The Secret To Smoking Perfect Chicken Thighs
Smoked chicken thighs are a big hit at parties, game day get-togethers, and family reunions. Easy on the budget as well as being very tasty, makes this choice of meat a winner. However, they must be prepared and cooked correctly or the smoked thighs could be a big disappointment. Here is a step by step way to make sure you are the grill master of the day.
Several things need some consideration before you start. Your grill, the wood you will be using, and your brine recipe require some forethought. Getting these things correct in the beginning, will make your endeavor smooth going and successful.
1) Make sure your smoker grill is cleaned out. Remove the old ashes for a fresh start. There should not be any moisture or debris at the bottom of the grill. The grates need to be clean.
To deep clean the grates, place them in a garbage bag with one cup of vinegar and two cups of baking soda. Close the bag using a rubber band, lay it down, and let grate(s) soak overnight. Take them out the next day. Using a wire brush, scrub them all over. The grates should clean easily, rinse them, and dry.
2) Pick a seasoning wood for a flavorful smoke. Chicken that you want to have a sweet smoked taste will come from using a fruit wood such as apple or cherry. Barbeque flavored chicken thighs blend well with hickory smoke. Oak and other hardwoods may not deliver as much of the flavor you are looking for to season the meat.
Charcoal and wood chips or blocks can be combined. Wood burns slower than charcoal, so the charcoal may need to be replenished more often. When smoking, you may not want to use the self-starting charcoal. Start the charcoal with pine resin soaked starter sticks, lay the charcoal, and top with the wood of choice.
3) Maintaining the correct temperature is very important. Use two thermometers in the barrel smoker, one near the top and the other about one third from the bottom.
Drill holes in the side of the smoker large enough to be able to insert and read them without having to open the smoker lid. Keeping the lid closed is very important to maintaining the temperature as well as not letting the smoke escape.
Time to Brine
In order to not only flavor the meat, but to keep it juicy, brining is a very important step. There are all kinds of brine recipes out there. Start with a kosher dill pickle juice base and add some peppers for spice. Red or green minced peppers are also a choice if you don't want a hot element, or going with an Asian glaze.
The pickle juice already has the salt, vinegar, garlic, and peppercorns pre-marinated, so most of the work is done. Occasionally, you may want to add some pineapple juice for sweetness.
Use a glass dish, layer the chicken thighs, cover the meat with the brine mixture, and sealed the dish. It is important that the meat be fully covered, so add water if needed. Chicken thighs are best if refrigerated overnight. A minimum time to brine is at least four hours.
The best flavor is achieved by using a glass or glazed pottery container since vinegar is involved. When ready to cook, remove the thighs, discard the brine mixture, and pat the meat dry.
Build the Fire
The clean prepped grill is ready to use. Coat the grates with a nonstick coating such as olive oil. Place a metal chimney starter in the base of the grill and fill with charcoal. Light it and allow the charcoal to create hot coals. This step should take around 15 minutes or until the charcoal has begun to have an ashy surface. Remove the chimney and add wood chips.
Using a charcoal-wood mixture is easier to maintain a constant temperature during the smoking process. Place a metal pan of water on top of the fuel to give some humidity inside the grill.
Adding a bit of steam to the smoke will assist in keeping the chicken from drying out. This pan needs to be checked to see if more water is needed when checking the charcoal if the temperature begins to lower.
Be sure to have your upper and lower baffles on the grill fully open before adding the fuel. This makes sure there is plenty of oxygen to light the fuel. You can adjust the baffles later when the correct temperature is reached.
Prep The Chicken For Smoking
It is best to put the dry brined chicken back in the refrigerator to rest for a couple of hours, but it is not necessary. One of the biggest challenges in achieving the perfect smoked chicken thighs is the skin.
The goal of creating perfection is having a crispy skin that your teeth will just sink into. Smoking chicken at low temperature without a bit of help can produce rubber or leather-like skin that is tough to chew.
The secret to solving this problem is to peel the skin back, remove any chicken fat, including the back of the skin, coat the muscle with butter, and pull the skin back over the thigh, the outer skin down against the meat.
The skin should appear transparent. Because of the low-temperature smoking method, the butter will crisp the skin without burning. The buttery crunch is a delight combined with the smoky flavor of the meat.
Once all the thighs have been buttered, now is time to apply the dry rub to the meat's skin. The various rubs can be made from spices found in the kitchen. Depending on the mood for the day, you can use various recipes using combinations of salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, sugar, brown sugar, and paprika.
On the days you feel spicy, chili powder and cayenne can be added to the mix. When you want to show off, out comes the touch of cocoa powder, a little known secret ingredient, that will add a new level of taste to the rub with or without the spicy pepper powders.
Let's Slap Those Bad Boys On The Grill
Lay the prepared chicken thighs on the grates, not touching, so the heat and smoke can surround them. You are seeking a temperature of between 165F-180F in the meat. The thighs will continue to cook for a short time after you remove them from the grill.
To achieve the results you want for the end product, remove them about five degrees below your temperature goal. They are "fall off the bone" tender at around 180F. If you want more structure to your thigh, pull them off around 160F. You can expect the cooking time to be about 35 minutes per pound of thighs cooking.
Even though your mouth begins to water just smelling the smoke, resist the urge to lift the lid. Keeping that smoke, heat, and flavor sealed inside the grill is a must. Adjust the baffles to regulate the heat. Close them down after adding the thighs to the grill.
If the temperature begins to fall before they are ready, add charcoal, and adjust the baffles so the new charcoal will light. Also, check to see if the pan needs more water.
When they are ready, use tongs to remove them from the grill and place them onto a platter. Allow them to rest about five to eight minutes before serving. Smoked this way, the chicken thighs are the best I have ever tasted. You will never serve a disappointed crowd using these grill master secrets for perfect smoked chicken thighs.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to smoke chicken thighs?
It should take somewhere between 90 minutes to 2 hours to smoke your chicken thighs if you’re smoking them at 250 to 275 degrees F. If you’re cooking them at a lower temperature, like 225 degrees F, it could take as long as 3 to 4 hours. The best way to know when your chicken thighs are finished is to use an instant read digital meat thermometer.
What temperature should you cook chicken thighs?
If you like some texture and chew to your chicken thighs, you can cook them to 160 degrees F. By the time they rest, they’ll reach a safe temperature of 165 degrees F. We find the tastiest chicken thighs are cooked a little bit longer, until they reach 175 to 180 degrees F. This temperature lets the meat literally fall off the bone, turning super tender while maintaining its juicy flavor.
What is the difference between chicken breast and chicken thighs?
The main difference between these two cuts of chicken is the fat content. Chicken breasts are very lean and are considered a white meat, with little to no fat content. That makes them easy to overcook and prone to drying out. Chicken thighs have more fat content and they’re considered a dark meat. This fat protects the meat as it cooks, resulting in a juicier cut of meat.
What is the best wood to smoke with?
When smoking chicken, we like using a mild wood, like apple, cherry, pecan, or maple. The more intense woods (like oak, hickory, or mesquite) can overpower the chicken’s delicate flavor. You could always use a blend of woods, too, if you like the flavor of mesquite but don’t want it to take over the dish.
How do you make chicken skin crispy?
The first secret to successfully getting crispy chicken skin is drying the chicken before it hits the grill. If the skin is wet or moist, it will steam instead of caramelizing, resulting in tough, chewy skin. The other secret is to carefully pull back the skin, removing the chicken fat and replacing it with butter before pulling the skin back over the meat. The butter will crisp up the skin from the inside out.