Smokin' Summer

About a year ago, my parents gave me a smoker/grill as a kind of nest-warming gift. In that time, we've used it as a grill a fair bit and hadn't really gotten around to the smoking part yet. All that changed the weekend after Memorial Day. Now I will never look at little bits of apple or hickory wood the same, my eyes are always peeled for great sales on whole chickens or large loin roasts, and I find myself sniffing intensely when the familiar waft of wood smoke wanders into my neighborhood. And I am grateful to Dad for it all!

Rather than spend a lot of time talking about the perfect smoker (it's not rocket science, people!) or pontificating on what kind of wood or wood chips are best (Dad gave me a bunch of pieces of apple wood he trimmed from the trees and, I gotta say, free works for me!), I thought I'd give you a bit of an illustrated guide to my adventure in smoking a couple of chickens. If you don't want to join me on that journey, there's also a quick-n-dirty guide/cheat sheet at the end. And now, let's get smokin'...

My husband and I chose a lazy Sunday for our smoking adventure. When we got up in the morning, I took 4 small pieces of apple wood and got them smoking in a bowl of water. I also gathered together a fresh bottle of liquid smoke, 2 cans of beer, and a pair of heavy gloves for handling the various pieces of the smoker that might get uncomfortably warm. The brands of liquid smoke and beer don't matter, but do yourself a favor and don't focus your dollars on them. Save that for nice chickens! Next up - it was time to assemble the smoker.

You can get your coals going in whatever manner you typically do, but we used a chimney to get them evenly hot and ready to go. Use enough charcoal to fill the lower pan evenly. You shouldn't need more than one bowl of charcoal for smoking two birds. Many people highly recommend lining the bowl with heavy foil to make cleanup easy and I can attest to that being a bit of a relief after you've stuffed yourself with smoked chicken, look outside as the last bit of daylight fades, and realize you still need to clean and put away the smoker! You'll notice my smoker has a little raised brick and stone platform it rests on while in use. You don't need anything that involved, but bear in mind that your smoker will be going for something on the order or 4-5 hours and give it some space around it and make sure it's on a surface that's safe for grilling and smoking on. It's also always smart to have a fire extinguisher and water source nearby … just in case. Once our coals were ready and evenly arranged in the lower pan, I removed the soaked wood from its water bath and placed them evenly over the hot coals. Then it was time to set up the drip pan.

Here again, to help with an easier cleanup, I liberally sprayed the upper pan (also known as the drip pan) with cooking spray. Once I was done with that, I carefully positioned it above the charcoal pan. You need to be careful, as the pan below and the sides of the smoker will be hot. Make sure the pan is set and stable before adding liquids to it. I added the water I soaked the wood in, the 2 cans of beer I had out, and half the bottle of liquid smoke to the drip pan. Then I added enough water to reach the rim of the pan, as pictured. Now it was time to fetch the birds!

I got two whole chickens, each weighing between 5-6 pounds. I'd rinsed, cleaned, seasoned, and stuffed the cavities with coarsely chopped onion and lemon the night before. You can tie the chicken legs together to help keep the stuffing items (anything from onions and celery to lemons and apples will work) from falling out. I recommend completing this step in advance as it saves time and effort on smoking day and allows the seasoning to really work into the birds. What did I use for my seasoning? This time around, I used a spice blend from Penzeys that I like called Northwoods Fire. However, you can use just about any seasoning you want. Anything you would use with ribs, steaks, or other grill food will be fine. A lot of people use a bit of poultry seasoning in the mix, too. One of the fantastic things about smoking chickens is that it's hard to go wrong and, even if you do, the mistakes are delicious!

I placed the middle section of my smoker over the coal and drip pans and positioned the metal grill over the top of it. Then I placed the prepared chickens on the grill, making sure there was space around them to allow smoke to move freely about the smoker. Then it was time to place the domed lid on the smoker and promise myself I wouldn't peek! Removing the lid slows the smoking process and loses precious smoke that will help flavor the birds. So be patient. It will be okay. I promise.

