Published July 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
Brining chicken pieces plumped the meat with extra moisture—a boon in a grill-smoked chicken recipe, in which the meat is prone to drying out. The key to our successful Grill-Smoked Chicken recipe was the charcoal grill setup. Mounding some lit coals on top of unlit briquettes on one side of the grill allowed the heat to trickle down and light the cold coals, extending the life of the fire. Stowing a pan of water under the chicken on the cool side of the grill provided humidity that stabilized the temperature of the grill and helped prevent the delicate breast meat in our grill-smoked chicken from drying out. A couple of wood chunks gave our grill-smoked chicken all the smokiness it needed.
Avoid mesquite wood chunks for this recipe: we find that the meat can turn bitter if they smolder too long. When using a charcoal grill, we prefer wood chunks to wood chips wheneer possible. If using a gas grill, you will need to use wood chips.
Don't Oversmoke Your Chicken
To infuse our chicken pieces with full-bodied smoke flavor, we figured it was necessary to keep the wood chunks smoldering for the entire time that the meat was on the grill. But when the finished product tasted not just smoky, but also harsh and ashy, we wondered: Was there a limit to the amount of smoke that the chicken could take?
We smoked two batches of chicken. For the first, we added two soaked wood chunks to the fire at the beginning of cooking; when those had burned out about 45 minutes later, we added two more soaked chunks to keep the smoldering going for the duration of cooking. For the second batch, we didn’t replenish the wood after the initial chunks had burned out.
The chicken exposed to smoke the entire time tasted bitter and sooty, while the pieces that were exposed to smoke for only 45 minutes or so (about half of the overall cooking time) had just enough smoky depth.
Smoke contains both water- and fat-soluble compounds. As the chicken cooks, water evaporates and fat drips away, eventually halting meat’s capacity to continue absorbing smoke flavor. Once that happens, any additional smoke flavor that’s not absorbed by the meat gets deposited on the exterior of the chicken, where the heat of the grill breaks it down into harsher—flavored compounds.
Smoking Chicken in a Charcoal Kettle
To produce tender, juicy, smoky chicken, we devised a three-part fire setup in our charcoal kettle. It mimics the slow, steady, indirect heat that pit masters get from a dedicated smoker, plus it avoids sooty flavors.
TWO QUARTS OF UNLIT COALS
Bank to one side of the grill with 3 quarts of lit coals piled on top to keep the fire going without it being necessary to open the lid.
A WATER PAN
Place underneath the grill grate opposite the coals to create steam, which helps stabilize the temperature and keep the meat moist.
TWO SOAKED WOOD CHUNKS
Place on top of the coals smoldered for about 45 minutes—just long enough to infuse the chicken with smoky (not sooty) flavor.