Smoke that bird!
February 21, 2013 11:55 AM   Subscribe

I have a lot of barbecue experience (low and slow smoked meats), but I've never been happy with my smoked poultry. Need to please some non-mammal-eaters, so I want to get it down this time. Veteran bird-barbecuers: Help?

I make killer pork shoulder and brisket (if I do say so myself), but my chicken has always turned out... not great. It's fine, especially for people who don't eat pork, but it's never a co-star.

I have this Brinkmann electric smoker, which is essentially like a WSM with an oven coil in the bottom. I know it's not as flexible or "authentic" as smoking over coals, but for long cooks, the plug-and-forget thing is worth it.

I gather than I want higher heat (the smoker usually gets up to 200-225), but I'm not sure how to get it. (Especially since it'll be 45 degrees out if I'm lucky.) Is it stupid to put charcoal in there WITH the electric element? (I'm thinking "yes".) Or should I take the element out and use charcoal instead? (I've never used it for a long cook before, and I'd like to keep the ease-of-use.) The other option would be to give it a lot of smoke for an hour, then move it to a 275-300 degree oven. Will that impart enough smoke to be worth it?

Also, the meat: I can probably fit four smallish birds in there whole, but I usually butterfly it for roasting. I think I could only get two butterflied chickens in there, which isn't as much as I wanted. Even quartering it would be less space-efficient than whole. (There's not enough vertical space for "beer-canning" it, and I'm also not convinced of the advantage of doing that.) But is whole going to give me a decent temperature distribution? (150-155 in the breasts, 160-165 in the thighs is the goal.)

I'm planning to brine it, which I usually don't do for shorter, higher-temp roasts. But I'm looking for maximum flavor with minimal effort, so brining is a good call, right? Was planning to brine for about 12 hours, then drain and rub, and leave that to "marinate" for another 8-12.

Finally, what should I do with the skin? I've had two thoughts: either take it off after the cook and chop it up, mixing with the pulled meat, or take it off, crisp it on a baking rack in a hot oven, and serve alongside the meat as cracklings. Any other options? I'm really trying to avoid the sheets of rubber I've gotten in the past.

Any other thoughts would be totally welcome. Thanks!
posted by supercres to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The other option would be to give it a lot of smoke for an hour, then move it to a 275-300 degree oven. Will that impart enough smoke to be worth it?

In my electric-smoker experience, yes. The main trouble with poultry is that smoking it until it's cooked all the way through leaves the skin pretty rubbery. I've had luck (chicken wings only so far, haven't tried this with larger cuts) is to smoke it fairly low (say 200-225 degrees) for an hour or so and then toss it on a grill or into a hot oven to crisp the skin.

Also, I'm not sure I'd brine for that long - it can make the texture mushy, especially if you're going to let it sit with a dry rub (salt? no salt?) for many hours as well. If you've got time before this gig, experiment with a couple of thighs and breasts to see which results will serve your guests best.
posted by rtha at 12:06 PM on February 21, 2013

I can't watch the video while I'm at work, but America's Test Kitchen has a recipe for smoked/roasted chicken.
posted by O9scar at 12:07 PM on February 21, 2013

Best answer: What about your prior efforts made you unhappy? That would help with making suggestions.

WRT to the skin I've had luck smoking birds, cutting them up, and then putting them on a very hot charcoal grill to crisp the skins.

Cook them whole. You butterfly so you can cook over a hotter fire and get the dark meat done at the same time as the breast. For low and slow like this it isn't going to help you. Chicken needs less smoke than red meat, so your idea of only giving it an hour or so is a pretty good one. But I'd use a much hotter oven to finish the cooking and crisp the skin.

And no, you should not put coals in with your element.

Or the easiest way to do this is just cook whole chickens over indirect heat on a kettle grill with some water soaked woodchips on the coals.
posted by JPD at 12:08 PM on February 21, 2013

I wouldn't brine your bird.

In fact manually loosten the skin from the bird, and perhaps do some spice rub between the skin and the meat.

I did a turkey breast in a charcoal smoker, I did about 3 hours and it was perfect.

I'd leave your birds whole, with empty cavities. I had a 3 level smoker, so I did pork on the bottom, then beef, then the bird on top. All were yummy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:12 PM on February 21, 2013

I do whole chickens on the grill, and they're awesome. You should get a charcoal grill, like a cheap Weber kettle or whatever they're called.

-I don't brine or rub or anything like that. Salt and pepper and olive oil on the skin is fine. Add some paprika if you're feeling frisky.
-I fire up my coals, shove half to one side and half to the other, then add hardwood chunks and get those smoking. Add the cooking grate, put the chicken in the middle, and cover. I usually adjust the vents to be about half closed.
-Bird is done when the thermometer says so. You have a meat thermometer, right?
-Rest the bird, cut into pieces, devour.

