A Guide To Smoking a Whole Chicken
9 Minute Read
Published on Feb 06, 2023
Smoking a whole chicken is a delicious way to prepare dinner for the whole family. Whether you’re a seasoned pit master or an excited first-time smoker, it helps to have a walkthrough of the steps to ensure you nail that perfect smoky flavor without drying out your bird.
From preparing your meat to firing up the smoke, here’s our guide to getting a delicious smoked chicken every time.
How Do You Pick a Chicken for Smoking?
Before you start anything else, it’s important to make sure you have a high-quality chicken that’s ready to be smoked.
If you live within 100 miles of our Keystone, Iowa headquarters, starting with 99 Counties’ whole chickens is always your best bet.
You want the perfect chicken, a bird free of any blood spots, antibiotics, pesticides, or growth hormones. Purchasing from a local, organically sourced farm will provide the healthiest — and tastiest — chicken available.
What Do You Need To Smoke a Chicken?
Of course, you’ll need your chicken and a smoker, so we’ll save time and skip those. However, to achieve maximum flavor, you’ll need a few other tools in your bird-smoking arsenal.
Back in the day, if you wanted to smoke your meat for dinner, you’d have to stoke hickory logs for hours and hours and maintain the perfect temperature for the entire duration of your cooking time. Thankfully, that isn’t the only way anymore!
There are plenty of different smokers available for personal use. Some work with pellets, and others work with wood chips. As a rule, grab whatever material works for your smoker, but the decision you’ll have to make is what flavor of smoke you want. The four main flavors you’ll see are:
- Apple: A generally sweeter wood, apple won’t have a strong apple flavor, but you can expect hints of fruit. The smoke from this bark is mild and a positive addition to most meats.
Cherry: Again, don’t expect strong cherry flavoring but rather a slightly sweeter, medium-intensity smoke. Cherry isn’t a bad option for chicken, but it's more often a choice for pork.
Hickory: Perhaps one of the most popular woods for smoking meat, especially in the barbeque world, hickory has a deliciously intense smoky flavor. If you’re planning on going the BBQ route with your chicken, this could be a perfect choice.
- Mesquite: Another familiar figure in the BBQ community, mesquite is known for being a strong flavor — perhaps a little too intense for smoking chicken. Reserve this wood for big hunks of red meat.
Starting off with a high-quality whole chicken is the first step towards eating a delicious meal, but picking out the right seasonings matters almost as much.
The essentials include salt, pepper, and garlic, but you don’t need to stop there. Sage, lemon zest, BBQ blend, rosemary, and more can all complement your bird’s innate flavor.
An important tip to remember is that you should always have a plan in mind and stick to two primary flavors at most. A classic flavor pairing for chicken is lemon and garlic. You don’t want to overwhelm your taste buds with too many different flavors; let the meat and smoke do the talking.
When it comes to smoking any type of meat, one of the most crucial elements is going to be time and patience.
You want all of that delicious smoky flavor to sink into the chicken while developing a delicious crust, and that takes some time. Make sure you have a day to commit to smoking your chicken, and whatever you do, take your time.
How Do You Prepare a Whole Chicken for Smoking?
Once you have everything you need, it’s time to prepare your chicken for the smoker. Follow these simple steps to get the most out of your whole chicken.
Brining your chicken is an easy, surefire way to ensure every bite of your chicken is tender and juicy. When smoking, which can lead to dryness fairly quickly, this step is essential.
To prepare a basic brine, simply mix a half cup of salt for every gallon of water you need to completely cover the bird. The professionals will also mix in a quarter cup of sugar per gallon to balance with the salt and lead to a delicious caramelized crust, but this is optional depending on how you plan on seasoning the chicken later on.
You can get more creative with your brine if you want with vegetables, garlic cloves, lemon slices, and herbs. If you have specific flavors you want to impart on your meat, this is the time to do so with little effort. Just make sure your bird is completely submerged in the water, preferably overnight.
Dress With Seasonings
After your chicken has finished its brine, dry-pat the skin and season generously with your choice of flavors.
What Are the Best Methods for Smoking a Chicken?
