If you know your way around a grill, learning to smoke meat is only a small jump out of your comfort zone. All it takes is the right preparation, patience, and a little temperature monitoring to arrive at the best bird you’ve ever tasted. If you’re debating getting a smoker or recently acquired one, there are a few things to know and tools to own to make the process as simple as possible. We’ve rounded up all the tools you need from start to finish for the perfect smoked chicken, every time.
First things first: you need the right bird to smoke. Plenty of online purveyors sell whole chickens for delivery if you want to avoid the store, but if you’re hunting for your own in the meat section, consider what size you need. A smaller 3-4 pound bird will feed two to four people, a 4-5 pound bird will feed up to five, and any group bigger than that will ideally need two birds (and face masks or social distancing). You can also focus on one cut of chicken, like leg quarters, to ensure consistent results from bite to bite. Fresher is better, so frozen isn’t ideal, but ultimately both are better than chicken packed with added water. Allow 35-45 minutes per pound for cooking at 225 degrees, so a standard chicken will take around 3 hours to smoke. Always ensure the internal temperature at the breast is 160-165 degrees, and remember to let the chicken rest in foil for 20 minutes after smoking to allow those juices to redistribute and permeate.
You might have a favorite rub recipe already, but if you’re looking for a great blend there are plenty of options. Spicewalla has a barbecue chicken rub created in collaboration with Buxton Hall. The Spice House has a Kansas City Barbecue Blend that works great on chicken. Traeger Grills also makes its own chicken rub with citrus and black pepper. And the creators of PK Grills have their own line of rubs and seasonings; their chicken version works for all types of poultry.
Buxton Hall Barbecue Chicken Rub, $9 at spicewalla.com
Kansas City Barbecue Dry Rib Rub, $7.50 at thespicehouse.com
Traeger Pellet Grills Chicken Rub with Citrus and Black Pepper, $10 at amazon.com
Fire & Smoke Society Chica Licka Bam Bam Bird Rub, $7 at walmart.com
If you don’t already own a smoker but want a quality, user-friendly model, the Weber Smokey Mountain is a great choice. The plated steel cooking grates are easy to clean, and rust-resistant legs and porcelain-enameled steel will withstand the elements underneath the cover. The individual vents on the bowl and lid and the built-in lid thermometer make temperature adjustments easy, and the side door is handy for adding wood or charcoal as needed. It comes in three sizes depending on what your needs are: 14-, 18-, and 22-inch diameters. It gets up to temperature quickly and is as simple to light as a standard charcoal grill. There’s also the option of using your charcoal grill as a smoker. Bank the hot coals to one side of the grill, then prop the chicken up on a vertical chicken roaster (or a beer can) on the opposite side.
Weber Smokey Mountain 18-inch Smoker, $329 at amazon.com
Staub Vertical Roaster, $170 at surlatable.com
Anyone who owns a charcoal grill knows how this story goes, but if you’re an electric or gas grill owner, you might need a charcoal chimney to expedite lighting your charcoal smoker. Just fill the chimney with charcoal, light two Weber Lighter Cubes on the grates of the smoker, and place the chimney over them. Then, wait 20 minutes until the top briquettes have turned ashy gray. Pour into the smoker’s wood and charcoal container and close it up to start heating.
Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter, $30 at amazon.com
Weber Compact Rapidfire Chimney Starter, $14 at amazon.com
Chicken goes well with milder, sweeter woods. Applewood is the lightest in the flavor department, which is great for putting a focus on the barbecue rub. Maple is slightly stronger and works well with poultry as well as pork, if that’s also on the menu. Cherry will create a beautiful reddish hue on the skin and works well if mixed with hickory for another layer of smoke. Pecan can also be a good option if you want something both rich and sweet, but avoid mesquite since it’s a little too much for chicken flavoring. If you want to forego sweetness altogether, pure hickory is the right option for you.
Applewood Chunks, 15 lbs for $31 at amazon.com
Maple Chunks, $19 at amazon.com
Cherrywood Chunks, $17 at amazon.com
Pecan Wood Chips, $13 at amazon.com
Hickory Wood Chips, $18 at amazon.com
For getting the chicken in place on the heated grates and shifting charcoal or wood chips as needed, tongs are essential. OXO’s 16-inch tongs are long enough to extend into the smoking chamber, and the stainless steel won’t melt on contact with high temperatures like silicone tipped tongs. They’re also dishwasher-safe.
OXO Good Grips 16-Inch Stainless Steel Locking Tongs, $16 at amazon.com
Get the ultimate utility apron that everyone from pitmasters to pastry chefs love. Hedley & Bennet’s Char Classic Apron has all the pockets you need with the durability perfect for smoking projects. The dark grey can stand up to any charcoal stains, and the straps are easily adjustable for all sizes.
Char Classic Apron, $80 at hedleyandbennett.com
The Pit Mitt is a barbecue essential, allowing complete dexterity on top of heat protection. The glove can withstand extreme heat up to 475 degrees and has a silicone texture on the surface for strong gripping. The 13-inch length means it’ll protect your wrist and lower arm as well.
Charcoal Companion Ultimate Barbecue Pit Mitt Glove, $15 at amazon.com
If you’re serious about your smoking process, a wireless remote meat thermometer is a great investment. The dual probes can keep tabs on how quickly or slowly the meat is getting up to temperature and will beep and flash when the bird is done. If you’re looking for something a little simpler, a good instant-read thermometer will also do the trick. ThermoPro’s digital instant-read option is accurate within one degree, folds away easily, and has a magnetic back for convenient storage.
ThermoPro Digital Instant Read Meat Thermometer, $14 at amazon.com
ThermoPro Wireless Remote Meat Thermometer, $58 at amazon.com
The best bristle-free grill brush is from Kona BBQ, and it’s the most efficient and safe way to clean up the grates on the smoker. Make sure to keep the heat going to carbonize any chicken remnants on the grates, and do a solid cleaning before and after using the smoker.
Kona Safe/Clean Grill Brush, $22 at amazon.com
The chicken is done and you let it rest, so now it’s time to carve things up. A proper carving board is a must-have in any barbecue-obsessed household, and this Boos block is a quality piece you’ll keep for years. It also pays to upgrade from your usual knife to a proper boning knife that gets every ounce of perfect meat off the chicken. This boning knife from Wusthof is highly durable and the sharp blade means easier cutting and less likelihood of a carving accident.
John Boos Block Maple Wood Reversible Cutting Board with Juice Groove, $52 at amazon.com
Wusthof Boning Knife, $130 at amazon.com