How To Smoke Chicken Thighs
Smoking chicken thighs is a day-long event that really pulls the flavor out of these sometimes forgotten little gems. You don’t need an expensive smoker—just a regular gas grill, a handful of wood chips, a salty brine and some barbecue sauce. Read on to find out how to smoke chicken thighs.
When learning how to smoke chicken thighs the right way, we’ll look at:
- Choosing your chicken thighs—with bones and skin is best.
- Selecting your wood chips—mild works well with thighs.
- Steps to take—brine, sear, smoke and sauce.
- Serving them—as a main or side dish.
- Pull the meat—for sandwiches or tacos.
Chicken is often the meal you have between the special ones. I know at my household this sometimes feels true. It goes on the menu as a weekly palette cleanser, something a little bland that doesn’t offend anyone—and often doesn’t amaze anyone either.
So between the steak dinners and the seafood extravaganzas, we have chicken. Dependable chicken. There aren’t usually too many surprises there.
And of all the different cuts of chicken, I think that the thigh has gotten the short end of the stick. It’s all about the breasts at my grocery store. They look nicer in the package, and it seems they will be tastier. But are they?
Today the humble chicken thigh is going to give the popular chicken breast a run for its money. And we’re going to elevate the thigh to its rightful place of honor.
In short: we’re going to smoke it. And doing that, we’ll bring out some of that flavor that often seems to be hiding out a little.
Put Your Eye on the Thigh
Choosing the right chicken thigh for smoking isn’t a huge ordeal. Whether you go to a butcher’s or just pick them up at the grocery store, there are two questions you need to ask yourself. Should I buy bone-in or boneless? Skin-on or skinless?
To Bone or Not To Bone?
Let’s face it: thighs with no bone in them are way easier to eat. But that’s pretty much where the benefits end.
Why are bone-in thighs better tasting?
Inside all bones, there’s something called bone marrow. You might have heard that some gourmet restaurants are serving beef bone marrow as an unusual and really tasty treat. Well, you should know that the same delicious bone marrow is also in your chicken thigh bone.
But so what? We’re not eating the bone.
That’s right; we aren’t eating the bone. But heat activates the bone marrow in your chicken thighs. It actually starts to come out of the bone and enter the flesh of the thigh—and it brings a lot of flavor with it.
Of course, boneless thighs have had the bone marrow removed.
To make matters worse, the process of extracting the bones from boneless chicken thighs also removes other fat and meat. These are also potential flavor boosts that get taken out.
It’s kind of ironic to pay extra for deboned thighs and also lose flavor.
The Skinny on Chicken Skin
In our pursuit of weight loss, we’ve been removing skin from chicken thighs and breasts. I get it; there are calories in that skin.
But there’s also flavor. Smoking or grilling skinless chicken, well, I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of time—it’s just not the same. It’s just not nearly as good. The fat in the skin reacts with the smoke and the flame, and amazing things happen. Smoked chicken thighs with crispy skin just taste better.
If you’re serious about counting calories, you can remove the skin from the thigh before you eat it, instead of before you smoke it. Or just eat a small amount of the skin to get that taste. Or do what I do, start your diet tomorrow.
Which Wood Chips Work Best?
Choosing a wood chip to smoke your meat or poultry is sort of like choosing a wine. The stronger the taste of your meat, the richer and more complex the wine. Chicken has a gentle flavor and pairs best with a white or a light red.
The same is true for your wood chips. Strong tasting beef can handle some strong tasting chips. Your chicken thighs need something mild.
With this in mind, I’d recommend the fruit tree chips. Cherry, peach or apple are good choices. You could venture over to oak or maple if you want that much sweetness. Stay away from hickory, especially on thighs. They’re too small to handle that big flavor, and they may turn out bitter.
Prepare Your Wood Chips
Any instructions on how to smoke chicken thighs should also include how to prepare your wood chips. Before you start smoking the thighs, take your chosen wood chips and soak them in water for half an hour.
I usually wrap them up in tin foil and poke a couple of holes in. This can go on your gas grill. Other folks just put the chips directly on lava rock—your choice.
How To Smoke Chicken Thighs
This recipe is for about eight chicken thighs, though you can easily double it or triple it if you’re having people over or want to use some pulled smoked chicken in dishes throughout the week.
Simple Chicken Thigh Brine
Whenever you’re considering smoking a raw piece of meat or poultry, you must also be thinking about brining. This process provides moisture, texture, flavor and also helps to conduct heat so that the chicken cooks faster without drying out.
Let’s not overthink the brine. In this case, simple is better.
- Put about six cups of water into a large saucepan.
- Add a cup of brown sugar and a cup of kosher salt.
- Put the saucepan on your stove and heat it.
- When the salt and sugar have dissolved, you can remove the saucepan from the heat. This may take about 10 minutes.
