Once those warm summer months roll around, the family and I are always out in the garden cooking up something delicious. While the kids are out hitting the baseball around, I’ll smoke some chicken thighs, lather them up with some homemade barbecue sauce, and then gather everyone around the patio table and enjoy the sunset while we feast. It’s all about letting the meat smoke low and slow.
Thanks to their relatively small size, chicken thighs only need between 1 ½ to 2 hours in a smoker set to 225° Fahrenheit. This should be enough time for the meat to rise to an internal temperature of 160° Fahrenheit, at which point you can remove the thighs and let them continue rising to 165° outside of the smoker.
Smoking chicken thighs really isn’t too difficult as long as you control the amount of heat and smoke within the cooking environment. Luckily, I’m a bit of a pro when it comes to smoking chicken thighs and I can help guide you through the process. I’ll also share some tips to improve their flavor and texture, as well as my own personal recipe.
Smoke the Meat According to Size and Weight
Unlike with a rack of ribs or brisket, there isn’t much variation in size from one chicken thigh to another. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider their size and weight, though, when you’re estimating how long to smoke the meat.
As a general rule of thumb, the chicken should smoke for at least 45 minutes per pound. This doesn’t account for the added bone, though. Most thighs will weigh less than 1lb, but since the bone will partially insulate the inner meat, you’ll have to let them smoke a little longer. Rather than removing them at 45 minutes, leave them to smoke for a full 1 ½ hours.
Then, using a meat thermometer, gauge the internal temperature. You should always insert the thermometer into the center of the thigh along the bone to get an accurate reading. If the thighs have risen to 160° Fahrenheit, you can remove them from the smoker, cover them in foil, and then allow the residual heat to bring the thighs up to 165°.
Smoke the Thighs with the Skin On
It won’t really affect the smoking time whether you leave the skins on or remove them but I highly recommend leaving the skins on while the chicken cooks. Although you’ll use a fairly low temperature to cook the meat, exposing chicken to heat for a full two hours can cause the meat to dry out. Yet, by leaving the skins intact, you’ll add fat and seal in the juices.
Plus, the skins will cook and crispen into a delicious crust that wraps around the meat. If it’s too crusty or you don’t like the harsher smoke flavor, you can always remove the skins before eating.
When to Cover the Thighs
The first hour of smoking is the most important, especially with poultry, because it brings the meat up to a safe temperature before bacteria can quickly multiply. As a general rule, you’ll want the thighs to cook to at least 140° Fahrenheit within the first hour. If they fail to reach this temp, bacteria can contaminate the meat, no matter how well you cook it.
Plus, this first hour is essential for capturing the rich woody flavor of smoke. I like to leave the thighs uncovered for the first 50 minutes to imbue the meat and skin with flavor. Then, once they pass the danger zone, I cover them with aluminum foil to prevent the skin from over-smoking. Leaving them to sit in the smoke for any longer will cause the thighs to take on an acrid bitterness.
If you’re worried that covering the meat with foil might cause it to steam, you can also use butcher’s paper. Food-safe paper is a lot more permeable than a solid sheet of aluminum, allowing a little bit of steam to escape the packet. This way, you can ensure that the skins remove crisp and crunchy without overexposing the meat to smoke.
Brine the Chicken Before Smoking It
If you have time the night before, brining the chicken thighs can help to break down protein structures and seal in moisture. This creates a succulent and tender cut of meat compared to a drier thigh that you may be more familiar with. Plus, brining is pretty easy, as long as you have about 8 hours to leave the chicken to soak.
To make a brine, simply combine 1 cup of salt and 1 cup of sugar with 1 gallon of warm water. Then, submerge the chicken in the solution and let it sit overnight. By the next morning, you can remove the thighs, pat them dry with some paper towel, and then season them before smoking.
Wait to Apply the Sauce
Barbecue chicken is nothing without a delicious sauce, but you shouldn’t apply it too early. If you lather the chicken thighs in a sugar-rich sauce too early, they’ll quickly burn and the skins will become a nasty crust of blackened charcoal. Instead, wait until the last 10 to 15 minutes and then apply a sauce.
This should be enough time for the sauce to thicken and partially cook without it burning. If you notice that it’s starting to turn black, remove the chicken from the smoker, check its internal temperature, and cover it with foil to allow the residual heat to bring the chicken up to a safe temperature.
