Look no further if you want a sure-fire recipe for juicy, tender, perfectly smoked BBQ chicken. I use a foolproof chicken brine for grilling that turns out juicy, flavorful chicken breasts, thighs, drums and wings. Use a whole cut-up bird or your favorite chicken parts, as I did. You can also use this bbq chicken brine for grilling pork chops and other cuts.
I’ve had my share of smoked BBQ chicken- excellent and lackluster. The common thread for all the best birds was the bbq chicken brine. And for smoked chicken, brine is essential. Aside from infusing the bird with flavor, it also plumps the chicken cells with moisture, preventing it from drying out on the grill.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is brine?
- 2 Ingredients for smoked bbq chicken brine
- 3 How to make brine for smoked chicken
- 4 Best wood for smoked BBQ chicken
- 5 Optional Cool Gadgets
- 6 Tips on grilling & smoking brined chicken
- 7 What’s a safe temperature for smoked, grilled chicken?
- 8 Rest the smoked BBQ chicken
- 9 Brined Smoked BBQ Chicken
What is brine?
At its most basic level, brine can is a simple salt & water solution. Dissolving kosher salt into water and soaking the meat in the mixture, plumps the cells of the chicken. With more moisture in the cells, the chicken doesn’t dry out when it’s cooking. I consider brining to be an essential fail-safe and also a flavor-enhancer for smoked BBQ chicken.
Ingredients for smoked bbq chicken brine
- Kosher Salt
- Brown Sugar
- Whole Juniper Berries
- Whole Peppercorns
- Cold Water
Making the chicken brine for grilling is quick and easy. Once done, the chicken soaks in the brine solution for a few hours. Simple, right?
How to make brine for smoked chicken
- Add the salt, sugar, juniper, peppercorns and cloves to a bowl (large enough to hold 5 cups of brine AND the chicken.
- Pour 1 1/2 cups of boiling water into the brine and stir until the sugar and salt dissolve.
- Add the ice and remaining cold water to dilute the concentrate and cool down the brine. (Chicken brine must be at room temperature or cooler before adding chicken).
- Add the chicken to the brining solution and rest in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours.
Note: Don’t soak the chicken in the brine for too long.
That’s where folks make a critical error, thinking that if one or two hours is good…. 4 or 5 hours or overnight must be BETTER. Not so.
If you brine the meat for too long, the cells will burst in the chicken, resulting in a soft, mealy, unpleasant texture. Please don’t do it.
Best wood for smoked BBQ chicken
While the chicken relaxes in the brine mixture, you’ll need to soak the wood chips with water in another container.
You can use whatever type of wood chips you like for the smoked BBQ chicken, but we prefer, lighter woods like cherry wood, apple, hickory or pecan.
The chips should soak for an hour in water (or you can also add beer or bourbon to the chips as another flavor enhancer).
Optional Cool Gadgets
Wood Chip Soaker
My husband has a neat soaker container (not an affiliate link) for his chips. You fill it with the wood chips, add water and then secure it with a lid that screws down below the water’s surface, keeping the chips submerged as they soak instead of floating to the top.
Jury-rigging a wood chip soaker
- Add the wood chips to a bowl.
- Fill the bowl with water and float a plate (about the same diameter as the bowl) on top of the chips, to hold them down in the water.
- Soak the wood chips for an hour before using.
Another “make your life easier” tool for smoked, grilled chicken (and so much more) is a good smoker box. They’re reusable and last a good long time.
Ours is made specifically for our type of Weber grill and fits neatly between the flavor bars. The best one for your grill will be different based on your grill type.
Fill the box with the wood chips and set them over the flame until they emit white smoke. That’s when you put the chicken pieces on the grill.
Jury-rigging a smoker box
If you don’t have a smoker box, here’s how to fashion a substitute:
- Create a pouch with heavy duty tin foil.
- Filling the pouch with the soaked wood chips and seal it.
- Poke holes all over the foil.
- Place it over the heat source on the grill and wait for the chips to smoke.
Remove the poultry from the chicken brine and pat the pieces dry with a few paper towels (If you place wet chicken on the grill, it will steam more than grill/smoke). Transfer the chicken to a rimmed baking sheet, grab your BBQ mitt and tongs, and head out to the grill.
What temp to smoke chicken?
You don’t want to smoke chicken low and slow for hours, as you would a pork shoulder or beef brisket. If you do that, the chicken skin will get tough and chewy and be challenging to eat.
Instead, the chicken infuses with smoke as it grills over reasonably high heat, around 450°.
Don’t worry, you’ll still get that smoky kiss of flavor, but you’ll also be able to enjoy the skin and bbq sauce on the smoked, grilled chicken.
How long to cook brined BBQ chicken
If you’re cooking all drumsticks or only thighs or exclusively breasts, the cooking time will be about the same for each.
However, if you’re making smoked BBQ chicken pieces, each cut’s cooking time is slightly different. The breasts will take the longest and the wings the shortest.
Another mitigating factor is the size of the chicken. You can use the chart below as a guide, but to be safe, check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer.
Tips on grilling & smoking brined chicken
- Brined BBQ chicken will take LONGER TO COOK than chicken that has yet to be brined. That’s because the chicken has more moisture and volume.
- Because of the differing cooking times for different cuts of chicken, we always put the brined chicken breasts on the grill first and cook them for a few minutes before adding the thighs, drums and wings so that everything is ready at the same time.
- Place the chicken breasts, skin side down, over direct heat (opposite the smoker box) and cook for about 10 minutes before flipping for the first time.