- Before you put the chicken in the brine, it has to cool. So while you’re letting the brine cool, it’s a good time to add some flavor elements if you like, such as fresh or dried herbs. Some suggestions for chicken thighs are rosemary and thyme. I’ve heard of some smokers adding slices of fruit or even chopped up jalapenos. Go crazy! It’s experimenting time!
- Once the brine is cool, you can add the chicken. You can put it all together in a large bowl and put it in the fridge.
Now, about the time. You brine too long, and you get salty thighs. Too short, and you lose out on flavor. I’d say the perfect time is about four hours. Again you’ve got to experiment to get it to your personal taste.
The placement of this step in a how to smoke chicken thighs guide does have its share of controversy. You have a choice to sear before or after smoking. Or I guess not searing at all is an option in some people’s minds. Not mine! I need that crispy outside texture.
My personal preference is to sear between brining and smoking. I think the inside is juicier in the end.
If you’re using a gas grill for both searing and smoking, here’s the plan.
- First, oil your grill with a little cooking oil (canola works) before lighting it up.
- Next, light half of your grill. This means lighting the burners on one side of the grill.
- Get the one side nice and hot and do a quick sear of the thighs. The outside should look grilled but not burnt. Avoid the rookie mistake of moving them around a lot. You want some of those nice grill lines and, you won’t get them if you’re always moving the chicken thighs around.
- Once you’ve fully cooked one side, turn the thigh over and do the same to the other side. This should just be a couple of minutes per side.
- Once you’re satisfied with the outer appearance of the thighs, transfer them carefully to the unlit side of the grill. It’s smoking time!
- First of all, lower the temperature on your gas grill. Remember, one side is still off, and the other should be at low. Keep the lid open in order to speed up cooling.
- When the temperature of your grill is around 250 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re ready to go. That’s smoking temperature.
- Place your wood chips or wood chips tin foil packet on the lit side of the grill. I put mine directly on the lava rocks.
- Your seared chicken thighs should already be on the unlit side. Close the lid of your gas grill.
- You can relax here a bit, but you must keep an eye on the temperature. It needs to stay around the 250 mark. You also need to make sure the chips are smoking. If you don’t see smoke coming out of the grill, then something’s wrong.
- You should let the chicken thighs smoke for 45–50 minutes. But more important than the time is the temperature of the thighs. They have to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit for the thighs to be safe to eat.
Sauce It Up
When there are just a few minutes left on your smoking time, pull out your favorite barbecue sauce. This is the time to paint it on nice and thick with a cooking brush. Think of yourself as the Picasso of barbecue sauce.
Check the temperature once more. If it’s 165 degrees or over, you’re ready to take the chicken thighs off the grill. Put them on a platter and lay some tin foil over the top. Not tight—more like a tent.
Your job’s done. After they sit a bit, you can serve them up.
How To Serve Smoked Chicken Thighs
Smoked chicken thighs can certainly be the main event of any dinner. Popular sides would be coleslaw, garlic mashed potatoes and sweet pickles.
Some people also serve smoked chicken thighs as a side to other barbecue items. They’re a tasty alternative for any guests who shy away from beef or pork.
I haven’t forgotten you dieters. If you’re worried about the extra calories of the chicken skin, why not serve the thighs as part of a salad? I’ve tried one with arugula, a soft boiled egg, pickled onions and a shallot vinaigrette. Use lemon juice instead of oil to keep the calories down. Add bacon if you’re feeling naughty.
Pulled Smoked Chicken Thighs
Pulled pork is a food trend phenomenon that isn’t going anywhere soon. Pulled smoked chicken thighs are a way to get a similar texture and flavor while using chicken instead of pork.
Once the thighs have cooled for about five minutes, pull the meat from the bone and shred it into small pieces. I use a fork and a pair of tongs to do this. Now you can use your smoked chicken thighs for pulled smoked chicken thigh sandwiches or for tacos.
You can make delicious sandwiches with potato buns and a little coleslaw. Add a few pickles and some sauce, and you’re good to go.
Pulled smoked chicken thigh tacos get more crazy delicious with grilled pineapple and jalapeno salsa. Be sure to use authentic corn tortillas if you can find them.
I also use pulled smoked chicken thighs on pizzas and in pasta dishes for some extra flavor and texture.
I’ve given you what you need on how to smoke chicken thighs. What you do with it can be your own adventure.
Challenge yourself by trying different wood chips. Keep trying new ones until you get your signature taste. Always remember to keep a record of the chips you use as you can revisit success stories and avoid the disappointments.
You can also fool around with the herbs and pieces of fruit you add to your brine. Again, keep track of what you add for future smoking.
There are so many ways to make this a very personalized experience. With some luck, you could become the smoked chicken girl or guy of your group of friends. What an honor.