A Lot from a Little Series 1, Post 1: How to Smoke a Chicken

I’m starting a new semi-regular feature here at Table for Two, in which I will try to offer some tips and tricks on eating well without breaking the bank, especially when cooking for a small number of people.

J and I are hardly poor. We both make decent salaries and we don’t have a lot of the expenses that other people our age do, since we don’t have children and live in an apartment where all of our utilities are paid for. However, we’re not exactly rich, either – J’s got his car payment and insurance, I’ve got train tickets to buy every month, and we both have credit card debt and cellphone bills. And, well, we live in NY, which isn’t exactly famous for its low cost of living. Add to that the rising food costs and the failing economy, and our budget for cooking and eating at home becomes a pretty important one.

Consequently, although we are generally able to afford plenty of high-quality cooking ingredients and can even occasionally buy something special, like a nice artisan cheese or imported olive oil, quite often our meal planning revolves around getting the absolute most that we can out of everything we buy so that we know we’re getting our money’s worth.

One method we use constantly is to buy a large cut of meat, say a london broil or a pork roast or a whole chicken or bone-in turkey breast, and then portion it out (either before or after cooking depending on our meal plan) to get 2-3 dinners out of it, and sometimes even lunch for a couple days, since we both bring lunch to work most of the time. Usually the price per pound of these types of meats will be less than pre-trimmed, pre-portioned versions, and if you’re clever you can have meat for a week off of a single cut, especially if, like us, you’re only cooking for two.

This also has the added bonus of allowing us to occasionally enjoy a roast beef or turkey dinner with all the trimmings, without succumbing to Turkey Day Syndrome where we end up eating that same meal over and over again for the rest of the week. Repurposing leftovers is the best way to get the most out of your food without getting bored, and opens up a ton of options that might not have been there before.

The example I’d like to walk you through today involves not roasting, but outdoor cooking – smoking, to be exact. Big cuts of meat and whole birds are ideal for smoking, since the long, slow cooking process tends to bring out the best in even the cheapest cuts. J has an electric smoker for these sorts of things, but it possible to smoke food in a charcoal grill as well – all you need is some heavy duty tin foil.

We started with a lovely Bell & Evans roaster chicken – we recently discovered this brand and fell in love with their chicken, always tender and moist and very flavorful.

The day before we planned to put it in the smoker, I mixed up a quick brine of equal parts sugar and kosher salt in filtered water, with a few bay leaves and whole peppercorns tossed in for good measure. The chicken went into a large ziploc bag, which then went into a second bag (insurance against leaks) and the brine was poured in, enough to submerge the chicken. I sealed up both bags and placed the whole thing in a big bowl just for a little added security, then slid it into the fridge to soak for the next 24 hours.

On smoking day I removed the chicken from its salt water bath and rinsed it quickly, then trussed it up with some butcher’s twine. After a quick rub down with a bit more salt and a lot of black pepper, it was ready for some heat.

While I was doing that, J set some hickory chunks to soaking for about half an hour.

J set up the smoker with a layer of lava rocks around the heating coil, with the hickory chunks on top of that. Its taken a lot of trial and error for him to figure out how much wood and rocks to use depending on what he’s smoking, as the smoker doesn’t have anything resembling temperature control (hey, I bought the one I could afford at the time) so I’m not sure I can give too many specifics for how YOU should do this. Mostly I would just advise paying attention to the directions that came with your smoker if you’re using one.

Also, if you don’t have a smoker, all you need to do is build up a fire in your charcoal grill, and toss in a perforated, double-wrapped foil packet with your soaked wood chips or chunks once the flames die down. Keep the lid closed while you’re cooking and it’ll work just fine.

Anyway, once the smoker was assembled and ready to go, in went Mr. Chicken and on went the lid, not to be seen again for another 2 and a half hours.

J used just the right amount of lava rocks and wood chunks to keep a steady supply of low heat and smoke for the entire cooking cycle, but I’d advise checking on your smoking rig every 30-45 minutes or so to be sure you’ve still got both. You may need to add more wood or, if you’re using charcoal, relight you fire at some point during the cooking process.

Use a meat thermometer to monitor how the chicken cooks – when it reaches 160-165 degrees in the thickest part of the breast or thigh, its time to pull it off the smoke and let it rest.

If you did it right, your chicken will now have this beautiful mahogany coat and a delicious aroma.

The most important thing to do now is to leave that bird alone for at least 15 minutes – it needs to come up a bit more in temperature, closer to 170, and the carryover heat will accomplish that. Plus, since its been brined, there’ll be a lot of juices in the meat, and cutting it now would let all that yummy flavor escape. As the great Alton Brown would say, your patience will be rewarded.

Once the 15 minutes are up and the bird is cool enough to handle, grab your knife. Not that you’ll need it much – it’ll help you get through the skin, but if your bird is properly cooked you should be able to just pull it apart at the joints with very little help from tools, and slip the bones right out of the meat. Feel free to lick your fingers while you’re doing this, because the juices will be delicious.

When I broke down our bird, I separated the legs and wings from the body and just pulled apart that meat with my hands, then carefully cut away the two breasts from the ribcage and sliced them into manageable pieces. Then I just picked off whatever meat I could find by hand. I removed all the skin at the beginning, and saved it to make something akin to cracklings in the oven later – sounds weird, but I tasted a piece while working with the meat and was struck by how much it tasted like bacon, smoky and salty. I just had to crisp it up and see if I could really make it like bacon. And it worked! The fat in the skin acted just like the fat in bacon and rendered out under the broiler to create a crispy, salty, and amazingly bacon-y snack.

This was, hands down, the best chicken that either of us has ever tasted. We’ve smoked chickens before, but often the smoke flavor was too strong – this time it was perfect, savory and aromatic, and the meat was tender and juicy and perfectly seasoned thanks to the brining step. It was addictive in a way I’ve never known chicken to be, and I kept sneaking little bites because I couldn’t get enough of the flavor. Its a good thing we had plans for all that meat, or I doubt it would’ve lasted long.

Once you’ve broken down your bird, you can bag and freeze the meat for use at some later date (it’ll last months in the freezer) or keep it in the fridge and use it within a week.

Next up in this series: BBQ Smoked Chicken Pizza, on the grill!

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