One of my absolute favorite meats to smoke is whole chicken, it is also one of the things that took me the longest time to perfect.
To achieve juicy, flavorful chicken and still get that tasty, crispy skin that everyone loves, you have to focus on temperature. Both the temperature of the chicken and the temperature of your grill.
That’s where a pellet grill comes in handy. The ability to increase the temperature of your smoker with the simple push of a button opens up the opportunity to cook great smoked chicken and also get that crispy skin that you want.
How to prepare a whole chicken for smoking
There are a few different ways you can prepare a whole chicken before you smoke it:
Leave it whole – this is how most people roast a chicken in the oven. You can do it on the pellet grill but there are better methods.
Beer can chicken – An alternative where you leave the chicken whole is the ever-popular “Beer Can Chicken.” This is where you insert a half-full can of beer into the cavity of the chicken and smoke it standing upright. Some say it adds flavor and helps to keep the chicken moist, but it’s a bit of a debate in the barbecue community as to whether this method does anything or is just a waste of good beer!
Cut it in half – if you are doing competition barbecue, specifically on the IBCA circuit, you will be required to turn in one fully-jointed chicken half. It’s much easier to butcher the chicken into two halves before you smoke it and also allows you to control the final presentation in your turn-in box.
Spatchcock – also known as ‘butterflying’, is where you remove the backbone and flatten the chicken. With the spatchcock method, you cut down on cooking time, and I find that the bird cooks more evenly. It also allows you to cover more surface area with the barbecue rub, thus creating a more flavorful final product. It’s one of my favorite ways to cook a whole chicken and the method I have used for this recipe.
Why use a pellet grill?
You can smoke chicken on any type of grill or smoker, but the reason a pellet grill is so great for cooking chicken is that you can increase the temperature quickly without transferring the chicken to a different grill.
That’s easy for me because my offset and my barrel are both on my competition BBQ trailer. When you’re cooking in your backyard, maybe you don’t have multiple grills – or maybe you just don’t want to spend the time firing them both up.
A pellet grill is a fantastic tool for chicken because you can increase the temperature without ever thinking twice and get both the amazing smoke flavor AND the crispy skin, all on one grill.
How to smoke a whole chicken on the pellet grill
1. Fire up the smoker to 250°F
I smoked this chicken on my Camp Chef Woodwind 24 pellet grill using the Bear Mountain Bourbon BBQ Pellets. They give a mellow, smoky flavor and are made with real bourbon barrel wood chips, so they added an extra layer of flavor to this chicken.
You can also use pecan or oak pellets, which will give you nice, mellow smoke that won’t overpower the chicken. If you’re trying to figure out what pellets to use, check out our article on the 9 Best Wood Pellets for Smoking.
2. Spatchcock your chicken
If you’ve never butchered a chicken before, the spatchcock method may seem a bit daunting, but it is a simple process.
The first thing you will need is a pair of poultry shears, I’ve tried using a kitchen knife and scissors, but I find that an actual pair of shears works much more efficiently.
Start by laying your chicken down with the backbone facing upward, then take the shears and cut along either side of the backbone until you are able to remove it.
Flip the chicken over so the breasts are facing up, and apply firm, steady pressure with the palms of your hands to the center of the breasts (it should look like you are giving the chicken CPR, minus the lip part) until you hear a crack and the bird flattens out.
3. Season with your favorite rub
I like to start with a light layer of olive oil rubbed all over the chicken to act as a binder. I find that rubs can slip off of chicken pretty easily, so I like to use a binder to keep it all in place.
Once the chicken is lightly coated in olive oil, season it with your favorite barbecue rub. For this recipe, I used the Spicy Nashville Honky Tonk Seasoning by PS Seasoning. It’s meant to give a little kick of heat that mimics the flavor profile of Nashville hot chicken, and I think it tastes fantastic on smoked chicken.
If you want to make your own rub, take a look at these 5 best smoked chicken rub recipes for some inspiration.
When you season your chicken, be sure to season both the underside where you removed the backbone and all over the breasts and legs. Lift up the wings and season underneath, as well as the underside of the legs.
Place the chicken directly on the grates with the breasts facing upward.
After you put your chicken on the grill, grab a small pot and combine a half stick of butter and a little more of that barbecue rub. Place the pot on the grates of your grill next to the chicken and after about 30 minutes, start basting the chicken with the melted butter every 15 minutes.
5. Get that skin crisp
Once the chicken has smoked for about an hour, it should be up around 140°F internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast.
When you’re smoking a whole (or half) chicken, you always want to take the temperature in the thickest part of the breast with an instant read thermometer.
This is because the breast is the part of the chicken that cooks the slowest. If you check the temperature in the leg or thigh, you are going to end up with undercooked breast meat. My instant-read thermometer of choice is the ThermoPro TP19H.
Once the breast reaches the 140°F point, you want to kick up the temperature in your smoker to 350°F to let the skin get crispy during the last part of the cook.
Let it smoke for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 165°F in the thickest part of the breast.
6. Let the chicken rest
When you’re smoking a whole chicken, it’s important to let it rest so all of the juices redistribute, so let it sit for about 15 minutes before you slice into it.
When carving a spatchcock chicken, I find it easiest to remove the whole legs and thigh first, then remove the wings, and lastly, slice the breasts for easy serving.
What to serve with your smoked chicken
Smoked chicken is a versatile dish, and you can serve it with whatever side dishes you prefer. Here are some great barbecue sides that will go perfect with your smoked chicken:
- Smoked Baked Beans with Bacon
- The Best Pasta Salad for BBQ
- Loaded Baked Potato Salad
- Smoked Beer Mustard Potatoes
- Easy Smoked Mac & Cheese
If you don’t want to serve the whole chicken at once, you can shred it and store it in the fridge for up to four days and incorporate it into other recipes.
I like to smoke a couple of whole chickens on Sundays and then keep the shredded chicken in the fridge to put into pastas, casseroles, sandwiches, and soups throughout the week.
- 5 lb chicken whole
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- ¼ cup bbq poultry rub
- 4 tbsp butter unsalted
- ½ tbsp bbq poultry rub
- Preheat your smoker to 250°F.
- Spatchcock the chicken as per instructions above.
- Season the chicken all over with the barbecue poultry rub, being sure to get underneath the legs and wings.
- Place the chicken directly on the grates with the breasts facing up.
- For the baste, put the butter and barbecue rub in a small pot. Place the pot on the grates of your smoker next to the chicken so the butter melts. Give it a good stir to combine.
- After the chicken has been cooking for 30 minutes, baste the chicken with the butter mixture every 15 minutes.
- Around the 1 hour mark, check the internal temperature of the thickest part of the breast, when it reaches 140°F, increase the temperature of the smoker to 350°F and remove the butter pot from the grill.
- Let the chicken continue to cook for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the breast reaches 165°F.
- Remove the chicken from the grill and let it rest for 15 minutes, then slice in and enjoy!