How Long to Smoke a Chicken

Does the thought of smoking a whole chicken make you a little nervous? Smoking a whole chicken can result in a really tender and flavorful bird. While you will have to set aside a few hours, the process itself is fun and rewarding.

There are varying factors that need to be considered to achieve the end result that you are looking for. Here are some of the elements of smoking that you will want to address:


Let's take a closer look at each of these elements.

Smokers

To smoke a whole chicken you will need a smoker that is large enough to hold the bird. An outdoor smoker makes sense for this. Trying to smoke a whole bird on a stovetop model probably isn’t going to work very well.

If you already have a smoker, that is great and you can browse down to the next section. If not, the two types of smokers we like are the smaller vertical charcoal types and the portable horizontal charcoal smoker/grill combinations. Here are two examples of well-priced charcoal smokers for backyard or patio use.

The vertical Weber 721001 Smokey Mountain Cooker 18-Inch Charcoal Smoker is made of porcelain-enameled steel with heat resistant nylon handles. It has 2 nickel-plated 18-1/2 inch diameter cooking grates for layering, a water pan, thermometer, vents, and a storage cover. This model comes with a 10 year warranty.

The horizontal PK Grills, Charcoal Grill Smoker Combo, Silver PK99740 is a detachable rolling unit made of thick cast aluminum. It has vents and dampers for temperature control and a hinged cooking grid. There is some assembly required for this lightweight model.

Wood Chips

The type of wood to use for smoking a chicken depends on the flavor you prefer, as the bird is going to soak up the flavor that the particular wood gives off in smoke. Many smoker aficionados recommend either fruit or nut tree woods. Favorites are apple wood, cherry, and pecan.

If you are relying on your local market or home center for your chips, you might have to settle for whatever they have in stock. Wood chips generally come in small bags or tin pans. Hickory is fairly common in stores like Lowes.

Buy enough to fill the smoker box or a foil packet that you can drop onto the coals. 2 to 3 handfuls of chips should be adequate. Here is a video that describes a little bit about how to buy wood chips.

Size of the Bird

How much time do you have and how many people are you feeding? A 4 pound chicken will take 2 to 3 hours of smoking and will feed 4 to 6 people. A larger bird could require up to 5 hours of smoking.

When you are at the market, or your butcher shop, ask the clerk to recommend the appropriate size bird for the number of people you want to feed. Remember, you are buying bones as well as meat, so be mindful that 1 pound of raw whole chicken will cook down to approximately 1 cup of meat. Check out this useful chart at recipetips.com.

Should You Brine or Dry Rub

We recommend doing both. To ensure that your meat stays moist, soak it in a brining solution. This will add time to preparation, as you need to do this well in advance of smoking.

Here is a good brine technique/recipe.

Ingredients

6 cups of water
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsps whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
4 garlic cloves smashed

4 cups of ice cubes

Directions

In a large pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add the broth, salt, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, and garlic. Stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Remove from the heat and add the ice cubes to cool to room temperature.

Make sure it is cool. Then, place the chicken in the pot to cover with brine, breast-side down, and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine and rinse with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels and place it back in the refrigerator, preferably on a rack in a roasting pan, for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours. The idea is to allow air to circulate and dry the skin out so that it will crisp while smoking.

I am inserting a step here that is critical for the smoke to work optimally. Right before you take the chicken out of the refrigerator, soak your wood chips in water. The package will have directions, but it is really just as simple as placing them in a bowl of tap water.

Before smoking the bird, rub it all over with a little olive. This will help the herbs to adhere. Then, rub it inside and out with a blend of dry seasonings, such as sage, thyme, paprika, and lemon pepper.

Or, you can just as easily use a store bought poultry seasoning or barbeque dry rub mix. You don’t need to add salt, as it is already brined with salt. Let the bird sit out and come to almost room temperature, maybe 30 to 60 minutes.

Time to Smoke

Well, you are now about 3 to 5 hours into the process. Admittedly, most of that time has been spent doing something other than tending to your chicken.

I would think a game day is perfect for smoking. You can watch your favorite team play while letting the poultry rest and cook. Use commercials as the time to get up and tend to each task.

Heat up your charcoal using a charcoal chimney (lighting fluid will ruin the taste). Prepare a foil packet of the drained wood chips with some holes poked into it to allow the smoke to escape. Or, use the wood chip box that may have been included with your smoker.

When the coals are white hot and the smoker temperature registers at 275 to 325˚ F, drop your foil packet or wood chip box on top of the coals. Place a drip pan on a lower grill above the coals. Insert your upper grill, and place the chicken, breast side up, on that.

Smoke until the breast temperature reaches 160˚ F and the thigh reaches 170˚ F. This will take from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the size of the bird. Here is a recipe from Bobby Flay that you might find helpful.

Bottom Line

If you love to grill outside, you might also enjoy trying your hand at smoking. It takes some time to do, but the results may be surprisingly great. There are many affordable smokers for the home cook, as linked to above.

Use our checklist in the introduction to get you started. Please feel free to let us know if this information was helpful. Most importantly, enjoy your adventure.

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