Smoke-Grilled Chicken

I’m not sure I will go quite so far as to call the pellet smoker the “sous vide of smokers”, but it does make smoking and grilling relatively easy.

Take chicken. Traditionally because chicken pieces are thicker and contain bones, they usually require a deft hand over a typical charcoal grill. The skin can stick to the grill if it is not properly prepared, there are the flare ups that can require a squirt bottle as a fire extinguisher, and then there is raw chicken – where it looks over done on the outside but is raw in the middle.

The end result for lots of backyard bird is dry, burnt, and an unpredictable cooking time.

Now enter the pellet smoker. This is not really a new invention – and my off-set buddies who are masters of Central Texas BBQ think this is cheating – but a pellet smoker can elevate a new backyard chef. They are truly the Ronco of grilling: set it and forget it.

They range in price from an inexpensive $400 Traeger to the thousand dollar range if you reach for a Recteq or a Mak Two-Star General. The bigger grills usually have more reliable temperature management, larger hoppers so they can smoke over night, and some bells and whistles like Bluetooth remote thermometers.

But for all the high tech built into these smokers, for the most part they are simple to operate. Put pre-packaged pellets in the hopper, turn them on and set the temperature, and then put your meat on to cook. It is that simple. Although they are technically smokers, most of the models on the market can reach temperatures of 400 to 500 degrees on the grill surface which allows you to do a decent job of grilling.

This is where the chicken enters the story.

One technique that works incredibly well on the pellet smoker is what I call “smoke grilling”. I typically cook bone-in chicken thighs but this technique will work for any cut of chicken including the current media favorite “spatchcocked”.

Make sure your smoker grate is clean and oiled with a high temperature oil like canola and turned it on to preheat to 250 degrees. Everything grilled will cook much better if it is allowed to sit at room temperature for an hour before cooking. Season the chicken liberally with chicken seasoning and house BBQ seasoning and then place them on the grill skin side up.

Now you can sit back and relax while the chicken gently smokes at this low temperature. There won’t be any flare ups or burning. Not only will this low temperature smoking infuse the chicken with a great flavor, but the heat will render out moisture and fat within the chicken skin allowing it to grill much better later in the process.

When the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 105 to 110 degrees increase the smoker temperature to 350 degrees. You can move the chicken around on the grate but leave it skin side up for now. As the heat increases the chicken will accelerate in temperature. Once the grill stabilizes at 350 degrees flip the chicken over. The skin will be dry and the fat will be rendered so there generally won’t be any sticking or flare ups. Finish grilling the chicken skin side down unless it starts to burn in which case you can flip it back over and let it finish.

I usually like to cook dark meat chicken like these chicken thighs to at least 170 degrees – not so much for safety reasons but I think these cuts actually taste much better if they are cooked to a higher temperature. If you are cooking chicken breasts I remove those at 160 degrees and let them coast to their final temperature as they rest.

I use a Thermapen Instant-Read Thermometer and I think outside the grill this is the most important piece of equipment in outdoor cooking.

Making smoke grilled chicken is a crowd pleaser and something you can easily prepare for a large group. Happy smoke grilling!

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Smoke-Grilled Chicken 2020

Dan McCoy

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