Saturday, July 25, 2009

Smoked Chicken Halves (July 25th 2009)

Smoke Date: July 25th 2009
Smoke Time: 5:00 - 7:30 (2 1/2 hrs)
Smoker: Weber Smoky Mountain 22 1/2"
Fuel: B & B Oak Lump
Smoke Wood: Pecan Chunks & Cherry chips
Target Smoker Temperature: Sear @ 450 degrees Smoke @ 250 degrees
Chicken Brand: Sanderson Farms 100% Natural (from Tom Thumbs)
Chicken weight: 4.64 lbs
Techniques used: Marinade/ sear for hatch marks/ finish on smoker
Weather: 95-104 degrees


Chicken. At one time I considered chicken to be one of the easiest things to cook. I have grilled the heck out of some chickens over the years and created some awesome flavored birds. Nice crispy skin, perfectly moist, and great flavor all the way through....Mmmmm. WELL, THEN WHAT THE @#%&# HAPPENED THIS WEEK END!!!!! I used to think that if you could smoke a brisket then you could smoke about anything. It looks like I may have to retract that way of thinking. How could something so simple go so wrong. Anything that could have went wrong, DID! First off, it was NOT a good day. My son was irritable and my wife was tired and grouchy. Then, to top it off, I had an awful sinus headache. Just LIFE. But! I was bound and determined to smoke this bird. I started things off wrong by straying away from my original game plan and taking shortcuts. I did not do a brine, instead I did a couple of different marinades. One was just Italian dressing and the other was a Roadside Chicken marinade that I found on one of the BBQ forums that I visit. It had a lot of great reviews and so I figured that I would give it a shot. I did not inject the marinated birds like I had planned either. I just through together a rub out of the spice cabinet (which was decent, but far from the best) and applied it to the bird that was bathed in the Italian dressing. The other I just followed the recipe with a few variations. Then, I lost all common sense. I had the grill way too hot for searing the bird to give it beautiful hatch marks. It was like the surface of the sun. I just about burned the hair off of one of my arms as I was placing the chicken on the grill. My eyes probably became the size of a bowling ball, it was at that time that I knew that I was screwed. I quickly rotated the chicken a quarter turn and pulled it off the grill. The tongs that I was using have a locking mechanism that locks the tongs closed when pointed up and it unlocks when pointed down, well, when held in between, the tongs have a mind of their own. SO, while taking the first bird off, THEY LOCKED UP! I am trying to shake this bird off into a pan while the other is sitting there burning on the grill. My wife is in the middle, watching me frantically dancing and swearing as I swing half a chicken around with the pair of tongs that she bought me for Father's Day. Let it be known that I HATE those tongs. When I finally got the two halves on the smoker I had to fight another battle. The outside temperature was at around 104 degrees when I started getting ready to smoke. I did put the smoker in the shade and by the time I actually put the chickens on, it had cooled off a little, but it was still in the upper 90s. Usually, when smoking chicken, I run the smoker at around 300 degrees and I usually do this by using an empty water pan. Well, I figured that since it was so hot outside that I would use water this time, thinking that if I did not, the smoker temperature would spike above my desired temperature. Well, guess again. The first 1/2 hour the temp stayed around 200 degrees, I cracked the door open and it slowly climbed up to 225 degrees. Finally, I added some more coals and it climbed up to 250 and stayed there for the next hour before dropping back down to 225. Now, I will admit that I am still learning this smoker, but for the last 3 months that I have used it, I have not had this hard of a time. Usually, the temps stay in the zone that I am shooting for. BUT, enough with the whining and excuses. Let's get on with it.

How I smoked the Chicken Halves

Before I get started, I would like to thank the members of these forums for their suggestions and recipes:

National Barbecue News Forum

Texas BBQ Forum

The Virtual Weber Bullet Forum

Step 1: Meat Selection

Ok, I'll have to admit that I am still learning this step. I recently had someone tell me that free range chickens seem to have less fat under the skin. I googled "free range chicken" and read a few different articles and stories and so on. The consensus was that free range birds did not taste any different than a caged bird. It just meant that they got to run free a little more than their caged friends. I am still going to check into this further, but, to be honest, if I really cared about the wellbeing of my chicken, then I would not be eating it! Right? Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't not love animals, I think that they are delicious. It's just that I will not lose any sleep because my chicken did not get the chance to get out and stretch his legs before ending up on my plate. If you're really that concerned about the bird's happiness, then take him out and get him drunk before going to the slaughter house. I mean, hey, that's how I would want to go out. Last meal? Forget the T-bone steak, give me a bottle of Jack! I don't want to feel a thing! OK, seriously. I went to a Tom Thumb grocery store hoping to score one of these free range birds, but was left with only one choice, "all natural". I will still continue my research on free range chicken verses caged chicken in taste, I wonder how these people cooked their free range chicken. Did they fry them? Or did they broil them? I bet you a millio......I'm broke, so let's say a dollar, that they did not smoke the bird. Smoking is the only time that I have had trouble with the skin. So, I will still keep my eye open for one of these field skippin birds, just to examine for myself if the skin has less fat under it.

