Smoked/Barbecued Chicken Thighs

The combination of easy, inexpensive, (reasonably) healthy and yummy is why we eat more smoked chicken thighs than anything else.

Chicken thighs with Char-Crust seasoning after about 30 minutes on my pellet smoker. Remove the skin if you like - the rub is applied primarily under the skin, so the flavor is still intense.

NOTE: If you are using a traditional gas grill, you will need to cook the chicken indirectly to avoid flareups. This recipe works best on a smoker. 

The biggest surprise when I got my smoker several years ago was what a great job it does on chicken. Pork, I expected. Steak, another delightful surprise. But chicken is mild enough to pick up the smoked flavors very nicely - particularly dark meat, which is oilier and therefore holds smoke flavor better.

I have tried a number of different "5-star" BBQ chicken recipes from a variety of recipe sites, as well as specialized smoker sites. Some of them call for slow-cooking the chicken at 200 or 225F for a couple of hours. Some say to cook it at higher temps for crispier skin.  

Here's what I've learned so far:

  • All chicken is good on the smoker, but dark meat is best. I use skin-on thighs, and leave the skin on (even if you don't eat it) because it drips over the rest of the meat.
  • Cooking it at 350 results in fairly crispy skin, and typically takes about 30 minutes. It picks up plenty of smoke flavor if you use a blend of pellets that includes hickory (I use CookinPellets Perfect Mix). This technique makes it a fast, easy meal that is perfect for weeknights.
  • Cooking at 200 for 2 hours works great as well, but it takes longer and the skin is not crispy. Also, the chicken can pick up too much smoke flavor unless I change out my pellets to a milder blend. I don't see the point of going through all of that extra work.
  • No need to wet brine it, or even dry brine it. I have done both many times, and can barely tell the difference. Just take it straight out of the refrigerator, put some salt and pepper on it (under the skin as well), and throw it on the smoker at 350F.
  • Lately, I've been sprinkling it with Char-Crust Original Hickory rub. It's a matter of personal taste - either way, the chicken is flavorful and juicy. 

At 350F, the skin crisps up pretty nicely. Even if you're not going to eat it, it keeps the meat moist during cooking - so I like skin-on thighs. This one is seasoned with salt and pepper only, but the smoke flavor comes through beautifully.

TOTAL TIME: 45 min

  • Prep:      15 min
  • Cook:     30 min

YIELD:   4

LEVEL:  Easy


Directions

Start the smoker and bring it to 350 degrees F.  I use pellets with a mix of hickory and fruitwoods for a fairly strong smoke flavor (CookinPellets Perfect Mix). If using a traditional (non-smoker) grill, set it up for indirect cooking to avoid flare-ups.

Prep the chicken. I take it straight from the refrigerator, which is typically 34 - 37 degrees. Dry it with paper towels. Peel back the skin on the meaty side so you can get in there. Sprinkle salt and pepper directly on the meat all over, and also on the skin. If using a rub (we like Char-Crust Original Hickory) instead of salt and pepper, first rub olive oil on the chicken so that the rub will stick better.

Smoke until chicken reaches 170 - 175F, usually about 30-35 minutes. Don't put the chicken on until the smoker/grill is fully up to temperature. Place it skin side up, and leave it that way for the entire cook. No need to flip it unless you just have to have sear marks on the skin, since the heat is indirect like an oven. Use a good thermometer or cooking alarm. If cooking white meat, pull it at 160 - 165F for best results.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken thighs (bone-in, skin-on)
  • Salt to taste
  • Pepper to taste
  • Char-Crust seasoning (optional)
    • Olive oil (if Char-Crust used)

More Photos

Peel the skin back from the meaty side so you can put seasoning directly on the meat. Particularly important if you are not planning to eat the skin.

They're safe to eat above 160 - 165F, but you want dark meat to end up around 175 degrees F. Therefore, pull them off as they get between 170 - 175F in the coolest spot for each piece. They'll continue to cook  after pulling them off, and may rise as much as 5 more degrees. 

Here are some plain chicken thighs that have been seasoned with salt and pepper. What you can't see is the delicious smokey aroma, or how tender and juicy they are underneath the crispy brown skin. 

Boneless, skinless thighs work well with this method as well, even though I prefer bone-in and skin-on. Here you can see the reddish hues from the smoke, even though they are cooked only 30 minutes (actually less than 30 minutes for boneless thighs, since they are thinner).