UDS Crispy Skin Chicken (take 2)

I was bound and determined to make some smoked chicken with crispy skin without resorting to the grill.  I knew it had to be possible with the Ugly Drum Smoker so I gave it another go.

I think I was so obsessed with this ideal because I once heard that it's one of the requirements for award-winning smoked chicken in BBQ competitions.  Basically, the judges have to be able to take a bit and pull back and the skin needs to be nice and crispy but also stay on the piece of chicken.  That always sounded like black magic to me, but I think I got the formula figured out.

Keeping all the intakes wide open and popping the firebasket into the smoker when it is still nice and hot, I was able to keep temperatures closer to 350F.  I also flipped the chicken halfway through the smoke so I could crisp it up on both sides.  I don't think it too more than 1 1/2-2 hours, probably closer to 1 1/2.

Here's some pictures of the end result.

UDS smoked chicken with crispy skin

UDS smoked chicken with crispy skin

smoked chicken thigh with crispy skin

Finally, smoked chicken thigh with crispy skin!

ugly drum smoker crispy chicken

Ugly Drum Smoker = Crispy Chicken

Chicken Thighs in the Ugly Drum Smoker

I'm starting to realize that the month of March (when Steve helped me realize my dream of a completely assembled UDS) was a month that was heavy on smoked meat.  Sure, part of that was because smoked meat is delicious but I also wanted to really figure out how to get the best use out of my UDS and how to maintain different temperatures.

For example, if you have ever tried to smoke chicken or turkey in an ECB or other water smoker then you know how tricky it is to get crispy skin.  Usually you have to end up tossing it on the grill at the end to crisp up the skin.  Well, with my new UDS I knew that crispy skin chicken was a possibility.  I should be able to get consistent temps around 350F and that outta crisp up the chicken nicely.  So, I put on my lab coat and started experimenting.

As you can see from this picture, it was a little chilly outside, so that was already going to be a challenge.

Smoking Meat, in Montana, in March

Smoking Meat, in Montana, in March

I opened up all of the intakes on the bottom of my UDS and left the tops off of both bungholes (tee hee) and here's a picture of my results.  That handsome fella to the right of my remote grill temp receiver is an Eddy Out.  That's a real tasty beer made by our local Kettlehouse brewery, in case you aren't familiar with Montana micro-brews.

Hotter temps in the UDS

Hotter temps in the UDS

On this particular day, I wasn't able to get it much hotter than 291F.  But, I think that's due to two factors.  1) It was pretty chilly outside and 2) I think I capped the smoker a little bit too early and I effectively cutoff the air supply.  So, it never really got roaring in there.

But, the chicken thighs came out great.  They could have been a little crispier, but I've since been able to achieve that.  Don't worry, I'll post pictures of that as well.

Smoked chicken thighs in the UDS

Smoked chicken thighs in the UDS

 

Chicken and Steelhead Trout (?!) – Modified ECB Smoker

Some of my in-laws were visiting and we wanted to make something more on the healthy side.  And, by that I mean, I didn't want to stay up all night making a pork butt.  So, the original idea was smoked salmon and chicken.  I had never actually smoked fish before and I was eager to do so.  Also, I wanted to try and smoke a chicken at "normal" temp (225F) and then finish it on the grill to see if I could get the skin as crispy as I wanted it.

Well, the Good Food Store didn't have any salmon, if you can believe that.  However, what they did have was Steelhead Trout.  The good news with that is that Steelhead is a fraction of the cost of Salmon.  At least here in Montana it is.  The bad news is that it has quite a few more bones so you have to either a) remove all the pin bones with pliers or b) tell folks to chew carefully.  I did a little from column A and a little from column B.

I made a brine for my Steelhead and let it soak overnight.  I've since done some reading and I think really only 1-2 hours is necessary.  Then you should let it dry out for at least an hour.  This helps it to develop a sort of tougher outer layer.

Now, I would love to cold smoke some fish at 90F but that just isn't possible in an ECB.  (Although, if you've figured it out, please let me know.  I've tried to do cheese at low temps before and it ends up just tasting like black charcoal.)  So, I smoked at my normal temp of 225F and I pulled the fish when it was done.  I don't remember what internal temp that was, but I bet if you google "salmon temperature" (yeah, I know this is Steelhead) you will find out when you should pull it.

I pulled the chicken at 150F and then I moved it inside of the rib rack to my grill where I crisped up the skin.  Here's the photos.

Smoked Chicken (finished on the grill)

Finally got the skin nice and crispy!

Smoked Steelhead Trout

Pretty much like Salmon, only at half the cost.

Chicken Thighs – Modified ECB Smoker

Unless my memory is failing me (which, by the way, it totally is and I blame beer) then this is the first thing I smoked with my newly modified ECB.  I remember finishing up the modifications on my smoker  and then that night two things happened.  First, my sister-in-law went into labor at our house.  Second (and completely unrelated to the first) I developed a sickness that kept me throwing up for the next 3 days.  So, it wasn't until a week or so later that I actually go to use my newly modded ECB.

I must have been pressed for time, though, because it looks like I just made chicken thighs.  And, these little babies will be done in 2-3 hours tops.

Also, looking at the picture, it looks like I still hadn't solved the problem of chicken skin.  So, if I recall correctly, these were freaking delicious, but the skin was pretty much inedible.  Remember, if you want crispy skin you need smoker temps closer to 350F or you have to finish it in the grill or in the oven.

Anyway, here's the pic.