Here is a good write up on selecting a chicken as well as preparation and cooking:

Step 2: Trimming

Cutting up a chicken is not one of my most favorite things to do. You pretty much have to quarantine the entire kitchen. Anything that the chicken touches must be sterilized. I think that I go through a gallon of bleach every time I trim a chicken. First thing that I do is lay out my tools: a large cutting board, a boning knife and a pair of kitchen shears. Then I put on a pair of latex gloves (and try not to say "now bend over" to my wife). When I am ready, I flip the bird to where the back is pointed up and the tail is facing me. I then cut down each side of the back bone to remove. You will have to "man up" or "woman up" because this can be a little difficult, but this can be made easier with a good sharp knife or good sharp pair of heavy duty shears. I prefer the shears, they are just easier in my opinion. Once the back bone is removed, I open up the cavity and make a slit at the "V" of the neck (or where the neck used to be). Then I grab each side of the bird push down and in, the breast bone should pop out and expose itself to you. Next, I cut along both sides of the breast bone to remove it. I also remove the cartilage that is attached to the breast bone and any that I leave behind. Now that the hard part is done, it is time to clean up any extra fat and skin. I also like to loosen the skin from the breast side and then stick my fingers under the skin at the thigh and leg to loosen as well. This will allow me to rub seasoning under the skin later. I also remove any excess fat under the skin and on the meat, any loose fat that scrapes off easily. Some people will remove the skin completely, scrape or cut all of the fat off and attach the skin back to the chicken. That is just too much %$#@ work. Don't get me wrong, if that is what it will take to win a first place trophy in chicken, believe me, I will do it. But, for now, I am trying to find ways around this long and tedious process.

Here is a good article on cutting a chicken

Here is how I trimmed the Chicken (click on the group of photos to enlarge):

Step 3: Marinade

Usually I brine my chicken when I smoke. I have done this very successfully, as far as flavor and moisture goes, but I tend to marinade when grilling and since the cooking technique that I had planned on using was searing to get grill marks and then finishing with a moderate heat smoke at around 250 degrees, so this is why I went with a marinade instead. Of course my plan crashed and burned. I had the grill too hot and the smoker not hot enough, so my chicken came out dry because they cooked longer than I anticipated. I took them off when the breast read 165 degrees, but they were still dry. If I use a marinade again I will probably inject the birds with some sort of mixture. Maybe a little bit of the marinade mixed with butter and maybe chicken broth. I'll have to experiment. On this practice run I tried two different marinades. One was just Italian Dressing. I have used Italian dressing many times when grilling, it is an easy and quick way to add flavor to grilled food. The other marinade I found on a forum that I frequently visit, it is call "Roadside Chicken". It had a lot of good reviews and the ingredient list sounded like something that I would like. I did vary from the recipe a bit, I used a garlic seasoned rice vinegar instead of white vinegar. I also used black pepper rather than white pepper. I did not have the original two items in my spice cabinet, so I had to make the substitutions. After I mixed up the Roadside marinade, I placed the chickens in two separate gallon size Ziploc bags and poured the marinades over them. I then worked the marinade under the skin and closed up the bags, pushing the air out as I zipped them up. Then I placed them in the fridge for about 6 hours.

Marinade #1: Italian Dressing

Robusto Italian Dressing (I used about half the bottle, just enough to cover the chicken)

Marinade #2: Roadside Chicken

1 Cup garlic seasoned rice vinegar
1/4 Cup veg oil
1/4 Cup Worcestershire sauce
1 TBL Kosher salt
1 TBL white sugar
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 Tsp celery salt

Mix all of the ingredients, except the oil, until well blended. Then pour half of the mixture in the bag with the chicken. Mix the other half with the oil and set aside for basting the chicken during the cooking process.

Here is the original recipe

Next time I may try this brine

Step 4: Air Dry

After the bird marinated for 6 hours, I took the two halves out of the zip lock bags, then I put them on a rack inside a pan and patted them dry with a paper towel. Then I stuck them back in the fridge for about an hour.

Step 5: Rub

I only made enough rub for one half of the chicken. The other half, I just followed the recipe. I just combined a few ingredients out of the cabinet. I did this while the chicken was marinating. After the birds had air dried for an hour, I took them out and applied the rub to the half that was marinated in the Italian Dressing. I started by lifting up the skin on the breast and sprinkling some rub directly on the meat, making sure to push some seasoning under the skin on the thigh and leg as well. The rub that I used was just something that I through together. I started with a seasoning salt that I made (a.k.a. BRITU rub). I have a ton left from doing some ribs on the 4th of July, so I thought that I would try to get rid of some of it. It is a good rub, although, in my opinion, it is too salty to be considered a "rub". That is why I call it "seasoning salt". That is how you should use it, AS A SALT. You definitely do not want to use it like you would most rubs. Just a light sprinkle should do. I also added some smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, sugar, black pepper, and chili powder, you know - the basics. Rather than giving you the whole recipe (because it was not worth sharing) I will give you a better recipe. This one was good, but I have had a lot better. Weber makes some great chicken seasoning as well, or you could use your own favorite rub.

