if you marinate your chicken for 12 full hours, most of the marinade will remain on the surface.
For a crispy texture, you need to keep the surface of your chicken dry. If it's heavily coated in marinade, oil, sauce or other liquids, it won't develop a golden-brown and crispy exterior when smoked. Instead, it will develop a softer, lighter-colored exterior. You can still use liquids to enhance the flavor of your chicken; just remember to follow the less is more approach. Otherwise, your chicken won't develop a crispy exterior when smoked.
Use a Water Pan
Not to be confused with a drip pan, a water pan can help you smoke chicken that's both juicy and crispy. While drip pans are designed to catch liquefied fat and grease released by cooked meat, water pans are designed to moisten the air. How does this translate into better smoked chicken exactly?
As the water heats up, some of it will evaporate into steam. The steam will then fill the interior of your smoker to promote even cooking temperatures. A water pan will essentially stabilize the temperature at which your chicken smokes so that it doesn't suffer from hot and cold spots. If you don't use a water pan, your chicken may smoke unevenly, which will likely have a negative impact on how juicy and crispy it is.
Some smokers come with a removable water pan that you can refill with water. If your smoker doesn't have a water pan, though, you can use any foil pan for this purpose. Just remember to place it close enough to the coals or wood. If the water pan is too far away from the heat source, the water may not reach its boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Coat the Grate in Oil
Before adding your chicken to your smoker, coat the cooking grate in a layer of heat-tolerant oil. As your chicken smokes, the exterior will naturally cook faster than the interior. And if the cooking grate isn't oiled, your chicken may stick to it. The dry exterior of your chicken will bind to the dry cooking grate. When you attempt to remove your chicken from the cooking grate, you may inadvertently tear the crispy skin.
You can prevent your smoked chicken from sticking to the cooking grate by using heat-tolerant oil. Not all cooking oils can withstand the heat of a smoker. Some will burn and smoke at a lower temperature than others. Therefore, you should coat your smoker's cooking grate in a heat-tolerant oil for maximum benefit. Just scrub the cooking grate with a wire brush to remove any hardened debris, after which you can brush a moderate amount of heat-tolerant oil onto the grate.
Some of the top heat-tolerant cooling oils include:
- Canola oil
- Sunflower oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Peanut oil
Use the Right Wood Chunks
Don't underestimate the importance of using the right wood when smoking chicken. The type of wood you use will affect the flavor, as well as the texture, of your smoked chicken. There are thousands of different species of trees, each of which has a unique organic composition. When burned, the various organic compounds in wood will convert into heat and smoke. Different types of wood, however, produce different amounts of heat and different flavors of smoke when burned.
When smoking any type of meat, you should only use dry wood. If the wood is wet or damp, it won't burn completely, resulting in the creation of more byproducts like soot. For a clean and flavorful smoking experience, choose kiln dried wood. It contains roughly half the moisture as air-dried wood, allowing for a superior smoking experience.
Kiln dried wood chunks are ideal for smoking because of their small size. Measuring about 3 inches long each, they consist of premium varieties of hardwood -- oak, cherry, hickory, etc. -- that have been processed in a drying kiln. They burn hot and clean while releasing flavorful smoke in the process.
Build a Hot Fire
When you're ready to begin smoking your chicken, start up your smoker by building a hot fire. Many people assume that a smaller, cooler fire is better when smoking meat because it allows the meat to cook more slowly. If you're hoping to achieve a crispy exterior, though, you need to use a hot fire. If it's not hot enough, your chicken will likely develop a soft exterior. A hot fire encourages the formation of a crispy exterior by searing the chicken's skin.
As previously mentioned, kiln dried wood burns hotter than other types of wood. Therefore, it can help you build a hot fire when smoking chicken. It will produce more heat when burned than other types of wood, allowing the exterior of your chicken to sear.
In addition to using kiln dried wood, you can build a hotter fire by opening the damper vents on your smoker. Keep in mind, the damper vents should be partially opened at all times when smoking chicken. If they are fully closed, you'll starve the fire of fresh oxygen, meaning it will eventually go out. You can raise the temperature of the fire by opening the damper vents all the way. The more air flowing into the fire, the hotter it will become.
Check the Temperature
Don't make the mistake of smoking your chicken for too long. If you overcook it, you can expect a dry interior that's not particularly flavorful. The exterior may be crispy, but overcooked chicken doesn't have the same deliciously juicy interior as properly smoked chicken. So, how do you know when your chicken has finished smoking? Use a meat thermometer to probe the interior of your chicken and measure its temperature.
Assuming you're smoking a whole chicken breast, you should remove it from the smoker once it has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (when measured from the thickest part). Depending on the type of smoker you use, as well as other factors, it may take anywhere from two to five hours of smoking for your chicken to reach this temperature. Only remove your chicken from the smoker once it has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
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