If you have a smoker, you might be looking for an easy weeknight recipe that doesn’t take too long. Smoking is known for long cooking times that are good for an entire weekend outside, but not so much for quick and easy meals.
That is until you rediscover the tasty chicken thigh. They’re flavorful and delicious when smoked, and they’re small enough that they only take less than two hours. No, it’s not a twenty-minute dinner, but most of that time is hands-off cooking – and they’re totally worth the wait.
Smoking Chicken Thighs
Chicken thighs are one of the stars of the smoker.
Several things make them perfect for this type of cooking:
- Chicken thighs absorb flavors readily.
- They remain moist without much work on your part, making the cooking process more hands-off.
- They are small and cook relatively quickly, even at the low temperatures you’d find in a smoker.
- They’re inexpensive.
Thighs are some of the darkest meat in the chicken. As such, it’s naturally higher in fat and moisture content.
Smoking can sap the moisture out of many types of meat, especially lean poultry. Thighs fight this tendency and stay juicy, but the key is to use an internal instant-read thermometer and don’t overcook the chicken.
If you’re worried about drying the chicken out, which would be a concern when you cook a whole bird or lean white meat, it’s a good idea to brine the meat. This is the simple process of soaking the meat in a saltwater solution for a while, usually overnight. This helps season the food and lock in moisture.
But thighs are the exception since they’re already moister than the rest. There’s no real advantage to brining. A marinade or rub is the best solution for adding flavor here.
Temperatures and Times
As with all poultry, it’s vital to get your chicken cooked to its final temperature. All of your time estimates will be based on this. The USDA recommended temperature for chicken is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because thighs are so small to begin with, carryover is minimal. You’ll want to cook to the desired temperature and then remove them from the grill. You can rest the meat for a few minutes if you like, but it’s not necessary.
The amount of time that smoking the thighs takes will significantly depend on two things:
- The temperature of your smoker is the most obvious. If you have an electric or propane smoker allowing you to easily control the temperature with a thermostat or dampers, you can smoke the thighs at around 250 degrees or turn it up to 275 or 300 degrees for shorter cooking time.
- The size and type of the chicken thighs. It’s worth noting that very thick thighs are going to cook slower than smaller ones. You can smoke bone-in or boneless cuts; the boneless ones will likely reach their target temperature a little quicker.
Low and slow is the smoker’s mantra, but chicken absorbs flavors so quickly that there’s no reason to drag the process out.
For a rough idea of timing, at 250 degrees, thighs should reach their internal temperature in about 1 hour and 45 minutes. If you opt to cook them faster, or your smoker (or grill) won’t keep steady under 300 degrees, expect them to take only 1 hour.
If we liken cooking to playing a musical instrument, what you’re trying to accomplish in your smoker is akin to playing a chord. It’s made up of several notes, and when played together, it makes magical music. The smoke is just one note. The meat itself, the rub, brine, marinade, and sauce you choose are examples of other notes.
Sauces and Rubs
Thighs are a very versatile protein because they can pair well with many different flavors. Classic smoked thighs fit nicely with southern-style or Texas-style barbecue flavors. Rubs that use brown sugar and paprika are the most common. Sides like cornbreads, beans, coleslaw, and dinner rolls all work.
If you want to add a sauce to the thighs after smoking, that’s up to you. Most people will agree that a hearty rub and the smokey flavors are more than enough to please a crowd. As long as you use skin-on thighs, there will be enough moisture to glaze the rub into a crusty, smokey sauce of its own making. Yum!
Simple and Minimalistic
Alternatively, you could use thighs to try out some minimalist smoking. They are an inexpensive cut of meat that’s widely available. It’s a great weeknight meal since they only take an hour or two to smoke. So why not use chicken to experiment with different woods and find which smoke flavors work best?
If that’s your goal, try smoking thighs that have a lighter rub. Lemon and rosemary offer Mediterranian flavors, or you could go with simple salt and pepper. Chicken is versatile enough to play with whatever is coming out of your herb garden this month, so play around.
