Smoking a whole chicken is a satisfying experience with delectable results—assuming you do it properly. The process isn’t complicated, but if you’re not careful, you might wind up with flabby, rubbery skin. Here’s how to get crispy skin on smoked chicken every time.
How To Get Crispy Skin on Smoked Chicken
Most of the time, when chicken skin doesn’t crisp up, it’s because there was too much moisture introduced during the cooking process. Dry the chicken thoroughly before you season it, and avoid spritzing or wrapping the meat as it cooks. If you usually use a water pan when smoking meat, skip it this time.
Why it’s Important
First of all, know that if the chicken skin isn’t as crispy as you’d like, it’s not the end of the world. As long as the chicken has cooked to a safe internal temperature—that is, 165 degrees Fahrenheit—it should still be edible.
That said, there’s something undeniably appealing about crisp golden skin on smoked chicken. When the skin crisps up, it locks in all the savory juices and provides a mouthwatering contrast to the succulent meat.
Furthermore, crispy skin increases the eye appeal of the finished product. If you’re the type of pitmaster who knows their way around Instagram, you’ll be much happier if your birds come out of the smoker with a crisp mahogany coating.
How To Get Crispy Skin on Smoked Chicken
The first thing to remember is that moisture is the enemy of crispy skin. Once you take that into account, the following tips shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Let’s go over all the things you can do to promote a crackling-crisp skin on your next smoked chicken.
Pat it Dry
Before putting meat on the smoker, pat it dry using paper towels. You should do this with every cut, but with chicken, it’s imperative to ensure that the skin crisps up.
Don’t neglect the cavity, either. There might not be any skin in there, but you want the entire bird to be as dry as possible before it starts to cook.
After you’ve dried the chicken, you can apply a binder to help the seasoning adhere to the skin. Try to use something oil-based, like cooking spray or melted butter. This will also help to promote browning.
Defrost the Meat
It may be safe to cook chicken from a frozen state, but doing so can affect the texture—especially when you’re dealing with skin-on cuts and whole birds.
When the chicken isn’t fully defrosted, all that excess moisture will still be trapped beneath the skin. It will leach out as the meat cooks, but it will be difficult for the heat of the grill to overcome the effects of the extra fluid.
For optimum results, thaw your chicken in the refrigerator. It should take about 24 hours for a 4- to 5-pound bird to fully defrost. If you’re dealing with chicken parts, they’re bound to thaw more quickly.
Once the chicken is defrosted, you can keep it stored in the fridge for a day or two. Try to cook it off as soon as possible, though. The longer the chicken was in the fridge before you froze it, the sooner it will spoil after the thaw.
You can also thaw the chicken in water if you’re pressed for time. Submerge the wrapped meat in a cold water bath for 30 minutes per pound until it’s fully defrosted. You should swap out the water every half hour to keep it from warming to room temperature.
Never use warm or hot water for defrosting, as this promotes bacterial growth. Also, be aware that when you’ve thawed meat in cold water, you need to season and cook it at once.
Let it Dry in the Fridge
Once the chicken is defrosted, it’s a good idea to leave it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight, or up to 24 hours. The cold air will circulate around the bird, drying out the skin.
You can opt to season the chicken before or after the drying period. While it will save time when you’re finally ready to fire up the smoker, we haven’t noticed much difference in terms of quality either way.
Obviously, this will only work if you’ve thawed the chicken in the fridge (or if it was never frozen to begin with). As we pointed out, when you thaw meat using a shortcut, it needs to be cooked off as soon as possible.
Spatchcock the Bird
By removing the backbone from the chicken and pressing down on the breastbone so that the bird lies flat, you can maximize the amount of surface area that’s exposed to the heat. This will give you a higher ratio of crisp, delicious skin.
Ask your butcher to spatchcock (or “butterfly”) the bird for you the next time you go shopping. You can also do it yourself with a sturdy set of kitchen shears and a bit of elbow grease.
When you smoke a large cut of meat like beef brisket, you might apply a spritzer every so often. This liquid is usually made of vinegar, beer, beef broth, water, or a combination.
Spritzing cools down the surface of the meat so that it can stay in the smoker long enough for the collagen to transform into gelatin. It also attracts more smoke, promoting the formation of the sought-after smoke ring.
It’s permissible to spritz chicken after the first hour or so of cooking. However, because the meat is much leaner than brisket or pork butt, it’s not necessary. In fact, the moisture may prevent the skin from getting as crisp as you’d like.
Skip the Water Pan
Adding a water pan to the smoker is another way to ensure that large, fatty cuts of meat become tender and juicy during the long cooking process. Again, though, chicken won’t benefit from this extra step.
The more humid the environment is inside the smoker, the harder it will be for the skin to achieve the desired crispness. When you’re smoking chicken or turkey, it’s best to skip the water pan.
Smoke the Chicken Uncovered
Tenting chicken breasts with foil can prevent them from drying out while the dark meat finishes cooking. But if you take this step too early, the skin won’t be exposed to the direct heat. This will translate into a rubbery or flabby texture.
Smoke the chicken with the breast side facing away from the heat source. Often, this means that the breast will be facing up. Continue to cook until the breast meat has attained an internal temperature of 160 degrees and the leg and thigh meat reaches 180.
If the breast is in danger of overcooking, you can tent it with foil during the later stages of the smoke. At this point, the skin should have had a chance to crisp up.
Alternatively, you can carve off the breast and set it aside, then return the remainder of the bird to the heat. The meat will need to rest for 10 to 15 minutes anyway, so this will just give the breast portion a head start.
Add the Sauce Last
Don’t smother the chicken in sauce before putting it on the smoker. Instead, apply a dry rub, using a binder if desired. You can add sauce during the last 10 to 15 minutes if you’d like.
There’s another reason why you should wait to apply a sauce: Most of them contain a great deal of sugar. If you add these to the meat too early, the sugars will caramelize and burn. That will give the skin an acrid taste—and ruin the texture to boot.
The Bottom Line
The good news here is that you can help promote even browning and crispy skin just by letting the chicken cook undisturbed. There’s no need to spritz the meat, deal with a water pan, or fuss with a foil wrapper. Just season, smoke, and savor the results.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!