What’s the best wood for smoking chicken? Tips & Tricks

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  June 29, 2020

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Smoking chicken gives the meat a deep, rich taste that grillers love. It is for this reason that many people insist on eating their chicken smoked…or not at all.

A big part of how your smoked chicken tastes is due to the wood you use to smoke it. Wood has its own flavorings that will come out to give the meat a characteristic that can be savory, fruity, sweet, and more.

If you ask different chefs what the best wood for smoking chicken is, opinions will vary. However, this article will give you a rundown of some tastes you might choose from.

Which wood to smoke chicken with

What Woods Are Best for Smoking Chicken?

Chicken has a light taste that shouldn’t be overwhelmed by woods that are too heavy. That being said, fruity flavors work well to complement the lean taste of the meat.

With that in mind, here are some woods that are recommended.

  • Hickory: Hickory burns hot and slow to give meats a taste that is sweet and almost bacon-y in flavor. Because it tends to be strong, use the wood sparingly, especially if you’re smoking a smaller bird. Consider mixing hickory chips with cherry to give your chicken a great taste.
  • Maple: Like hickory, maple is a heavy wood that burns long and slow. However, it has a sweeter taste than most other heavy woods making it the perfect complement for chicken.
  • Apple: Applewood has a mild, fruity taste that works well with chicken and other birds. It will need to burn a long time to permeate the meat effectively.
  • Peach: Peach has a light, fruity taste that gives chicken a southern tang. It burns hot and long. It is best to use peach wood when it’s fresh as its flavor will fade quickly.
  • Cherry: Cherry wood’s sweet, mild flavor is great for chicken and works particularly well when combined with hickory. It burns hot for a relatively long amount of time.
  • Pimento: Pimento is not easy to find, but if you can get your hands on it, it makes a great jerk chicken.
  • Pecan: Pecan gives chicken a great nutty flavor. It works especially well when mixed with fruit woods.

Even though chicken tastes good when grilled over charcoal, adding the right wood chips will give it a flavor that takes it to the next level.

What Woods Are Not Good for Smoking Chicken?

While these are some of the best woods for smoking chicken, there are also woods that are not recommended. These are as follows:

It is also important to make sure that wood is safe for smoking no matter what type of meat (like these best cuts for smoking) you’re cooking. With that in mind, here are some woods you will want to avoid.

Woods that contain toxins: The toxins from the wood can get into your food and poison you. Woods with toxins you will want to avoid include mangrove, poisonous walnut, sassafras, yew, oleander, tambootie and laburnum.

  • Lumber Scraps: You never know where lumber scraps have been. They could be treated, they could contain toxins or any other type of circumstance could apply that makes them unsafe for eating. It is best to steer clear.
  • Chemically Treated Wood: If wood is chemically treated, the chemicals can get in your food and make you sick.
  • Moldy Wood: Moldy wood will give your food a strange taste. It may also contain toxins.
  • Painted or Stained Wood: Painted or stained wood can make food taste bitter. It can also contain lead which is poisonous.

Smoking a Whole Chicken

Now that we know the types of woods that will be best for smoking chicken, let’s take a look at how we should go about smoking the individual parts. Let’s start with the whole chicken.

The recommended temperature for smoking a whole chicken is 225 degrees.

Start by drizzling the chicken with olive oil and then use a sweet rub to cover the chicken on all sides.

Use twine to tie the chicken’s legs together and tuck the wing tip behind the shoulder joint.

Place the chicken directly on the grill grates of the smoker and smoke for 3 ½ to 4 hours. The breasts should be 160 – 165 degrees and the thighs should be 170 -175 degrees.

If you want to add some flavor, baste the chicken with your favorite barbecue sauce during the last 30 minutes of smoking. Also, if you want the skin to be crispy, you can boost the temperature up to the 350 to 400-degree range for the last 10 minutes.

Once the chicken reaches the desired internal temperature, remove it from the grill, slice, and serve.

How to Smoke Chicken Breast

Smoking chicken breast is a pretty straightforward process. Here’s what it entails.

The smoker should be set for 225 degrees.

If you are brining your chicken, remove it from the brine, pat it dry and drizzle it with olive oil. You can also season it with the seasonings of your choice.

Smoke the chicken for one hour or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.

Remove the chicken from the smoker and tent it with foil until its temperature reaches 165 degrees. Slice and serve.

How to Smoke Chicken Wings

(Note, these instructions are for party style chicken wings. You can also use regular size wings and cut them down yourself.)
Start by heating the smoker to 250 degrees.

Coat the chicken with a spice rub and place it in the smoker.

Cook for two hours or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

Transfer the wings to a broiler (you may want to transfer them to a broiler pan first). Preheat broiler. Once it reaches full temperature, broil the wings for 3 – 4 minutes allowing them to get crispy.

