Barbecued chicken is beautiful when smoked over the right wood chips. It’s the best technique to improve the flavor profile of your smoked meat. Applewood, pecan, and hickory can all add a whole new level of aroma to your poultry. Learn which ones to use and when in our guide to the best woods for smoking chicken.
No list of best meats to smoke would be complete without chicken on it.
Different chicken parts have distinct compositions, meat density, and fat content. This means that the types of wood that complement them will change from cut to cut.
In this guide, I lay out the best wood chips for smoking chicken, and list which part of the bird goes best with which.
So let’s get into it.
In general, a lot of people tend to prefer to match sweeter woods from fruit trees, like maple, cherry, or applewood. So where better to start than with one of the barbecue world’s most beloved smoking woods?
Kicking off this list is one of the most popular wood chip types for smoking chicken, and it’s for good reason.
Applewood has a subtly sweet and fruity flavor that’s a bit mellower than some other fruit-based smoking woods (e.g. cherry, maple, pecan).
Its subtle taste might be too delicate for pitmasters who might want something stronger, but its delicate flavor profile makes it perfect for matching with a good chicken BBQ rub.
Think ‘maple’ and pork might come to mind, so you’d be forgiven for assuming that the maple wood is thick or sickly in taste. I’m glad to say that this isn’t the case, and it does combine beautifully with smoked chicken.
Maple is a favorite among BBQ fans who want something stronger and sweeter than applewood, but don’t want something quite as rich or heavy as pecan or cherry. It adds a light and sweet aroma to chicken that manages not to overpower the natural flavors of the chicken.
Cherry achieves a similar amount of sweetness to other fruit woods on this list, but what really separates it from the rest is the beautiful color it paints your poultry. A few hours cooking over cherrywood will help your chicken develop a beautiful deep red finish.
Cherry is delicious when mixed with deeper and heavier types of hardwood. Try mixing it with a little bit of hickory to help add a touch of added smokiness.
If you like your smoking woods a bit richer, pecan is the one for you. What makes it stand out isn’t just its strong flavor, but the distinct nutty aromas that sit behind its sweet taste profile. The wood is popular with turkey, but for my money, it’s just as good with chicken.
A word of warning: A lot of fruit woods can be combined with a touch of hickory or oak to give it a bit more of an earthy quality. I recommend steering clear of this with pecan. It has a much more pronounced flavor than any other fruit wood, so doesn’t really need it. Mixing it with something strong like hickory could result in meat that’s unpleasant in taste.
If sweetness isn’t to your liking, an old traditional wood will do the job. Hickory has always been one of the BBQ world’s most trusted barbecue smoking woods. It has a nutty flavor that goes well with so many types of meat, and chicken is no different.
Hickory is available everywhere, and is a great starter wood if you’re new to barbecue smoking. It might not be as strong as other earthy woods like mesquite, but it can still be overpowering if you use too much. This could mean a layer of bitter smoke caked onto your chicken. No thanks.
If this is your first time smoking with hickory, then I’d err on the side of caution and start by only using one or two chunks. If you undershoot the flavor then just add a little extra next time.
Get the fire right
You can have the best cut of chicken in the world, and the perfect choice of wood chips, but if you can’t get your BBQ smoking down right then it’ll all go to waste.
For barbecue you need to ensure that your meat is exposed to the smoke for long enough to lock in the flavors and scents emanating from the wood.
This can be a challenge when smoking with charcoal, since the smoke from the coals can overpower the wood. However, if you can strike the right balance you’ll have the perfect smoked chicken.
Pay attention to temperature
The principles of low and slow are crucial for good barbecue. As the name suggests, this entails cooking meat at low temperatures over the course of several hours in order to slowly bring it to the perfect temperature. The reason this is so important is that the slow rise in heat allows the fat in the meat to render and infuse it with juices and added flavor.
To do this right, you need to maintain a consistent temperature within your smoker chamber by controlling airflow to maintain a cooking temperature of 220°F/105°C for at least 2 hours.