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Perfect Chicken Skin

Originally posted: 09/01/2002
Last updated: 02/21/2014

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Summary

  • Brine the chicken for 4 hours, then let it air-dry in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
  • Use 1 to 1-1/2 chimneys of fully lit Kingsford charcoal briquettes.
  • Place the foil-lined water pan in the cooker, but leave it empty.
  • Roast chicken skin-side up at 300°F for 1 hour.
  • Baste with sauce just before the chicken is done.
  • Remove chicken from cooker, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Chicken halves
roasting over high heat

Beautiful chicken skin that's actually worth eating
 

After several years of cooking chicken in many different ways using the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker, I have reluctantly come to this conclusion:

I cannot smoke a chicken "low and slow" at 225°F and get skin that's worth eating.

I can get moist meat. I can get flavorful meat. I can get beautiful skin that looks delicious. But all too often, the skin is soft and rubbery, especially on the breast and thigh. This is one of the biggest complaints that people have about barbecued chicken.

What I've learned is that the problem has to do with the cooking temperature. Chicken skin has a thin layer of fat under it, and when it's cooked at high temperature, the fat sautÚs the skin. When cooking at "low and slow" barbecue temperatures, however, this fat just melts away without getting hot enough to sautÚ the skin.

The best way to achieve chicken skin that's worth eating is to cook the chicken at a higher temperature, especially toward the beginning of the cooking process. Here are some photos I took on July 13 and July 20, 2002 when I cooked high-temp chicken on the Weber Bullet.

As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.


Preparing And Brining The Chicken

Brining the chicken
Photo 1
Chicken after air drying in refrigerator
Photo 2
     

The day before I planned to barbecue, I bought a 3.83 pound range-fed chicken at the grocery store and prepped it according to the How To Butterfly A Chicken page. I cut the butterflied chicken into halves and soaked them in a brine solution in the refrigerator for 4 hours (Photo 1). The brining process adds flavor to the meat and keeps the chicken moist during high-temp roasting, even if slightly overcooked.

Brine For High-Temp Chicken
1 gallon cold water
1 cup Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt
1/2 cup sugar
Combine ingredients in a non-reactive container, mixing thoroughly to dissolve salt and sugar. Makes enough brine for a 3-4 pound chicken. Substitute 3/4 cup Morton Kosher Salt or 1/2 cup table salt for Diamond Crystal.

After brining, I moved the chicken into a Ziploc bag and stored it overnight in the refrigerator. (This is not a required step; proceed directly to the next step, if time permits.)

The next morning, I dried the chicken halves thoroughly using paper towels and placed them on a rack over a baking sheet. The chicken went back into the refrigerator uncovered to air-dry for 4 hours. This step removes some of the moisture from the skin so it will crisp better during cooking. Photo 2 shows how the chicken looked after air-drying.

Next, I pulled the chicken from the fridge and applied Smokin' Guns BBQ Rub generously to both sides, then let it sit at room temperature for 1 hour as I prepared the Weber Bullet.

Running The WSM Wide Open

Chimney of hot Kingsford briquettes
Photo 3
Three chunks of dry apple wood
Photo 4
     

I lit a full chimney of Kingsford charcoal briquettes and spread them evenly over the charcoal grate when they were hot. I placed three large chunks of dry apple wood on the hot coals and assembled the cooker. I put the foil-lined water pan in place, but left it empty.

I set the top vent and the 3 bottom vents wide open and left them that way through the entire cook.

Details Of The Cooking Session

Chicken goes into the cooker
Photo 5
       

I cooked the chicken skin-side up for 1 hour at 300°F, until it reached 160°F in the breast. I did not turn the chicken during cooking and I basted it once with a tomato-based barbecue sauce at the 45 minute mark.

Here's how the temps and vent settings went during the cooking session.

Time Lid Temp Vent 1 % Vent 2 % Vent 3 %
2:00pm - 100 100 100
2:10pm 295 100 100 100
2:20pm 295 100 100 100
2:30pm 300 100 100 100
2:40pm 303 100 100 100
2:45pm (b) 303 100 100 100
3:00pm 307 100 100 100

(b) basted with barbecue sauce

Note that the vent percentages represent the way I set the vents at the time indicated.

Mission Accomplished!

Perfect chicken skin
Photo 6
       

After just 1 hour, the chicken was done. This picture shows the finished product. It had a beautiful mahogany color and looked very appetizing. I moved the chicken to a pan and covered loosely with foil for a 10 minute rest before serving.

The chicken was tender, as expected, and thanks to the brine, the meat was moist and nicely seasoned. As for the skin, my cooking log says it all: "Skin worth eating!"

On another occasion, I cooked this same recipe at 350-360°F using 1-1/2 chimneys of fully lit Kingsford charcoal. The results were quite good, and the cooking time was reduced by perhaps 15 minutes.

If you're really daring, you can remove the water pan and start the chicken skin-side down for 15-20 minutes, then turn it over and finish cooking. This will give you skin that's really crispy...but be careful not to burn it!

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