Smoked Chicken

From America's Test Kitchen Season 12: Backyard Chicken Dinner

Why this recipe works:

Brining chicken pieces plumped the meat with extra moisture—a boon in a grill-smoked chicken recipe, in which the meat is prone to drying out. The key to our successful Grill-Smoked Chicken recipe was the charcoal grill setup. Mounding some lit coals on top of unlit briquettes on one side of… read more

Brining chicken pieces plumped the meat with extra moisture—a boon in a grill-smoked chicken recipe, in which the meat is prone to drying out. The key to our successful Grill-Smoked Chicken recipe was the charcoal grill setup. Mounding some lit coals on top of unlit briquettes on one side of the grill allowed the heat to trickle down and light the cold coals, extending the life of the fire. Stowing a pan of water under the chicken on the cool side of the grill provided humidity that stabilized the temperature of the grill and helped prevent the delicate breast meat in our grill-smoked chicken from drying out. A couple of wood chunks gave our grill-smoked chicken all the smokiness it needed.

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Serves 6 to 8

Avoid mesquite wood chunks for this recipe: we find that the meat can turn bitter if they smolder too long. When using a charcoal grill, we prefer wood chunks to wood chips whenever possible. If using a gas grill, you will need to use wood chips.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 6 pounds bone-in chicken parts (breasts, thighs, and drumsticks), trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Pepper
  • Large disposable aluminum roasting pan (if using charcoal) or disposable aluminum pie plate (if using gas)
  • 2 wood chunks soaked in water for 30 minutes and drained (if using charcoal) or 3 cups wood chips, half of chips soaked in water for 30 minutes and drained (if using gas)

Instructions

  1. 1. Dissolve salt and sugar in 4 quarts cold water in large container. Submerge chicken in brine, cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Remove chicken from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Brush both sides of chicken with oil and season with pepper.

    2a. For a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent halfway. Arrange disposable pan filled with 2 cups water on 1 side of grill and 2 quarts unlit charcoal briquettes against empty side of grill. Light large chimney starter filled halfway with charcoal briquettes (3 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour on top of unlit briquettes, keeping coals steeply banked against side of grill. Place wood chunks on top of coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chunks begin to smoke, about 5 minutes.

    2b. For a Gas Grill: Use large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil to wrap soaked chips into foil packet and cut several vent holes in top. Wrap unsoaked chips in second foil packet and cut several vent holes in top. Place wood chip packets directly on primary burner. Place disposable pie plate with 2 cups water on other burner(s). Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot and wood chips begin to smoke, about 15 minutes. Turn primary burner to medium-high and turn off other burner(s).

    3. Clean and oil cooking grate. Place chicken, skin side up, as far away from fire as possible with thighs closest to fire and breasts furthest away. Cover (positioning lid vent over chicken if using charcoal) and cook until breasts register 160 degrees and thighs/drumsticks register 175 degrees, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

    4. Transfer chicken to cutting board, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Technique

Don't Oversmoke Your Chicken

To infuse our chicken pieces with full-bodied smoke flavor, we figured it was necessary to keep the wood chunks smoldering for the entire time that the meat was on the grill. But when the finished product tasted not just smoky, but also harsh and ashy, we wondered: Was there a limit to the amount of smoke that the chicken could take?

Experiment

We smoked two batches of chicken. For the first, we added two soaked wood chunks to the fire at the beginning of cooking; when those had burned out about 45 minutes later, we added two more soaked chunks to keep the smoldering going for the duration of cooking. For the second batch, we didn’t replenish the wood after the initial chunks had burned out.

Results

The chicken exposed to smoke the entire time tasted bitter and sooty, while the pieces that were exposed to smoke for only 45 minutes or so (about half of the overall cooking time) had just enough smoky depth.

Explantion

Smoke contains both water- and fat-soluble compounds. As the chicken cooks, water evaporates and fat drips away, eventually halting meat’s capacity to continue absorbing smoke flavor. Once that happens, any additional smoke flavor that’s not absorbed by the meat gets deposited on the exterior of the chicken, where the heat of the grill breaks it down into harsher—flavored compounds.

One round of wood chunks = Balanced smokiness

Technique

Smoking Chicken in a Charcoal Kettle

To produce tender, juicy, smoky chicken, we devised a three-part fire setup in our charcoal kettle. It mimics the slow, steady, indirect heat that pit masters get from a dedicated smoker, plus it avoids sooty flavors.

TWO QUARTS OF UNLIT COALS
Bank to one side of the grill with 3 quarts of lit coals piled on top to keep the fire going without it being necessary to open the lid.


A WATER PAN
Place underneath the grill grate opposite the coals to create steam, which helps stabilize the temperature and keep the meat moist. 

TWO SOAKED WOOD CHUNKS 
Place on top of the coals smoldered for about 45 minutes—just long enough to infuse the chicken with smoky (not sooty) flavor.

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