While eating I may grill peach halves for dessert on the still-hot coals.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:08 PM on February 21, 2013

I've done lots of chickens on the smoker. I agree that brining is optional, the chickens tend to come out quite succulent from the low and slow cooking. A salt rub and some mesquite is all you need, but you can also make a killer pollo asado by making a paste of salt, garlic, cumin, oregano, and cider vinegar and spreading it under the skin an hour before cooking. The chicken usually only takes an hour or two of smoking, then I halve or quarter them and either toss them on the grill or throw them into a hot oven to crisp. Be careful to watch for flare-ups of course if you put it on the grill, there will still be plenty of fat in the birds to start a grease fire. If I'm feeling like using the juices to make a pan sauce, I put the chicken on a beer can roaster like this one but without the beer can.
posted by TungstenChef at 2:44 PM on February 21, 2013

Best answer: I like to halve the chickens (i.e. butterfly them then cut out the backbone). This gives me the best results as far as everything being done at the same time. If you leave them whole, trussing them tightly should help keep the breasts from getting done too far ahead of the legs and thighs.

I do like to brine them, definitely makes the breast meat more forgiving, will stay moist to a higher temp. But brine the far enough ahead that you can take them out of the brine, dry them, and let them sit uncovered in your fridge for several hours-- this will dry the skin out further and help avoid the rubbery skin.

But here's the real trick for the skin: before the chickens go on the smoker, put them on a sheet pan, skin side up, under your broiler for a few minutes. Keep an eye on them every few minutes, but it'll be around ten-fifteen minutes total, give or take. When the skin is starting to brown and a fair amount of fat has been rendered, take them from the oven to a 225 degree smoker. Done in two-ish hours.

(I don't pull or chop the meat, just cut it into legs, thighs, breasts and wings. If you want to do pulled chicken, I'd just go with thighs or leg quarters, which you can take to a higher temperature to get that falling-apart texture. Breast meat will just get dryer and dryer as you go to higher temps.)
posted by voodoochile at 6:44 PM on February 21, 2013

If you don't know about, check them out. lots of information there.

here is their jumping off page for poultry.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:28 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've used a number of recipes from the Virtual Weber Bullet to great success.

However, poultry is just never as good as pork or beef. Without the fat content you just can't do the same sort of things. The smoking then grilling for 30 secs to crisp skin works quite well, or you could do a pulled chicken. I haven't brined my chook, but I have brined my turkey resulting in an amazingly tender meal.

Also, 'low and slow' doesn't reaaaaally apply to poultry as you aren't trying to render fat. You can smoke/cook it as you would a regular bird in the oven (~350f) and still get tasty results.

Lastly, you need to make sure that your poultry gets up to at least 160f, as that's the recommended safe temp. I wouldn't take breasts much higher than that, but thighs and drumsticks can be delish even into the 180s.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 7:50 PM on February 21, 2013 is really a great site, and they can answer a lot of your questions. One of the things I've read about smoking is that, past a certain temperature, smoke isn't really going to penetrate the bird. A high temperature roasting will give you a nice line of pinkness to the bird, but it's not going to get as deep as the smoke would in a pork shoulder.

Beer can style is a good way to do a chicken, just skip the beer can (the amazing ribs guy goes into some detail on this, pointing out that the can a) blocks heat from getting to the inside of the bird, and b) even Budweiser says that they don't make their labels with high heats and fire in mind) and use a vertical roaster.

The other thing I'd recommend is trying different woods. Cherry or apple take really nicely to chicken. That, with a nice rub of garlic, salt, pepper, and paprika, over a low-ish heat (250) for a while, with at least a bowl of some liquid in the smoker to keep moisture up, that should do the trick.

Other than essentially roasting a chicken on the grill, like Sleddog says, it's just not going to be as radically different smoked or oven roasted as pork or beef are. Personally, poultry is what I do on the grill while the pork is in the smoker.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:56 PM on February 21, 2013

I've smoked tons of chicken over the years. They all turn out great. Besides maintaining temp & getting a good smoke, there are two reasons for my success:

1. Inject the chicken with some apple juice & a spice rub. I've found that besides the rub on the outside, the injection inside is key.

2. Taking the bird off at the right time. Might want to get a wireless thermometer to easily monitor the temp.

Put some insulation around your electric smoker if you want to get the temp up. Monitor it so it doesn't go up to much.
posted by toddst at 7:26 AM on February 22, 2013

oops, want to add, that I don't really care for the skin so I just take it off before cooking. If you like skin do what others said about crisping it up on a grill.
posted by toddst at 7:39 AM on February 22, 2013

Response by poster: Ok. Think I'm going to do 4 small whole birds in a short brine then a no-salt rub in the fridge for a bit more while it dries. Then truss and on the smoker for an hour (over a pan of water) then a hot oven to finish. I'll decide what to do with the skin when it finishes. I do have two beer can racks, but I'll see if I can get away with not using them.

Definitely going to use my probe thermometer and thermapen to keep an eye on the temperature.

Thanks all!
posted by supercres at 10:11 AM on February 22, 2013

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