Chicken Seasoning "Rub":

1 TBL kosher salt
1 TBL black pepper (freshly cracked or ground)
1 TBL lemon zest (finely chopped)
1 TBL orange zest (finely chopped)
1 TBL smoked paprika (for a more smoky flavor since chicken is smoked fast)
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1tsp ground allspice

Mix ingredients and sprinkle onto chicken just prior to smoking. Save remaining seasoning in a zip lock bag or air tight container for future use.

The person that posted the original recipe suggested adjusting the salt per your audience and also suggested the Tender Quick for a smoke ring. Here is the original Recipe.

Another option is to exclude the salt from the rub and apply it separately. So first, sprinkle the amount of salt that you normally would, then apply the rub. This way you will not over or under salt your food.

Step 6: Getting the Smoker and Grill Ready

This is the step that I really messed up. I intended to get a hot grill ready to sear the bird to give it nice grill marks and also render some of the fat out from under the skin. I was trying to balance life with cooking and there just wasn't enough room for both on this particular day. I was doing too many things at once and lost track of the grill. I let it preheat too long and I did not turn the heat down once it got to the desired temperature that I wanted. As a rule of thumb, you want to be able to hold your hand about an inch over the grate and hold it there for about 1 to 2 seconds, by counting: one thousand one, one thousand two. Not more, not less. If you hold your hand over the grate and the counting goes more like this: one thous......SON OF A........ OUCH! OUCH! OUCH!......then you have the grill too high, such as I did.

Here is a few good resources for grill temps:

Of course, if you have one, it is best to use a grate thermometer.

As far as the smoker, I should have gone without water in the pan or used more charcoal. I struggled with this mainly because I over-thought the process. I usually go without water in the pan and bring the temps up to 300 degrees. I wanted to go 250 degrees since I seared the chickens first. I think that I will take the advice of several forum members that suggested leaving the water pan out completely, making a direct heat source. The chickens should be high enough on the top grill grate so they won't burn as easy. This application is used successfully in competitions, so I will give it a try.

So, my grill was too hot and my smoker was too cold. So, next time I will go without the water pan with an even layer of charcoal and a few chunks of hickory or pecan. I may or may not sear first. It seems that most people like the nice even mahogany color that the chicken gets without the grill marks. I may do both and have forum members vote on which one looks best. Hmm, decisions...decisions.

Here is a great reference for getting a WSM fired up.

Step 7: Cooking the Chicken

The goal that I was trying to reach was creating a bird with a nice mahogany color, nicely marked with a diamond pattern from strategically rotating the bird as it seared on the grill. The skin should have been a bit crispy or at least bite through and the meat should have been moist and flavorful. After the two halves had marinated, air dried, and was seasoned, I attempted to sear them on my grill. We all know by now that my grill was too #$%@ hot, but if it wasn't, I would have had a bird that had a nice diamond pattern and the skin would have been browned just slightly. But, instead I had a slight diamond shape along with a lot of large dark brown to black spots. Also, the skin did not have time to brown a bit, rendering out some of the fat from under the skin. This should have took a few minutes, but only took 30 seconds since the grill was so hot.

Next, my goal was to finish on a 250 degree smoker. I wanted to get a good smoke flavor and I figured that since I seared the bird first that I could get away with lowering the smoker temp and still get edible skin. First off, this probably would have worked if I could have left the chicken on the grill longer to render out some of the fat. I also basted the bird a few times through out the process. The one that I marinated in Italian dressing, I basted with clarified butter. The Roadside chicken, I hit a few times with the Roadside marinade and oil. Finally, just before taking the chicken off the grill, I glazed the birds. The Italian marinated half got a mixture of four parts KC Masterpiece and two parts honey, the roadside got a TBL of honey, 2 tsp of roadside marinade, 1 tsp of soy sauce, and 1 tsp of Worcestershire sauce.

The chicken turned out average. It would have turned out better if I would have successfully achieved my goals. Overall, the flavor of each half was good. I liked the roadside best while my wife liked the other (she loves sweet and the KC Masterpiece and honey did the trick for her). The breast was slightly dry. I have had worst, but this was far from my best. The flavor did not penetrate down into the meat. I usually do not have this problem when marinating, but usually I do chicken parts rather than a half. Usually with a half or whole bird, I brine). I am not sure? I'll have to keep experimenting. Also, another thing that I will do next time is use tooth picks to keep the skin from pulling back exposing the breast meat. I think that this should also help with the skin texture, it seems that it thickens as it draws up. Hmm, not for sure, I will pay more attention next time.


Well, I will have to chalk this one up as a failure, although, I did learn a lot from this practice run. But, don't get me wrong, it still turned out better than most restaurant chicken, but it was still far from a 1st place trophy. Next time I will go without a water pan completely, use the brine and rub as mentioned above. I will also use toothpicks to keep the skin from drawing back on the breast. I may also try injecting one of the halves with a butter and broth mixture. Oh, just for kicks, I will try to find a free range bird to see if it has less fat under the skin. Well, practice, practice, practice!

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