Brush with barbecue sauce and serve.

How to Smoke Chicken Thighs

Chicken thighs are flavorful, inexpensive cuts of meat. This makes them the perfect candidate for smoking.

To smoke chicken thighs, start by heating the smoker to 250 degrees.

Coat the chicken with a rub making sure to get every part of the bird.

Place the chicken in the smoker and allow to smoke for 2 ½ – 3 hours. The temperature should read 165 degrees at the thickest part of the thighs.

Brush barbecue sauce over chicken and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

How to Smoke Chicken Quarters

Technically speaking, a chicken leg is comprised of a drumstick and a thigh. When a bit of the back is attached to it, it is considered a quarter.

To smoke chicken quarters, set the smoker to 275 degrees.

Rub the chicken with oil and seasonings.

Sear the chicken in a pan with oil and butter over medium-high heat. Then transfer to the smoker skin side up.

Smoke at 275 degrees for 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Remove from the smoker and let sit for three minutes before serving.

How to Make Smoked Jerk Chicken Wings

Jerk is a style of cooking in which the main ingredient (in this case chicken) is coated in spices and slow cooked over a fire or grill that usually has pimento wood.

Jerk chicken is usually marinated before it is smoked. The marinade you use can include any ingredients you choose but here is a recipe we recommend for 4 lbs. of chicken wings.

1 cup green onions roughly chopped

¼ cup pickled jalapenos (you can add more if you want to turn up the heat)

1 (1”) knob fresh ginger peeled

3 cloves garlic

3 tbsp. Jamaican jerk season
3 tbsp cooking oil

3 tbsp water

Put all ingredients in a food processor and blend until combined. Keep adding one tbsp of water as needed to ensure a smooth consistency.

Put the marinade in a plastic bag with the chicken and leave 8 hours or overnight.

Once chicken is marinated, set your smoker to 200 degrees.

Then put the wings or a metal cooling rack or grill grate over a cookie sheet. This will keep the wings from getting soggy from sitting in their own juices. You can also add more jerk seasoning at this point if you would like.

Your total cook time will be 1 ½ hours but you should be flipping the wings every half an hour. The wings will be brown and crispy and the internal temperature will be 165 – 170 degrees.

Serve with a cool dipping sauce like a ranch or yogurt sauce. Add green onions for garnish if desired.

Tips for Smoking Chicken

These tips should get you well on your way to making a delicious smoked chicken, but here are more helpful hints that are sure to get you the best possible outcome.

Pat the chicken dry before cooking. This will ensure that your chicken will come out crisp.

Don’t overdo it on the seasoning. The wood will give the chicken its own flavor but the flavor won’t come through if you over-season.

Therefore, you will want to limit seasoning to salt, pepper, butter, olive oil, and a little bit of garlic.

For an added kick, you can also put onion in the cavity along with a bit of garlic (if cooking a whole chicken).

Another tip for cooking a whole chicken; make sure to tie the legs together and the wings behind the shoulder.

This will ensure a more even cook and keep the smaller parts from getting done before the larger, more meaty sections.

Don’t peak at the chicken. Opening the smoker will let out heat and flavorings. Trust your thermometer (like these trusty brands) to keep tabs on things.

Give it a blast at the end to make the skin nice and crispy. It is recommended to turn it up to 325 for the last half hour or so. Not taking this step can leave the skin rubbery.

Add barbecue sauce at the end of cooking. It is best to do this after the skin has had enough time to crisp.

Take it out when its 5 degrees below the recommended temperature. After you take the chicken out of the smoker, it will continue cooking. If you take it out when it’s at its desired temperature, it will continue cooking until it goes above the desired temperature. That’s why it’s best to take it out five minutes before it reaches this point.

Make sure to give the chicken enough exposure to the wood smoke to provide an adequate flavor. This can be achieved by using chips in a gas or electric smoker. A charcoal grill will also do the trick.

To Brine or Not to Brine

Some people prefer to brine their chicken before smoking it. During the brining process, the sugar and salt change the cell structure of the chicken allowing it to retain more moisture to keep the chicken juicy.

However, the brine will also affect the taste and texture of the chicken and some may prefer the natural taste and texture better.

If you choose to brine your chicken, be sure to allow plenty of time for the chicken to sit in the brine before smoking it.

To brine the chicken, here’s what you will need to do:

Mix 3 tbsp. kosher salt, 4 cups water, and 1 tbsp. sugar in a medium pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat and allow the sugar and salt to dissolve. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Fully submerge the chicken in the brine and let sit for four hours. Take the chicken out promptly. If it sits too long, it will negatively affect the taste and texture of the chicken.

Now that you know more about smoking chicken, which woods will you be using to make your next dish?

Also read: this is how you make a delicious beer can smoked chicken

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.