Tips for Smoking Chicken Thighs
Use a thermometer: The number one thing to keep in mind when smoking chicken thighs is to nail the temperature. A remote thermometer that will allow you to monitor the meat’s temperature while smoking is infinitely helpful. If it has an alarm that you can set for 165 degrees, all the better. You should put the probe in the thickest part of the biggest thigh.
Cook some extra: Thighs often come in a large butcher’s tray, and they’re usually inexpensive. If that’s the case, don’t hesitate to cook more than you need. It’s perfect the next day for sandwiches or making chicken salad. As mentioned before, it comes out nice and moist, which makes reheated leftovers much more appealing.
Our Recommended Recipe – Perfect Smokey Chicken Thighs
Here is our recommended recipe for classic smoky barbecue thighs. It goes well without any sauce but some prefer to serve it with a hickory smoke BBQ sauce or a more spicier option. You can also add fresh thyme sprigs for visual effect and fresh and nice aroma.
Perfect Smokey Chicken Thighs Recipe
- Wood chips for the smoker, we recommend applewood or hickory
- 8 chicken skin-on thighs, bone-in or boneless
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tbsp paprika powder
- 1 tbsp cayenne powder
- 1/2 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tbsp fresh ground black pepper
For Serving (Optional)
- fresh thyme
- BBQ sauce
- Prepare your smoker and preheat it to about 250 degrees.
- Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl to make a rub. For a spicier rub, use more cayenne.
- Brush the thighs with olive oil and then coat thoroughly with the rub. Pat it on and get it under the skin to ensure optimal coverage.
- Place thighs skin side up on the smoker rack. Place your thermometer probe in the thickest part of the largest thigh.
- Smoke for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the internal temperature of 165 degrees is reached.
- Remove from the smoker and let the thighs rest for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with a barbecue dipping sauce and fresh thyme sprigs, if desired.
You shouldn’t have too much trouble with thighs drying out at these temperatures. If you’re worried about it or if you could only find skinless thighs, you can apply what pitmasters refer to as a “mop.”
During the last 30 minutes of cooking, apply a slurry of apple cider vinegar, water, and the rub mix with a basting brush. You can include a little bit of barbecue sauce if you like as well. Slather it on the meat. It adds moisture and flavor, and it will help seal in the juices.
Smoked Chicken Thighs FAQ
What type of wood is best for smoking chicken thighs?
Different woods have different flavor profiles. When throwing a little bit in the grill smoker box, it doesn’t make too much difference. But the smoke is a primary product of the cooking process in a smoker, and the wood deserves a little more consideration.
Since chicken can be easily over-powered by other heavy flavors, you don’t want to pick a robust wood smoke flavor. Mesquite is likely going to be too strong. Fruitwoods like apple or cherry are good choices here. Hickory will produce a more familiar smokey flavor, and pecan is another yummy choice.
You can still use an intense wood smoke like mesquite, but if you do, you will need to adjust the other flavors accordingly.
How can I make crispy skin for my smoked chicken thighs?
The crispiness of the skin is usually a factor of high-heat application, which is not a strength of smoking. If you choose a rub with some sugar, it will likely form a crust with the chicken skin. This makes a delicious crust, but more often than not, it’s less-than “crispy.”
An alternative plan could be to do a reverse sear on your smokey chicken thighs. Smoke them until they’re cooked to perfection, and then either throw them on a hot grill for a minute or two or put them under the broiler. It’s important not to let them dry out during this process, and keeping them from burning will be a challenge. But it should provide the final blast of heat needed to crisp up the skin.
What are good side dishes to serve with smoked chicken thighs?
Side dishes will depend a lot on the sort of flavors you have invited to the party. Classic barbecue? Choose some classic American sides like coleslaw, potato salad, or barbecue beans.
If you choose Meditennanian flavors like lemon and rosemary, choose sides like roasted potatoes, fresh tomatoes, or simple pasta.