Then I waited. I had some coffee. I read a book. My husband got curious and used my nifty temperature gun (it's an infrared thermometer, but doesn't it look like it should be a prop on an episode of Star Trek?) to test the outside temperatures of the smoker. If you're curious, the lid came in at about 150 degrees, while the base was coming in over 400 degrees. If you've done things right, the charcoal will keep a slow, even heat for hours. About halfway through the process, I checked the drip pan to see if it needed more water, but it didn't. You don't need to be babysitting the smoker while it works its magic, but if it's a pretty day, why not enjoy kicking back and enjoying the patio? That was my thought, anyway! And then, about 5 hours later, our eyes were greeted by something delicious-looking:

And it's a damn shame that the Internet cannot share with you how absolutely mouth-watering the aroma that permeated my neighborhood was. That aroma alone nearly makes it all worth it … but that thought quickly faded when I bit into a piece (followed by more pieces) of delicious smoked chicken. If this process seems intimidating to you, fear not. If you take the chickens off the grill too early and they aren't fully cooked, simply finish cooking them in your oven. You will still have delicious smoky flavor. If you fear you've over-cooked them and they seem dry, slice the meat thinly and use it in everything from smoky jambalaya to fantastic summer salads. Like I said earlier, even the mistakes taste amazing! Now, for those looking for a good, go-to guide, here' the one I promised:

Smoking Technique for Whole Chickens

Equipment:
  • 1 charcoal smoker
  • Enough charcoal for filling a smoker pan
  • Chimney, optional
  • 4 small pieces of wood suitable for smoking
  • Cooking spray
  • 2 cans of beer, brand isn't important and cheap is fine
  • 1/2 bottle liquid smoke, brand isn't important and cheap is fine
  • Fire extinguisher and water bucket/pitcher
  • Heavy gloves for handling parts of the smoker that get hot
For the chickens:
  • 2 whole chickens (weighing between 5-6 lbs, each)
  • Seasoning of your choice (anything used for seasoning steaks, ribs, or chicken on the grill will be great)
  • Enough stuffing to fill the cavities of both birds - good stuffing items include, but are not limited to:
    • Quartered onions
    • 2-3" pieces of celery
    • Quartered lemons
    • Quartered oranges
    • Quartered applies

Basic Steps:

  1. Prepare the chickens the night before or up to 48 hours in advance by rinsing, cleaning, seasoning, and stuffing them with the stuffing items of your choice. You can tie the legs together to keep the stuffing from falling out, if desired. Store the chickens in a large plastic resealable bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to smoke them.
  2. At least an hour and ideally 3-4 hours before smoking, soak the pieces of wood in enough water to fully immerse them.
  3. Get the charcoal evenly hot and ready for smoking using a chimney or other desired method. Arrange it evenly in the charcoal pan. You can line the pan with heavy aluminum to help reduce cleanup. Remove the wood from the water (saving the water) and place the pieces on top of the hot coals.
  4. Spray the drip pan with cooking spray, place it over the charcoal pan, and carefully pour the reserved water from the wood, the liquid smoke, and the beer into the drip pan. Add enough water to the pan to fill it to the rim.
  5. Place the middle section of the smoker over the drip and charcoal pans and position the metal grate/grill over that (you can spray that will cooking spray, too). Place the prepared chickens on the grill, making sure there is room for smoke to move freely around the birds. Immediately place the domed lid over the smoker.
  6. Allow the smoker to cook the chickens for 4-5 hours. Do not remove the domed lid. You can check the coals periodically to make sure they are still hot and add more, if necessary. About halfway through the cooking process, check the drip pan to make sure it's not dry. Add more water, if necessary.
  7. Enjoy delicious smoked chicken after a nice, laid back day of smelling the smoker performing its magic!
  • Yields: 2 smoked chickens
  • Preparation Time: About 5 hours plus a little prep time the night before and the morning of smoking

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