Smoked chicken thighs are an easy and CHEAP way to feed a crowd some great barbecue. The one thing you have to figure out though is how you are going to deal with the skin.
- Do them wrong one way and the skin comes out like leather.
- Do them wrong another way and the skin comes out like rubber.
- Do them like they do in competitions and you will never want to cook thighs again.
Hang with me here and I will show you a SIMPLE way of smoking thighs that has delicious skin and will make you excited to put these on your pit any time a crowd needs feeding.
The Skin Problem
You are never going to get crispy skin on a smoked chicken. The temperatures that we will be working with are just too low.
What you aim for with thighs is skin that is so tender that you can cleanly bite through it.
The standard way of getting tender skin of thighs for a barbecue competition starts by peeling back the skin and scraping all of the fat off the back of the skin until it is translucent.
After the skin is scraped it is reapplied to the chicken and then the teams apply their secret rubs, injections, etc.
(I have a bunch of links to competition chicken thigh recipes at the bottom of this post)
Scraping the skin is a miserable job and is the last thing you will want to do if you are cooking a bunch of these for a crowd.
Here is the easy way.
Easy Smoked Chicken Thighs
Start by brining the thighs for at least three hours. I used the brine recipe for chicken breasts for these thighs and let them soak for four hours in the refrigerator.
Chicken Brine Recipe
- 2 quarts water
- 1/2 cup salt
- 1/4 cup brown sugar.
Remove the thighs from the brine, pat dry with paper towels and trim. Flip the thigh so it is skin side down and trim the excess fat and skin away from the thighs.
After the thighs have been trimmed season liberally on both side with your favorite chicken rub. If you don’t have a good chicken rub then you can use this recipe.
Dry Rub for Chicken
- 1/2 cup turbinado sugar
- 2 Tablespoons seasoning salt (Lawry’s)
- 1 Tablespoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon chile powder (Mexene)
- 1 teaspoon granulated onion
Here is where the trick comes in!
Get a disposable foil pan and add a tablespoon of Parkay or margarine for each thigh.
Place the chicken thighs, SKIN SIDE DOWN, onto the Parkay. I added a few extra dollops of Parkay for good measure 🙂
Put the pan onto your smoker running at 250F. I like to use a blend of hickory and apple for smoke.
When I was cooking these I went ahead and put some other thighs directly onto the grate for a comparison test.
Let the thighs smoke for an hour at 250F. During this hour the skin is going to poach in the Parkay/margarine and get extremely tender.
After an hour remove the thighs from the pan and place them skin side up on your smoker grates. The skin will look pale and most of the seasoning will have washed off. That’s okay, just hit the skin with a little more dry rub and you will be good to go 🙂
Let the thighs cook until they hit an internal temperature of 175F, about another 45 minutes.
Once the thighs hit 175F I will coat them with some barbecue sauce and return them to the smoker for another 5-10 minutes so the sauce will set.
My ideal final internal temperature for thighs is 180F. This is about ten degrees hotter than what I target for smoked chicken legs and is about 20 degrees hotter than targeted for smoked chicken breasts. Both sets of thighs finished at about the same time. The foil pan does not speed up the cooking process.
So how did they turn out?
The thighs that were on the grate the entire time had a darker color since the rub had a better chance to form a crust. I was pleased with the color of both versions.
The flavor on both versions were excellent with the foil pan thighs having a bit of a “buttery” note.
The skin on the foil pan thighs (left picture) was bite through tender and delicious. The skin on the regular chicken (right picture) was tasty, rubbery and almost completely came off on the first bite.
More Ways of Smoking Thighs
Chef Tom from All Things BBQ shared this beautiful video showing how he prepares thighs for KCBS competitions. Very much worth watching!
Pitmaster Harry Soo did some extensive testing of a bunch of different ways to get bite through skin. He shares them in this video.
And last up is a different twist on competition thighs by Malcolm Reed.