Smoked Chicken Thighs

Tasty little buggers

Pork Chops and Chicken – Unmodified ECB Smoker

Going back through old pictures and I'm remembering that I actually bought my digital grill thermometer before I modified the smoker.  Or, maybe it was partially modified?  Anyway, I definitely got some good results.  Once again, it was Smoked Meat Sunday at our house.  I actually went to the local Good Food Store (think Whole Foods) and got some natural and organic pork chops and a whole chicken.  I did a dry rub on both the bird and the chops and I topped the chops with apple slices.

The chicken I put on the bottom grill but I put it inside of one of these jobbies.

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I like this thing for a few reasons.  First off, you can flip it over and have your ribs standing up (so you can get more of 'em inside the grill and, therefore, inside your belly).  Second, it provides a little support for the chicken while you smoke it.  But, more importantly, if you want to transfer the chicken to your grill (to crisp up the skin) you can just grab the whole thing and set it on the grill.  That also keeps the chicken a little further away from the fire in your grill, so you are less likely to burn it.

Anyway, I put the pork chops on the top grill because I expected them to cook faster than the chicken and I wanted to easily be able to pull them off.  Another thing to consider is that the top of the ECB is definitely hotter than the grill right above the water pan.  Hotter and dryer.  So, keep that in mind when you are smoking stuff.

I pulled the pork chops at 170F and I now think that is too long for chops.  Maybe closer to 150F would be better.  Don't get me wrong, they were delicious, but I think they could have been juicier.  The chicken I pulled at 170F also.  Actually, it might have been 160F.  I'm fine with that, but I think other folks freak out, so 170 or 180F is safer.  It's a littler different in a smoker because it takes so long for poultry to get out of the "Danger Zone" of 40-140F.  So, it seems like folks lean towards letting poultry go a little bit longer just to be on the safe side.

Here's a picture of my thermometer in action.  200F grill temp is a little low, so something tells me that I was about to head outside and either shake out the ash or start a fresh batch of coals.  It looks like my chicken was close to being done, though, so I bet I opted for shaking out the ash so I didn't waste any charcoal.

Digital Thermometer

Time to shake the ash out of the charcoal pan.

Here's a picture of the finished pork chops.  I feel like the apples helped keep the chops moist and they definitely added a nice flavor.

Smoked Pork Chops

Apples count as vegetables, right?

Here is a picture of the chicken right before I pulled it out of the smoker.  You can get a good look at the rib rack in action here.

Smoked Chicken in the ECB

Jeez.. just posting this picture makes me hungry.

Chicken Semi-Disaster – Unmodified ECB Smoker

Well, a week after the first Smoked Meat Sunday, I decided that I wanted to try and smoke an entire chicken.  Unlike my earlier two smoked meat adventures, I had already let most of the day get away from me.  But, I was pretty sure that it would only take about 4 hours to smoke a chicken, so if I could get it going by noon I thought I would be aces.

We popped into the grocery store only to find that they didn't have any whole chickens.  Eh?!  So, Plan B was a few packages of chicken legs and thighs.  I guessed (correctly) that these would cook pretty fast.  However, I wanted to try and keep the temperature a little hotter because I wanted to try and get crispy skin on the chicken.  Let's take a little detour and talk about smoked chicken and chicken skin.

Detour: In a charcoal water smoker like the ECB it can be pretty hard to maintain high temps.  That's the whole purpose of the water pan is to keep your temperature closer to 250F.  That's a great place to be if you are smoking brisket or pork but chicken is a little different.  Don't get me wrong.  You can slow smoke a chicken at 225F and when you pull it (at around 170 or 180F internal temp) the meat is going to be amazing.  The skin, however, will be less so.  It basically turns into chewy rubber.  Now, if you don't eat chicken skin anyway, then you probably don't care.  Heck, you could just treat the skin like the "magical bag" that holds in all of the delicious smoky flavor.  But, if you want the skin to be crispier like rotisserie chicken then you really need temps closer to 350F inside your smoker.  You have a few options with an ECB Smoker.

  1. Don't put water in the water pan.  Instead, many people fill it with play sand and then cover it with foil.  The sand acts as a heat sink but the lack of steam allows the smoker to get a little hotter inside.  I've never actually done this, but I'm thinking I will try it soon.
  2. Smoke the chicken at 225 or 250F, using the water pan, but pull it closer to 150F internal temp and then finish it in the oven or on a grill just to crisp up the skin.  I've done this several times and with good results.
  3. Smoke the chicken with the water pan, but leave the door to the smoker open.  The increased airflow should let you get closer to 350F.  I did this once with a turkey (and I used those Kingsford coals that have mesquite chips inside the briquette) and I was able to keep temps closer to 350F.  The skin was almost as crispy as I wanted it.

All of that information would have been good to know when I was doing these thighs and legs.  All I knew was that I wanted to keep the temps up and all I had to work with was the wonky built-in thermostat in the ECB.  So, I had the door to the smoker propped open about half way for much of the smoke and I kept adding wood to try and keep it hot in there.  Sure, it was hot, but the downside was that I was making TONS of smoke.  The smoker was like a freaking smokestack.

Eventually the chicken got to about 170F and I decided to pull it.  I opened the lid of the smoker and was a little bummed to see how black the chicken was.  However, when I grabbed one of the legs with my tongs and pulled up, the bone came right out of the chicken.  The meat was so tender and juicy that we just treated the skin as a magical, burnt cooking bag that somehow gave us delicious chicken inside.  Here's a picture.

Chicken Semi-Disaster

It looks burnt, but the meat inside was amazing.