We read and see the wondrous results of smoked ribs, trips, briskets, etc. Sure, they look (and taste) delicious. However, one must not forget the humble chicken.
Smoking a chicken should not be relegated to propping it atop an undignified beer can. Chicken is lean, nutritious, and delicious. So we should deem them worthy to smoke!
Now, a huge part of smoking meat is the determination of what wood chips to use. I like to think of chicken as a blank canvas. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “bland,” or “vanilla,” but it is fairly basic.
That’s not a bad thing. That is what’s great about smoking chicken, it’s very versatile, you can make it fit various flavors and blend well with your menu.
This article will explore various woods to use with chicken and the result that you will get using those woods.
Some Guidelines When Smoking Chicken
Let’s start with some safety subjects. While you may feel adventurous, be careful about what you toss into your smoker. Don’t use lumber nor any flammable stuff like eucalyptus.
Don’t use anything that has been painted or anything that is, simply, gross-looking. These are all unsafe and, well, gross.
Smoking meat takes time, energy, and effort. Don’t screw it up by taking shortcuts. You could make people sick and ruin an otherwise amazing meal.
You can pretty much go nuts buying and trying different woods in your smoker. And, why not! If you aren’t having fun experimenting, then for Pete’s sake, just barbeque something.
Please remember to start with dry (patted dry) chicken. This will give you the crispiness of the skin at the end.
If you want to do two chickens at a time, look for chickens of the same weight. Otherwise, you will have to worry about the cooking time on the larger one.
Just like with meat, you want to let the chicken rest a bit before serving or carving. Aim to time your sides so that you can finish them while the chicken is resting. That will bring forth all of the juicy flavors.
Best Woods For Smoking Chicken
Oak is as about as common as it gets for smoking. This is not a criticism, though! Oak is a fabulous tree and we appreciate all of its gifts.
It’s mild. Everyone will get a hint of a nice smoky, flavor, and it won’t ever offend. If you are a first-time smoker, use oak. It will be nice with chicken.
Serve it with a bowl of wild rice, grape, and pecan salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, and some herb rolls on the side. Think of oak as a good basic wood that will offend none.
That’s an amazing thing, in this day and age.
Pros: Easy to find these chips. Cons: Not a walk on the wild side.
There is something about applewood that lends itself particularly well to smoking chicken. Have you ever had chicken-apple sausages?
If so, you know what we are talking about. There is a hint of sweetness to it, and that hint lends itself well to chicken. You can enhance this with more fruit on your menu.
A Waldorf, with loads of apples and pecans (use yogurt to cut the fat), and red potato salad work nicely with apple-smoked chicken. An apple-wood smoked chicken is also nice around the holidays with cranberry sauce.
For summer parties, pair the applewood-smoked chicken with bolder fruits, like mango or papaya, and serve with curried rice.
The chicken will hold up due to the applewood. Apple can take a while to really impart flavors, so you will want to be patient when smoking it.
Pros: Easy to obtain. Cons: Perhaps a little limited in flavor.
Do you have firewood left from a no-longer productive orchard? Don’t just burn it; save it for smoking chicken. Similar to apple, these fruits lend a hint of sweet smoke.
Chicken breasts, particularly, will benefit. If you have the time, make a chutney to go with, and serve with white rice, biscuits, and some green beans with bacon.
The flavor is mild but subtle. Southern folks will attest!
Pros: So nice with Southern profile. Cons: Can be hard to obtain.
Similarly, orange tree wood is a wonder for smoking, if you can find it. While orange wood really goes well with wild game, chicken can also benefit.
Slightly similar to hickory, it is mild and pleasant. Try adding the orange wood-smoked chicken to an Asian vegetable stir-fry, and complete with brown rice. Pros: Exotic flavor. Cons: Can be hard to obtain.
Pecan. The flavor profile of pecan wood is versatile, yet traditional. While reminiscent of hickory, it is milder with a touch of sweetness. We love this chicken with a side of a robust bourbon sauce to spoon over.
Top it off with cornbread and greens, and you’ve got yourself a special and memorable meal.
Pros: Great wood chip and versatile. Cons: None.
As you might suspect, the hint of citrus goes well which both dark and white meat on a chicken.The citrus is just a whisper, and will not overpower the chicken.
This is a nice wood to use if you are doing a Mediterranean meal. We like the chopped, smoked chicken in pita bread, with some cucumber sauce (Tzatziki), and crunchy salad.
The chicken is really good as a leftover, too, made into a chicken salad.
Pros: Nice citrusy hints. Cons: Can be hard to obtain.
Much like oak, almond has no wish to offend. It really works with just about everything. That is not to say it’s boring, bland, or undesirable.
It’s a good, solid, wood for smoking a variety of meats, chicken being no exception. The smoked chicken is wonderful with rice pilaf, broccoli and lemon, and a hearty sourdough.
Pros: Good, all-around wood. Cons: None.
Got blackberry vines? They will outlive us all, like bugs. If you have picked berries and then chopped down the leftover vines, let’s put the vines to good use by smoking the wood.
Handle carefully! Blackberry is especially nice for all poultry. Naturally, it has a sweetness that you can use to your advantage. Hopefully, you have kept some of the berries, because they are amazing with chicken.
Make it a super-summery meal with a blackberry reduction sauce, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob. Blackberry is surprising in its versatility.
Pros: Great for adventurous eaters. Cons: Dang thorns.
Don’t be alarmed if your chicken gets extra-brown. Something about the cherry wood causes that. However, the flavors are well worth it.
Cherry wood is a bit of a bold choice, but whip up some parslied carrots and biscuits to go alongside this chicken and you will not regret your decision.
Pros: Available readily. Cons: Can turn chicken a slightly unappetizing color.
Alder is, in our book, much like oak in that it’s a dependable, good, smoky flavor that will not offend your diners. You can go all-American with this one and serve the chicken with potato and tossed-green salads.
Pros: All thumbs-up. Cons: None.
Maple, like several others above, imparts a sweet flavor. We like this as a wintery chicken, served with a squash (and just a dash of maple syrup) and twice-baked potatoes with bacon.
Pros: So good with bacon. We love bacon. Cons: None.
How To Smoke Chicken With These Woods
Smoking a chicken is going to take you two to three hours at 275 degrees, so you have plenty of time to prep your side dishes and set the table.
For safety, aim for 165 on the breast meat and 175 on the thighs. Smokers keep meat moist, so you need not worry about wrapping it in foil If you want to season beforehand.
Pre-seasoning will improve the flavor. Try to stay in the flavor profile. For instance, for a Mediterranean chicken, use paprika, cumin, garlic, or chili.
For a pecan wood chip-infused chicken, you might try garlic, pepper, and onion. However, don’t over-season!
Remember, the wood is going to provide part of the flavor. Think “enhance,” not overpower. A good rub, though, is a terrific thing.
For those of you who are looking for more intense flavor, consider brining, or dry-brining. While it will add more time to your preparation, the results are well worth it. Brining leads to way more flavor.
Giving your chicken a dry rub and then letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator will bring noticeable results. Brining in a liquid is more work, but again, will bring more intense flavor.
Lastly, try not to peek during the smoking process. We know it’s hard, but it’s best to trust your thermometer.
As mentioned above, smoking takes longer, but it’s truly more of an art. One of the best things you can do is to experiment and make notes afterward. (Ours do tend to be covered in sticky sauce and bits of spices.)
However, we know you will find immense satisfaction in developing interesting flavors with the plain backdrop of the humble chicken. Pick up a variety of woods and start experimenting, soon!