Published July 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
Surprisingly, the trick to perfecting smoke flavor isn’t getting the wood to smolder for as long as possible. It’s just the opposite: knowing when to let it burn out.
When grill-roasting, home cooks find it tricky enough to balance the relationship between the heat level and the cooking time. Add smoke to the equation, and a whole new set of challenges—overcooked meat, barely discernible smoke flavor—arises.
We wanted to nail down a fire setup and a specific window of smoking time that would produce tender, juicy meat with clean, full-bodied smoke flavor.
Our first move was deciding what kind of chicken to use. After a few preliminary tests, we found that chicken parts stayed moist and cooked more quickly and evenly than a whole bird. We also found that brining the chicken was worth the time. It plumped the meat with additional moisture—a boon in a recipe in which the meat is prone to drying out. And to ensure the skin cooked up supple and tender, with a polished mahogany sheen, we brushed the chicken pieces with a coat of vegetable oil before they hit the grill.
Next, we addressed the charcoal grill setup. We mounded a small pile of unlit briquettes against one side of the grill and added a batch of lit coals on top. Over time, the heat from the lit briquettes trickled down and lit the cold coals, thereby extending the life of the fire without the need for opening the grill to refuel and allowing precious heat to escape. We also stowed a pan of water under the chicken on the cool side of the grill. The humidity provided by the water stabilized the temperature of the grill and (along with brining), helped prevent the delicate breast meat from drying out.
Then came the harder part: incorporating well-balanced smoke flavor into the chicken. We chose wood chunks, since they smolder more steadily and evenly than smaller chips do. Continuously smoking the chicken as it cooked resulted in heavily saturated meat that tasted sooty—not smoky. The key was not to smoke the chicken the entire cooking time. Instead, when the initial pair of wood chunks burned out, we let the meat finish cooking without refueling the wood. This resulted in meat that was deeply smoky but not overpoweringly so.list of recipes