Monday, September 23, 2013

Prepping and Smoking "Melt in Your Mouth" Chicken

Some people are squeamish about butchering chicken.  Well, it's time to "Man-Up" and get your hands dirty because we're going to be butchering some chicken in this article.  Why?  Several reasons:
  1. It saves you money
  2. It gives you flexibility, do you need quarters?  halves? all 8 pieces?
  3. You'll have leftover parts to make Chicken Stock
  4. It gives you a sense of pride
  5. You'll learn something
  6. You'll have an excellent excuse to go out and spend some money on a good boning knife or two!
Honestly, wouldn't you want to be able to look at these two chickens on sale for $7 in the meat case at the grocery, and know that you have all the skills necessary to take them apart and smoke them into a deliciously moist meal for 8-10 people??

You Will Need:
  • At least one 4-5lb whole chicken
  • A good quality, sharp filet knife
  • Olive oil
  • Cutting board, paper towels, anti-bacterial soap, large mixing bowl
Dry Rub for the Chicken (enough for this recipe and to have some left over, because you can never have enough dry rub for chicken):
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup smoked paprika
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 4 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 4 tablespoons Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

To begin... Extract the birds from their packaging and rinse them in cold water, then pat them dry.  Place one of the birds onto your cutting board, belly down, and then wash your hands.  With your clean right hand (unless you're left handed, then you'll need to do everything backwards, like you usually do), pick up a pair of kitchen shears and tell yourself, "This is my scissor/knife hand.  It will not touch raw poultry or get wet or slimy.  It's sole duty for the next 15 minutes is to cut and handle knives and tools while the left hand does the messy work."

Using a strong pair of shears, snip out the backbone as shown here and save it for your Chicken Stock.  Things get a bit tough around the back of the rib cage, but you can do it!  Take heart, squeeze a bit harder, and carry on... past the crunching noises you'll hear.  With the backbone out, you can spread the bird open, exposing the keel bone.  Do not be "mousy" or tentative with this procedure!  Grab, pull, spank, spread, or manhandle that bird!

Your knife hand is still clean and dry, right?  Good!  Put the scissors in the sink and pick up a sharp boning knife.  The waxy looking bone in the middle is called the Keel bone.  It has to go.  Trouble is, it sticks to meat and it's a stubborn thing to remove so, start by using your knife to get some separation between it and the meat, then use the fingers of your left hand to "squinch" the meat away from it.
Once you've cleared the meat from the keel bone, you can use the knife to filet the ribs away from the breast meat easily. Pictured here to the left is the keel bone and other rib bones removed from the breast meat.  Keep it for stock, and take joy in the fact that you've now de-boned most of your bird!  If this approach is a bit too "hands on" for your taste, there is another method...
Method 2?  Simply take a cleaver or heavy chef's knife and whack a clean cut, straight through the middle of the keel bone.  This picture shows a clean cut, down the middle of the keel and breast plate.  The cleaver also cut the wish-bone cleanly in two.  This is a fast and easy way to halve the chicken, but your guests will have to deal with a few more bones.  You decide what's best.  Knife hand still clean and dry?  Excellent!
When I smoke chicken, I like to smoke quarters.  There are several reasons for this; a quarter of a large chicken is a great portion size, and you'll have an equal number of white meat portions (breast/wing) and dark meat portions (leg/thigh).  You can always easily cut these portions apart after the smoke if you want to.  Also, the larger portions seem to smoke better and cook more evenly than say, a large breast next to a small leg, etc.  There are no bones or connective tissue of any kind between the leg quarter and the breast quarter, so your knife should sing straight between them without issue.  Toss your portions into a large mixing bowl.

When you're finished butchering, it's important to stop and consider just where all of the germs from your raw poultry might be hiding.  If you've kept your knife hand clean, that's the one you'll want to use to turn on the water, grab some paper towels, etc.  Minimize the use of your "chicken hand" in order to curtail the further spread of what could be salmonella, etc.  Take this moment to wash everything with anti-bacterial soap, your knives, board, counter top, and finally, both of your hands.

FINALLY, it's time to consider cooking!  While your chicken is in the bowl, drizzle on about 1/4 cup of good olive oil and use your "chicken-hand" to turn the pieces over for even coating.  With your dry hand, grab the shaker of your dry rub and shake-shake-shake on a liberal coating of spice to the mix.  Continue to mix/turn the pieces over with your chicken-hand until everything has a good coat of oil and spices, then place them back onto your clean cutting board or pan so you can carry them to the grill.  Put the bowl into the sink with your dry hand so you can wash it later.

Start your fire, bring the cooking chamber up to 225 degrees.  I prefer a smoker or offset charcoal grill for this, but you could use an oven.  You could also use a propane grill (if you're too stubborn and/or cheap to spring for a real cooker) and just light one of the burners while keeping the chicken on the other side.  Watch the thermometer like a hawk and keep things just under 250.  Now, go back inside and wash your cutting board, the bowl, your sink, and your hands! 

When things get hot, lay your chicken out onto the grill.  Obviously the chicken you see here on the left has been on the smoker for awhile already!  Open a beer and hang out for a few hours, after all, you're busy right now, you're the grill master!

My smoker and I seem to have come to the agreement that it will take somewhere between 3.5 and 4 hours to finish the chicken.  Using a thermometer is absolutely essential here!  Breast meat is done at 160, and dark meat is done at 175.  As soon as your chicken arrives at this temperature, take it off of the grill and cover it with foil to rest!  Chicken does not get "safer" or "more done" if you leave it there, it only dries out and gets rubbery, so pull it when it's done!  If it's done right, it will look like this (well, it will look like this after you've taken a bite out of it):

The skin will be nice and crispy, with caramelized sugary bits of spicy heat.  the meat will be smoky, soft, tender, and super moist.  One final note, I usually pack the smoker with as much chicken as I can when I run a batch.  Chicken is cheap, and leftover smoked chicken is super tasty in chicken salad, breakfast burritos, smoked chicken pizza, or simply reheated in a microwave!  You get the idea!

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