If you’re looking to up your barbecue game, smoking meat is the way to go. Smoking food can take an ordinary dish and transform it into something outstanding. Smoked chicken is one of the most delicious foods you can eat–but if you don’t do it right, you’ll end up with tough, rubbery skin that is practically inedible.

To avoid tough skin when smoking chicken, be sure to let the skin dry out in the fridge before tossing it on the smoker. You should also smoke your chicken at a higher temperature than other meats. Use at least 275 degrees Fahrenheit. This helps to cook the fat into the skin, making it crispy and delicious.

What causes smoked chicken skin to be tough?

chicken in a dish

Smoking many types of meat–like beef–at a low temperature allows the fat and connective tissue to break down, tenderizing the meat. However, chicken is very lean with little to no connective tissue, so this “low and slow” method of smoking results in tough skin.

The key to crispy skin is the removal of moisture. At low temperatures, the smoker is unable to get rid of all the moisture, keeping the skin from crisping up. This results in rubbery, tough skin that’s hard to eat. While it’s still edible, tough skin can ruin smoked chicken’s tender, juicy flavor.

How do I dry the skin before smoking?

raw chicken meat

To help your chicken skin get crispy in the smoker, it’s important to dry the skin out as much as possible beforehand. This makes it so there’s less moisture to remove from the skin during the smoking process. Here are the steps to dry out your chicken skin before smoking:

  1. Pat it dry with a paper towel. Whether you brine your chicken before cooking or not, it’s important to pat the skin dry. Using a paper towel, remove as much moisture as possible from the skin.
  2. Place the chicken in the fridge before smoking it. When your chicken sits in the fridge (uncovered), the skin is able to dry out. You should leave your chicken in the fridge for at least an hour or two before cooking it, though leaving it overnight or even for 24 hours works the best. Remember, the drier the skin, the crispier it will turn out.

What temperature should I use to smoke my chicken?

grilled chicken

Because the lower temperatures typically used to smoke meat–typically ranging from 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit–aren’t able to effectively dry out and crisp the chicken skin, you should aim for at least 275 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Bradley Smoker, a popular retailer for food smokers, the sweet spot for cooking chicken is anywhere from 275-320 degrees Fahrenheit. These higher temperatures allow the skin to become dry and crispy.

If you’re worried about the chicken having less time to absorb the smoke flavors due to the higher cooking temperature, don’t fret: you can smoke your chicken at a lower temperature at first, then raise the temperature to dry the skin out for the last hour or so.

Smoking your chicken at a lower temperature first has the added benefit of keeping the meat tender and moist. Cranking up the heat at the end of the cooking time locks in the juices while simultaneously making the skin crispy.

What if my smoker can’t reach temperatures above 275 degrees Fahrenheit?

modern stainless steel stove

If your smoker can’t reach a high enough temperature to make your chicken skin crispy on its own, you can still make sure your chicken ends up flavorful and juicy with crispy, delicious skin.

An easy way to crisp up the skin is to throw it on a regular grill after it’s done smoking. Because a grill can get much hotter than most smokers, the moisture in the skin will be able to escape, leaving you with the perfect amount of crunch.

Alternatively, you can also throw the chicken in the oven around 350-400 degrees for a few minutes to achieve the same effect. If you use these methods, make sure to cook your chicken low and slow on the smoker to get a well-smoked flavor without the chicken becoming dry.

Other tips for perfect smoked chicken

roasted chicken

While drying your chicken skin before smoking and cooking at higher temperatures will help crisp it up, there are other steps you want to consider to guarantee a perfectly-cooked chicken every time.

Try using a dry brine. While soaking chicken in a brine overnight is common, it does nothing to prevent tough skin. In fact, it adds moisture to the skin–making it harder for the skin to get crispy. A dry brine, on the other hand, will add flavor to the chicken without increasing the moisture content.

Let the chicken cook directly on the grates of the smoker. While chicken is often cooked in a pan, it’s not a good choice when smoking. It forces the chicken to cook in its own juices, thus creating increased moisture levels in the smoker and inhibiting the skin’s crisping process.

Instead, let the chicken rest on the smoker’s grates. It’ll increase the air flow around the chicken, shortening the time it takes for the skin to get perfectly crispy.

