Thursday, August 12, 2010

Smoked Chicken

Lammas has come and gone, and I may still not feel like baking, but I do still feel like cooking outside. Over the winter, I oven-roasted a whole chicken almost every week. For the two of us, a whole chicken will end up providing at least two or three meals as I incorporate the leftover cooked chicken into other dishes. Since it's been hot, I haven't been cooking chickens lately, but now that I have a pit smoker, I thought I'd give cooking a chicken in there a shot.

This is my smoker. It's a small version of the horizontal pit smoker with the firebox on the side, a chimney on the other side, and a thermometer. They come much bigger than this, but I didn't think I'd need one of the big ones. I hope I won't end up regretting that. I guess I could always upgrade to a larger one some day.

First, I brined my chicken overnight in a solution of kosher salt and brown sugar, like what I do to the Thanksgiving turkey. Brining does wonders to poultry! I then covered my chicken with the spice rub from the Good Eats episode, "Grillus Domesticus", where Alton Brown claims that you cannot truly barbecue chicken. I'm not sure why. My definition of barbecue is a method of slow-cooking meat with a wood fire, and I guess you also need some kind of spicy rub and/or sauce to make it truly barbecue (since I guess hot smoking is a bit broader than barbecue). All the different regional styles of barbecue fit this definition just fine, from Texas beef briskets to Carolina pulled pork. But I think this cooking method should work on any sort of meat that lends itself well to slow cooking, and whole chickens fit the bill on that just fine. Steaks, burgers, and hot dogs, not so much. Grilling is different. It's a quick cooking method over high heat. I may be a Texan that doesn't mind some Carolina pulled pork every now and then, but I do draw the line somewhere!

Besides, barbecue originated as poverty food. The different regional styles arose from the different meats that were cheaply available in that area, which is why Texans do brisket (a cheap, tough cut of beef here in cattle country) while further east they do pork shoulder and ribs (cheap, tough cuts of pork since pork was the cheapest meat there). Well, I have several free range roaster chickens in my freezer, so I was just using what I have. I figure that's in the proper spirit of barbecue. I always buy roasters from the free-range meat guy rather than broiler/fryers because roasters are cheaper. They're older, tougher birds, but seem to do fine with the cooking methods I use on them.

Also in the spirit of using what you have, the different woods used for barbecue reflects what trees are around in that region that yield good smoke. One should never use the wood of conifers such as pine or juniper, because the resins in them give the meat a bitter taste. Apple, cherry, hickory, and oak are all popular for smoking. I think in general any fruit or nut bearing tree works well, giving the meat different flavors. Around here we've got oak and pecan, but this time I went with what might be Texas's favorite wood for smoking: mesquite! Daniel got a hold of some oak and mesquite logs, and since the mesquite logs are slightly rotten, we decided they'd make better smoking wood than something else, like carving. Mesquite is actually a very beautiful wood. Look at the nice rosy color of that piece in my smoke box. Daniel has done some woodworking with some pieces of mesquite he obtained that were in better shape, and it's quite lovely.

Mesquite trees have been vilified over how they're involved in woody encroachment on rangelands, similar to Ashe juniper, only on different soils. Personally, I don't see it as being the trees' fault that it can survive on overgrazed pasture where no other plants can. Mesquites are legumes, so they fix nitrogen and can tolerate very poor soils, and their beans are good food for wildlife, cattle, and humans. A major part of the diets of southwestern Native American tribes was mesquite beans, and it's thought that one of the reasons mesquite is so "invasive" is because cattle love to eat the pods and spread the seeds in their droppings. I've eaten the pods of Honey Mesquite before, and I can see how the tree got its name. The pod was honey-sweet, though very fibrous, but the natives would grind the pods up and cook them before eating them, which I'm sure made them very palatable.

Well, I digress, but my point is that mesquite can be a very useful tree. I fired up the charcoal until it was covered in white ash and then put the mesquite on, and kept the fire at a somewhat high temperature to cook the chicken. Chicken doesn't need to be as slow cooked as a brisket or pork shoulder, so around 300 degrees is fine. After about three hours, the chicken looked like this:

The outside got a bit darker than I wanted, where the spice rub ended up burning, and the skin got a bit tough and leathery. I stuffed the cavity with a halved lemon to try to keep things moist, but maybe I should have put a pan of water in the smoker as well to keep the skin from getting so tough. But the meat underneath was moist, tender, smoky, and a slightly pink color, especially the dark meat. Daniel loved it and ate almost half the chicken himself! I would say that made it a success, but I think I need to figure out what to do about the skin. When I oven roast chicken, I end up with a tasty, edible skin, not leather. I wonder if that's even possible in a smoker. I think next time I'll do without the spice rub since I'm not sure how much it contributed to the flavor, especially compared to the smoke and the brine.

I'm tempted to try smoked turkey this Thanksgiving, if I can fit a turkey in my smoker. If I get one of those smaller, free range turkeys, it might fit. Those don't have the freakishly huge breasts since free range turkeys have to be able to actually, you know, walk. If I still can't fit it, maybe I can cut it in half or something. I had smoked turkey for Thanksgiving several years ago and it was awesome.

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