Fundamentally, smoking only differs from grilling in cooking temperature and the inclusion of wood chips. Creating and maintaining indirect low heat has the most influence over the success of the finished chicken, despite the quality of the chicken. Even the finest bird is worthless if it isn’t safe to eat or burnt. If the grill is too hot, the outside cooks faster than the inside; too cold, and the meat becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Hang a digital probe thermometer on the cooking grate and set the receiver outside the grill before you start so you can monitor the temperature without opening the lid.
Brining is optional, but it adds a little extra moisture within the meat and has the marinade-like ability to introduce the flavors and aromas. Mix 1 1/2 cups of kosher salt with 1 gallon of water for every two chickens along with herbs, spices and aromatics. A simple mix of a bay leaf, a tablespoon of black peppercorns, chopped onions and crushed garlic cloves are all you need. Bring the brine to a boil, let it cool and pour it over the chickens. Brine the chickens in the refrigerator overnight.
Charcoal kettle-type grills and gas-fueled smokers work best for smoking. Light a chimney starter filled 3/4 full with charcoal and empty it on half of the charcoal tray; place an aluminum pan half full of water beside the coals. Set the grill’s bottom damper 1/4 open and open the exhaust vent halfway. Adjust the exhaust vent to keep the temperature inside between 225 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit. A gas-fueled smoker’s thermostat set to 225 F maintains the heat throughout cooking.
About Gas Grills
You can smoke chicken in a gas grill, but it will lack the characteristic taste and aroma that comes from pyrolysis, which is created when moisture and fat drips on charcoal. Gas grills don’t promote adequate smoke penetration, either. You have to smoke chicken with gas at moderately high heat and the wood chips — which burn in a foil packet or smoker box — don’t smoke as long or with the same intensity as they do when placed on charcoal. If you have a gas grill, fill a smoker box or a foil packet with wood chips and set the burners to medium-high.
Prepping the Chicken
Take the chicken out of the brine after you start the grill. Dry the chicken, season inside the cavities and stuff them with chopped vegetables: onions, carrots or celery work. The vegetables aren’t for flavor or aroma; they simply help the cavity conduct heat so the chickens cook in the center, and you discard them after cooking. Tuck the wings under the bird and tie the legs together with kitchen twine.
Smoking and Finishing
Smoking in a gas-powered smoker is easy; cook the chickens until they reach 165 F in the breast and thigh, or for about two hours. In a charcoal grill, however, you have to add coals every 45 minutes and adjust the exhaust as needed to maintain 225 to 275 F. Add a cup of wood chips on the charcoal and lay the chickens breast-side-up on the grill at least 2 to 3 inches apart. Smoke the chickens for one hour and add 10 to 15 more coals and fresh wood chips. After two hours, check the chickens’ internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. From there, continue cooking until they reach 165 F, adding coal and wood chips as needed.
References and ResourcesSerious Eats: Guide to Grilling: Smoking on a Charcoal Kettle Grill
FoodSafety.gov: Chicken and Other Poultry
Ruhlman: How To Brine Chicken (Quick-Brine Recipe)
Weber: Smoking on a Gas Grill