Smoking a whole chicken is a satisfying experience that yields delicious results. But which is better, smoking the bird with the breast portion facing up or down? Can you even tell the difference?
Smoke Chicken Breast Up or Down
It’s generally preferable to smoke chicken so that the breast faces away from the heat source. In most cases, that means the breast side will be facing up. You can try it both ways to see if you notice any difference, or turn the chicken over partway through the smoke.
Why It Matters
When you’re smoking large cuts, the position and placement of the meat makes more of a difference than you might think.
For example, pork butt and brisket have a great deal of fat on them. You want to make sure the fat renders without burning and imparting an acrid flavor to the finished product.
That’s not as much of an issue with whole chickens, as the meat is relatively lean. However, you have a different set of rules to follow.
Since the breast portion contains the leanest meat on the bird, you’ll need to take steps to prevent it from overcooking. Conversely, the legs and thighs can be cooked to higher temperatures, and taste best when they’re sheathed in crisp savory skin.
Smoking Breast Side Up: Pros and Cons
Most people opt to smoke chickens with the breast side facing up. That’s how the bird is usually positioned when you roast it in the oven, so why not use a similar method when you fire up the smoker?
There are a number of arguments to support this position. First of all, it allows the skin on the breast to get nice and crisp while turning a lovely shade of bronze. This makes for a nice photo opportunity if you like to share your handiwork on social media.
There’s also the fact that most smokers are configured so that the direct heat is coming from below the cooking grate. It’s better to let the dark meat take the brunt of that high heat, rather than risk overcooking the breast.
Opponents of the breast-side-up technique argue that the breast meat will be juicier if you smoke the chicken with that portion facing down. The richer juices from the dark meat will flow into the breast as the meat cooks, essentially basting it.
Some people also find that the breast meat is prone to overcooking anyway, even if it’s facing away from the heat source. You can try tenting it with foil partway through the smoke, but this might result in skin that’s rubbery and chewy instead of crisp.
Having It Both Ways
Another option might be to start the smoke with the breast side facing down, then flip the bird over during the final phase. That way, the juices will stay in place for most of the cooking time, but the skin on the breast will have a chance to crisp up.
If you decide to go this route, make sure to use a low smoker temperature. We recommend 225 degrees anyway (see below), but you don’t want to expose the breast meat to high heat for too long.
Also, take care when flipping the bird over. Use a sturdy set of tongs, heatproof gloves, and an aluminum roasting pan. It’s easier to turn the chicken when you’re not holding it over the cooking grate.
The Beer Can Alternative
If you’ve ever smoked a “beer can” chicken, or if you’ve seen it done, you may have noticed that the chicken isn’t facing breast side up or down. Instead, it’s positioned vertically, as if the bird were standing up.
This technique involves smoking the chicken with an open can of beer inserted into the cavity. As the meat cooks, the steam from the beer will prevent the meat from drying out. Some barbecue enthusiasts claim that it imparts a nice flavor as well.
This is a great option, as it allows indirect heat to circulate around the entire chicken. The only parts that are exposed to direct heat are the tips of the drumsticks, which hold up well at high temperatures.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the beer can method. Some people dispute that the beer gets hot enough to create steam, and find the flavor difference to be negligible. In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether the extra step is worth the effort.
If you’d like to use the beer can method on a regular basis, it might be a good idea to invest in a beer can chicken holder. The can itself isn’t usually sturdy enough to support the weight of the chicken, which means it could fall over during the smoke.
Recommended Smoker Temperature For Chicken
When smoking meat, it’s important to choose the right temperature. You don’t want the meat to cook too quickly, or it won’t have that savory smoke flavor. On the other hand, if you set the temp too low, the meat will take a prohibitively long time to cook.
For whole chickens, 225 degrees Fahrenheit is a good bet. Chickens aren’t as large as turkeys, so they’ll cook through faster. You won’t have to wait all day for the bird to be done, even when the smoker is set to a low temp.
The chicken should cook at a rate of about 45 minutes per pound when you use this temperature. Depending on the size of the bird, that means it should hit the optimum serving temperature in 3 to 5 hours.
You can speed things along by setting the smoker to 275 or even 300 degrees, if you’d like. Just be aware that the meat won’t taste as smoky as it would if you’d used a lower temperature.
Safe Internal Temperature For Chicken
Chicken is technically considered “done” when it cooks to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the bacteria that cause food poisoning have been killed off in a matter of seconds, so the meat will be safe to consume.
That said, the dark meat has a superior texture if it’s allowed to cook longer. 180-185 degrees is our recommended internal temperature for the legs and thighs. The breasts, meanwhile, should be consumed at 165 degrees, or they’ll have a chalky texture.
Our suggestion would be to remove the chicken from the heat when the breasts have cooked to 160 and the thigh meat has cooked to 180. The meat will achieve the proper temperature during the resting period, as carryover cooking allows the temp to rise slightly.
What if the breast meat is approaching the right temp, but the dark meat needs to cook longer? One option would be to tent the breast portion with aluminum foil. This will shield it from the heat and prevent it from overcooking.
You can also carve the breast portion off and let it rest, then return the remainder of the bird to the smoker to finish cooking. The presentation won’t be as impressive, but that’s preferable to overcooked breast meat.
A Word About Spatchcocking
Spatchcocking the chicken, or removing the backbone so that the bird lies flat, is a great way to save time. It also increases the surface area of the chicken, so you’ll have a higher proportion of crisp golden skin.
You can ask your butcher to spatchcock a chicken for you, or do it yourself using a pair of kitchen shears. After removing the backbone, turn the chicken over so that the breast side is facing up, and press down with both hands until you hear a crack.
Season and cook the chicken as planned. You can use the breast side up or down method, or turn it over as we discussed earlier.
The Bottom Line
It’s ultimately up to you whether to smoke chicken breast up or down. Your goal is to cook the breast to 160 and the dark meat to 180 while allowing the skin to brown up and turn crisp. As long as that happens, it doesn’t really matter how you got there.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!