Avoid wrapping the chicken in foil. This is another common cooking technique that, when used for smoking chicken, actually creates tough, rubbery skin. The foil traps moisture and leaves you with damp, tough skin. While cooking with foil works well with many other types of meat, it’s best to leave it in the drawer.

Let your chicken rest before carving it. While it can be hard to leave your perfectly-smoked chicken alone for up to 10 minutes before devouring it, the waiting period is crucial. After you remove your chicken from the smoker, it will still absorb juices for several minutes.

Pro Tip:

If you cut into your chicken right after bringing it in the house, these juices will escape, making the meat dry and the skin rubbery. By waiting just a few minutes, you can greatly enhance the flavor profile and crispness level of your smoked chicken.

Frequently Asked Questions

Smoking chicken can be intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. To help you get started on your journey to wonderful smoked chicken, here are answers to some commonly-asked questions.

How long does it take to smoke a chicken?

The length of time it takes to smoke a chicken depends on the weight of the bird. Chicken needs to reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid the risk of illness.

A three or four pound whole chicken may take two to three hours to reach this temperature. Individual pieces may cook significantly quicker. However, it largely depends on the temperature you’re using to cook your chicken. Be sure to check your chicken regularly to keep it from overcooking.

The best way to know if your chicken is cooked to the right temperature is to use a meat thermometer. Be sure to insert the thermometer into the center of the meat. Then let it sit until it settles on a number.

Is cooking chicken on an electric smoker different from cooking on a wood smoker?

The only difference between cooking on an electric smoker versus a wood smoker is that electric smokers are more user-friendly.

Wood smokers require constant supervision–you’ll need to regularly adjust the vents and add more fuel when necessary. If you don’t, the temperature in your smoker will fluctuate. This will make it impossible to estimate when your chicken is thoroughly cooked.

On the other hand, you can “set it and forget it” with an electric smoker. You should make sure it has enough pellets or wood chips before you start smoking your chicken. However, you won’t have to worry about uneven temperatures or air flow.

What do I do if the skin on my chicken is already tough?

We’ve all been there–you’ve cooked a perfectly-juicy chicken in your smoker, but the skin is tough and hard to eat! Thankfully, you can usually still salvage your chicken by searing it on a hot grill for a few minutes. This will dry the skin and make it crispy and delicious.

I​f you’ve tried cooking the chicken at a high temperature for a few minutes and the skin is still tough, another option is to just remove it. While crispy skin is one of the greatest parts of smoked chicken, the bird will still be enjoyable without the skin.

H​ow do I reheat my smoked chicken?

T​o warm up your smoked chicken after it’s been in the fridge, cook it low and slow in the oven. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. While the oven is heating, put the chicken in a pan and moisten it with a small amount of chicken broth.

W​hen the oven is preheated, place the pan in the oven and cook the chicken until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If the skin is tough, toss it on a hot skillet for a minute or two to make it crispy again.

H​ow do I keep my smoked chicken from drying out?

Since it’s important to make the skin of the chicken as dry as possible before smoking it, you might wonder how to keep the rest of the chicken from drying out while it’s cooking.

T​o make sure your chicken stays moist, brine it for a few hours before you fire up the smoker. Even a dry brine will help create flavorful, moist chicken.

Another tip for keeping your smoked chicken moist is to cook a whole chicken with the breast side down. Chicken breasts are arguably the driest part of a whole chicken. By placing the breasts on the grates of the smoker, the juices will run down into them, making them moist and delicious.

Should I use a water pan when smoking chicken?

While water pans are commonly used to smoke meats, they shouldn’t be used when smoking chicken. The steam from the water will increase the moisture level, making it harder to dry out the skin. This results in rubbery, hard-to-eat skin, so leave the water pan for smoking other meats.

W​hat’s the best wood to use for smoking chicken?

With so many types of wood pellets and chips available, it’s hard to know what’s best for smoking chicken. As a rule of thumb, chicken pairs best with fruity and sweet woods. Try smoking your chicken with oak, apple, cherry, pecan, or maple. Bolder types of wood, like mesquite, can overpower the delicate flavor of the chicken.