Whether you have a pellet or wood chip smoker, the technique you use for the chicken can have varying effects on your results — each one tastier than the last.
Spatchcocking a chicken requires removing its backbone to lay it down flat. Don’t worry, while this isn’t the most simple process, it is easier than it sounds, and it’s worth it. Spatchcocking your chicken leads to a much more even cook and helps retain even more of that delicious moisture and flavor.
With a pair of kitchen shears, cut the chicken through the ribs down both sides of the spine and remove the backbone. After this is done, lay the chicken out flat on your roasting pan, skin side up. The additional benefit of spatchcocking is that your chicken will cook much faster without compromising any tenderness. About three hours at 250 degrees in the smoker will do just fine.
If spatchcocking sounded strange, using a beer can to cook your chicken might cause your eyebrow to raise even more.
As you probably guessed, you don’t actually cook the chicken with the beer can. Instead, you use it to prop up the bird and dispense steam from the beer directly into the chicken's chest cavity.
You can use any type of beer for this, we recommend something light with a flavor you already know and love.
You don’t have to worry about getting drunk off your chicken, either; the alcohol will burn off, and at this length of time, there won't be any trace of it left outside of the flavor.
All you need to do is empty half of the beer can (either into the sink or into your mouth). Then, place the can inside of the bird's chest cavity so that when placed in the smoker, the can's open mouth is facing directly up.
You may need to finagle the chicken with some aluminum foil to get it to balance upright, or there are plenty of stands built just for cooking like this.
The Traditional Way
While spatchcocking and using a beer can to cook your chicken are unique ways to get a tender bite, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the traditional method of simply placing your chicken on a pan and then into the smoker. With the proper brine and seasoning, you're bound to get a beautiful bird that everyone will enjoy.
Similar to the other methods, set your smoker to 250 and cook your bird for 3-4 hours, depending on its size.
During the last 30 minutes or so, start basting the bird with either bbq sauce, butter or the juices that collect within the pan. Basting your chicken like this will guarantee bold, mouthwatering flavors.
Traditionally smoking your meat can also be done with smaller portions of the chicken, such as the thighs or breasts alone.
Tips and Tricks for Smoking a Chicken
Smoking a chicken is fairly simple and straightforward, even for a first-timer. However, it helps to have a few guiding tips and tricks to get you that moist and savory meal at the end of the day.
You should always rest your chicken before and after your cook, or else the meat may tighten up on you.
Resting before you cook just involves removing the meat from the fridge about 30 minutes to an hour before your start time so that you aren’t throwing the chicken into the smoker while it’s still frigid.
Resting after cooking is essential for getting the internal juices to flow throughout the bird. During cooking, some moisture may accumulate in particular spots, but once removed from the heat, the meat will gently redistribute the fluids throughout the chicken. It’s the same principle as cooking the perfect steak.
Always Cook to 165
While cook times vary depending on how big your bird is, the goal temperature is always the same.
Never undercook poultry, as it can lead to bacteria. 165 degrees Fahrenheit is the FDA-approved temperature for chicken, so make sure to use a meat thermometer to confirm your chicken is done and safe to eat.
Reheat With Steam
If you don’t finish your entire chicken, you’ll end up with the gift that keeps on giving: leftovers.
To get back to the perfect level of moisture, the chicken had the day before, avoid the microwave. Nuking the bird will quickly dry it out and ruin all of the work you put into your meat. Instead, create a tent out of foil to place on top of your leftovers, place a few tablespoons of water at the bottom of the pan, and cook in the oven or back on your smoker until the meat gets back up to 165.
This technique will introduce steam into the bird and keep it from turning into a dry, chewy mess.
A Better Smoked Bird Than Ever Before
Smoking a whole chicken can be a fun and delicious way to prepare a large meal, and with the right tools and techniques, it doesn't need to be difficult.
Remember to always brine your chicken and season it to perfection to get the best flavor. Above all else, remember to enjoy the experience of cooking a perfectly smoked chicken for yourself and your loved ones!
Science of Brining | Science of Cooking
Leftovers and Food Safety | USDA.
No Worries, the Alcohol Burns Off During Cooking—But, Does It Really? | Idaho State University