- Add the chicken thighs and drumsticks (skin side down) to the grill about 6-8 minutes after the breasts go on, and a few minutes later, add the wings.
- Don’t fuss too much with the chicken. Just let it smoke and grill. When it’s ready to be flipped the skin will release from the grates.
- Have a squirt bottle of water at the ready in case of flare-ups.
- Keep the grill lid closed unless your checking temperature or flipping the chicken.
- Try to maintain your temperature between 400°-450°.
- About 5 minutes before the smoked bbq chicken is done, add the BBQ sauce. You don’t want to add the sauce too early because the sugars can cause flare-ups which can scorch the poultry. Add the BBQ sauce toward the end of the cooking to lacquer it.
I recommend a good meat thermometer to ensure your brined and smoked grilled chicken is cooked. My favorite is the Thermoworks Thermapen One.
- 2-3 second readings! It’s fast.
- High accuracy to ±0.7°F (As we discussed, accuracy is important).
- Foldaway thermocouple probe – so it doesn’t skewer your hand in the drawer.
- The patented auto-rotating display is smart, so you can use it in either hand — suitable for righties and lefties.
- Motion-sensing sleep & wake mode.
- Intelligent backlight – for grilling at night.
- Waterproof to IP67, but I still don’t put it in the sink – wipe off the probe with a sponge.
- 3,000 hour battery life (AAA Battery – not some obscure, hard to find size).
- Display temps in °C or °F.
What’s a safe temperature for smoked, grilled chicken?
As the chicken is closer to being done, use your instant-read thermometer to check the temperature. Chicken is considered cooked and safe to eat at 165°, but because the smoked bbq chicken continues to cook after you remove it from the grill, I usually pull it off a few degrees short of that, around 160°.
Rest the smoked BBQ chicken
After pulling your BBQ chicken from the grill, let it rest for about 5 minutes before diving into it. This allows the juices to redistribute and enable the chicken to reach its optimum doneness of 165°.
My husband and I made this batch of smoked BBQ chicken on a Saturday at about 11 a.m. (it’s the best light for taking pictures on the grill).
After shooting just a few final shots, we planned to wrap up the chicken and eat it for dinner (the life of a food blogger — you NEVER get a hot meal)… but the temptation was too great. The two of us dug into the drums and thighs, hunched over the plate at 11:30 in the morning., devouring those pieces.
We saved the breasts for that night — and despite being reheated in the oven for 20 minutes, the breasts were STILL moist, tender and juicy. That’s the magic of brine, my friends. Do it!
Homemade BBQ sauce recipes for your smoked chicken:
What to serve with Brined Smoked BBQ Chicken:
- Southern Cole Slaw
- Bacon and Egg Potato Salad
- Homemade French Fries
- Baked Beans from Scratch
- Hatch Chile Skillet Cornbread
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Brined Smoked BBQ Chicken
- 2 cups wood chips (cherry, hickory or apple are good choices)
- bbq mitt/pitt glove
- bbq tongs
- spray water bottle
FOR BOURBON BRINE:
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- ¼ cup bourbon I used Jim Beam
- 4 juniper berries
- 4 whole cloves
- 12 black peppercorns
- 3 cups water divided
- 2 cups ice
FOR SMOKED BBQ CHICKEN
- 1 whole fryer about 4-5 pounds, cut into pieces
- 1 cup favorite BBQ sauce
ASSEMBLE THE BOURBON BRINE:
- In a large bowl combine the brown sugar, kosher salt, juniper berries, cloves and peppercorns.
- Heat 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil on the stovetop or microwave and pour over the dry ingredients. Stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Stir in the bourbon and add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of cold water and the ice. Stir until the ice has dissolved. Check the temperature of the brine to make sure it’s at room temperature or cooler before adding the chicken.
- Add the chicken to the brine, arranging the pieces so they are covered by the brine. Let rest in the brine for 1 hour.
READY THE SMOKE/GRILL
- Cover the wood chips with water (wood chips float, so if you don’t have a special wood chip soaker like mine, put the chips into a deep bowl add water and rest a plate on top of the chips to submerge them. Soak the chips for 45 minutes to an hour.
- Transfer the soaked wood chips to a smoker box (if you don’t have a smoker basket, make a pouch with tin foil and seal it up on all sides. Poke holes with a sharp knife all over the pouch.
- Place the smoker box with the wood chips beneath the grate, directly over a burner on one side of the grill. Preheat the grill to 500° to start the wood chips smoking (about 10-15 minutes). Once the chips are smoking it’s time to add the chicken.
- Reduce heat on the grill to about 425°-450°.
- Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse under cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Place the chicken, skin side down on the grill opposite the wood chips. Note: chicken breasts are larger and take longer to cook. Follow the approximate timing guide below. Note chicken should reach 165° on an instant read thermometer to be done to a safe temperature. (I usually pull it off between 5-8° degrees short of that because the chicken continues to cook after pulling the meat off the grill.)
- Chicken breasts: 25-30 minutes total cooking time, flipping halfway through cooking.Thighs and legs: 20-25 minutes total cooking time, flipping halfway through cooking.Wings: 15-20 minutes total cooking time, flipping halfway through cooking.
- Note: another way to tell if chicken is ready to be flipped: the chicken skin and meat will easily release from the grates.
- During the last 5 minutes of cooking time, brush the chicken with BBQ sauce, close the lid and cook for a few minutes. Flip the chicken, brush with more sauce and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
- Transfer the chicken to a platter and let rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.