How I Capture the Best Flavors
So much of smoking tender and flavorful chicken comes down to the seasonings and type of wood I use to prepare the meal. Over the years, I’ve fiddled with my recipe until I got it to taste exactly how my family and I like it. Feel free to use the same tips or experiment with your own flavors to match your palette.
Use a Lighter Wood
Chicken isn’t the boldest of flavors. Compared to beef, lamb, or fish, it’s quite neutral and won’t pair well with a strong smokiness. Rather than using mesquite or hickory, I prefer to use a nice applewood or cherry to impart a lighter, almost fruit quality to the meat. If you don’t have access to these woods, you can use hickory but I recommend covering the meat after 30 minutes.
Season the Skins and the Meat
I prefer to coat smoked chicken thighs with a sauce, but I still season the outer skin and the meat with a bit of salt and pepper before smoking. This helps to bring out the natural umami notes of the meat while also breaking down some of the surface proteins to keep the chicken tender and juicy. Apply seasonings both to the skin and below, directly to the meat.
Sweeter Sauces Work Best
If you’re from the Carolinas you probably prefer the vinegary tang of a nice mustard barbecue sauce, but for smoked chicken, I recommend switching to something a little sweeter. The added molasses or brown sugar in a Kansas City-style sauce will lightly caramelize into the meat, creating a beautiful crust of flavor that pairs well with the smokiness of a lighter wood.
Wrap the Chicken in Bacon
Worried about drying out the chicken in the smoker? Wrap the thighs in some bacon to add more fat and create a barrier between the heat of the smoker and the chicken underneath. You can eat the bacon once it’s cooked, though I recommend testing its temperature to ensure it’s risen to at least 165° Fahrenheit.
Let the Thighs Rest After Smoking
You may be tempted to dig in as soon as the meat comes off of the smoker. While it’s certainly safe to eat, I prefer waiting about 15 minutes to let the juices settle back into the meat. Otherwise, if I cut straight into a thigh, it makes a pool of flavor-filled chicken juice on my plate.
Frequently Asked Questions About Smoked Chicken Thighs
Although it’s generally assumed that poultry shouldn’t be pink, it’s completely normal and safe for smoked meat to turn pink. This is caused by the smoke, not the meat being raw.
You can safely store smoked meat for up to 5 days in the refrigerator or seal it in an airtight container and freeze the thighs for up to 6 months.
I personally like to use the oven to reheat the smoked chicken. I find that microwaving it causes the meat to lose its texture, whereas baking the thighs brings them up to a warm temperature without sacrificing quality.
My Family Recipe for Smoked Chicken Thighs
- 1 gallon of water
- 1 cup of kosher salt
- 1 cup of sugar
- 2 pounds of standard-sized chicken thighs (roughly 3 ounces. each)
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
- ½ cup of apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup of apple juice
- 2 cups of ketchup
- ½ cup of brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon of onion powder
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 3 tablespoons of smoked paprika
- 5 tablespoons of melted butter
- Remove the thighs from their packaging and wash them under warm water.
- Add the water for the brine to a large food container and stir in the sugar and salt until completely dissolved. Add the thighs and let brine overnight or for at least 8 hours.
- Fire up your smoker by laying a bed of wood chips and then topping it with hot coals. Adjust the vents until the smoker reaches 225° Fahrenheit.
- Remove the chicken thighs from the brine and pat dry with some paper towels. Crack salt and black pepper over the skin and then rub some of the seasonings underneath the skin onto the meat itself.
- Place the thighs in the smoker and let them cook for 50 minutes. After 50 minutes, carefully cover the chicken with aluminum foil and continue cooking for another 55 minutes.
- While the thighs smoke, prepare the barbecue sauce by combining all of the ingredients in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat until everything combines into a smooth consistency.
- In the last 15 minutes, open the smoker and baste the thighs with the sauce.
- Check the internal temperature of the meat and remove the thighs once they reach 165° Fahrenheit.
- Let the meat rest for 10 to 15 minutes and then serve immediately.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving:Calories: 811Total Fat: 31gSaturated Fat: 14gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 16gCholesterol: 183mgSodium: 16736mgCarbohydrates: 113gFiber: 2gSugar: 101gProtein: 29g