Dispatches From Whitcomb Street

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hot smoked chicken

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Hot-smoked chicken is…different. Deeply chicken-y, suffused with wood smoke, it can almost be a little disconcerting—there’s a mild cognitive dissonance thing that can happen (“This tastes like chicken, but it also tastes like bacon!”). Its texture is interesting, too: the long cooking works on the collagen and connective tissue in the meat to give it that classic slippery barbecue texture when hot and a firm, almost cured quality when cold. It might be too too for a whole meal centered on chicken, but let me tell you: It’s brilliant in a sandwich with a very ripe tomato and some good mayonnaise. It makes phenomenal chicken salad. It would be amazing diced and stirred into a pot of green chili or white bean chili.

Best of all, you don’t need to be a swaggering barbecue he-man, full of purist barbecue ideals and complicated equipment requirements, to make this. If you have a grill (charcoal or gas) that is any bigger at all than a chicken, three hours, and perhaps a refreshing beverage or two to pass the time, you can do this.

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Hot-smoked chicken

Warning: This is not smoking for fusspots or purists. In all the great American barbecue cultures, chicken is sort of an afterthought meat for smoking anyway—the emphasis is on beef and pork, with their big surface area and copious amounts of fat and collagen. Smoked chicken is sort of like Barbecue Lite. Which doesn’t make it any less delicious, and liberates you from feeling guilted into following The Barbecue Rules. Win win!

Cut the backbone and keel bone out of a smallish—three to four pound—chicken. Lay it out flat on a tray and rub it down liberally on both sides with your choice of spices—just salt and pepper is fine; a dry rub with garlic, paprika, and sugar is fine; a commercial rub is fine. I like salt and pepper with a sturdy herb (this time it was rosemary) stuffed under the skin. Leave it uncovered for a day in the fridge.

When you’re ready to smoke it, build a small fire to one side of your grill, the opposite side from your lid chimney or vent if you have one. If you have a kettle grill, for example, just build your fire high up on one side. Emphasis on small: You really only need a handful of coals burning at any given time. Give the fire time to stabilize, and take the temperature inside—it should be somewhere between 225 and 250 F. Leave yourself a way to add more coals as they burn down—either take one grate off the grill, or position your all-in-one grate in such a way that you can lift up one side to drop in another coal or two.

Put some wood chips to soak in hot water, or dampen some sawdust (fruit wood is good and light; mesquite is super-smoky).

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Position your chicken as far away from the fire as possible, with the dark meat closest to it. Make a little tray of tinfoil and set it on top of your coal pile; add a small handful of wood. Close the lid, open the chimney in the lid to create a draft, and walk away for three hours, monitoring the temperature and adding one or two coals and additional handfuls of sawdust as necessary. Don’t lift the lid too often. It’s nicest to have a small second coal fire burning so you can add hot coals.

When finished, the chicken will have a deeply burnished skin and read at at least 165F in the breast. Let it rest for five minutes before cutting up—don’t be surprised at a pink tinge to the meat (that’s the smoke reacting with myglobin in the muscle to make nitrates—think good bacon without added coloring). 

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