We bought a smoker and it has been fabulous for doing ribs. However, when we've tried to do chicken in it, it comes out "leathery" and tough. I have had smoked chicken at other people's homes that was DELICIOUS. So, what are we doing wrong? (We've tried whole chicken and parts, both were tough)
Chicken is difficult to get right in a smoker. Cooking at really low temperatures can result in a rubbery skin. Chicken is one meat where I've never seen the need to go low/slow. Brine the bird if you're worried about drying it out or if you want to get some extra flavor into the meat, but it's not necessary. In any event, make sure you get the skin dry before cooking. Overnight in the fridge should do the trick. I like to rub the skin with vegetable oil and BBQ rub (or sometimes just salt & pepper) and cook it at around 300-350f on the smoker. Not only does it cook faster, it also doesn't take on an overwhelming amount of smoke.
A smoke-master offered this advice years ago and I've followed it many times...with much success. Chicken is low in fat so it can dry out in a smoker at prolonged and low temps. He suggested "smoke-roasting" - get your smoker ripping at 350 to 400F (I have an off-set wood-fired pit). Split a whole chicken (5#s +/-) through the breast only and splay it open - cracking the back a bit to keep it flat. On both sides oil it lightly, hit both sides liberally with a rub or poultry seasoning, and put it in your pit breast side down for about 35-45 minutes. Flip it breast side up for another 35-45 minutes, or until the juices run clear when you pierce it with a knife tip. The first 35-45 minutes of high temps and starting with the breast/skin side down get the bird cooking nicely, and the remaining time with the breast/skin side up gets the skin to crisp and color really nicely. Keep an eye on it to prevent over-cooking and drying it out. Try this method - it is unbelievably great. Good luck.
It sounds like your bird is drying out.
If it's not over cooking (and it sounds like you're pulling it out before that), but drying out - try brining your chicken before hand, embedding butter under the skin of the chicken, or a steam pan under your chicken in the smoker. I typically do butter under the chicken and brine when I have time.
You can go low and slow, but the skin will absorb LOTS of smoke and usually get rather rubbery. I usually smoke my chicken's much higher as @Sean Hart suggests and have great luck there. Low and slow works best with cuts of meat that are particularly fatty - the meat in chicken isn't especially and doesn't really gain that much from it. If you go low and slow, you need to add moisture and/or fat to help the meat out. Additionally, since the skin absorbs smoke very easily it, depending on your wood, may become bitter with smoke.
'Beer can chicken' as @Cos suggests is an easy way to cook chicken but - its not much for low and slow smoking. The temperature you'd typically smoke at isn't sufficient to steam the liquid in the can. Turning the heat up and doing it faster, combined with some butter and spices under (under is important) the skin, and using the 'beer can' is a good method. You end up with moist chicken and good skin.
So, bought three roasting chickens. Spatch cocked them (split, removed the backbone and breast bone. Brushed with oil on both sides. Spread my rub on both sides, stacked them up and let them sit for about 30 minutes while I got the vertical smoker going. I used pecan wood from an old tree that blew down. Added water to the water pan, put the wood in and lit the gas. Slid the chicken, skin side down in on individual racks and closed the doors. I kept the temp between 325 and 350 degrees. About one and a half hours later I turned the chicken over. One and a half hours later, I took them out and covered them with foil and let it rest for about 10 minutes. Carved it up into pieces and served with warm BBQ sauce, okra and tomatoes, field peas and snaps, and Brandy's potato salad. Best I ever had. Smoky, flavorful and moist. I think the key is high heat, rather than low and slow. Simple rub of pretty much equal parts rubbed sage, thyme,paprika,onion powder, garlic powder, pepper and kosher salt. Added about a tablespoon of chipotle pepper. The oil on the birds helped enhance the flavor of the rub, I think.
I'm sorta new at learning how to smoke different meats, starting with a large Boston Butt as my first "experiment" on a regular(barrel shaped) charcoal grill. I always use a drip pan under the meat and NEVER cook the meat over direct heat, which I think is the usual way to do all this on a grill that wasn't designed to be a smoker per se. Anyway, with the chicken, I put about an inch of hot water in the drip pan right before putting the chicken on the grill plates. It sorta steams with the smoke, helps melt extra fat, but retains moisture. I start, and try to maintain, a grill temp of 200-225, but never hotter. I'm not trying to make something I could make shoes out of, and cook until the internal temp of the chicken is 165, and use your meat thermometer in a couple spots, not just one. So far, with different cuts from different manufacturers, it's turned out great everytime. I don't think this bit of info is going to help you, but I cut several long slices in the chicken well into the meat, prior to putting any rub on it, and work the rub under the skin as well as inside the cuts in the meat, put it in a sealed bag and let it sit in the fridge overnight, and while the grill is heating up, take the meat out and let it get to room temp right before it hits the grill/smoker. I do it that way because I can't eat a high fat diet, and chicken skin is a GIANT no no when I cook, and may well be the same for other people. They smoke a beautiful piece of chicken just to take the skin off and....no rub and smoke flavor on the meat, but the dogs get one heck of a treat!
OK...here's the rub, no pun intended. Every cooker's temp at the actual food level is going to differ. I've had 5 different smokers of varying style and all vary in hood measured temp vs actual food level temp, some as much as 50' or more. Because of this fact, everyone's advice as to cooking temp is going be different. The only way to accurately compare cook temps is to monitor temps at food level, with a good digital therm. Regular oven type analog therms are not consistently accurate. I've found this to be true with even hi end, very expensive cookers. Just remember that heat rises, so if your monitor therm is at the top of the cook chamber, it's not going to give you an accurate reading of the real temp the food is cooking at. Only way to get this temp is to put the probe where the food is, no closer than 1" and no farther than 2" from the food. Good luck...
The coolest part of your bird should be 160-165F when you pull it out of the heat. I understand nervousness with food borne illnesses, but the best way to keep a bird tender and juicy is to bring it right to the edge of done. I recommend smoking until you get to 140-145 then put it in a 350-400 oven to bring it to 165 and crisp up the skin. You will want a meat thermometer and keep a close watch the first few times.
For my chicken to be moist and tender and full of flavor when smoking or even turkey whole or halves or just the breast I shoot my whole fryers of chicken or halves or just the breast or even legs and thighs all of the pieces BONE IN!!!!! A MUST!!!!! FOR THE SHOOT FLAVOR (Beer not dark or whine not dark nothing dark and if you don't want to be seen in the store buying alcohol get someone else to do it!!! Add butter and Cajun season together and buy you a good injector and inject in all parts MUST DO THIS!!!!!!! Keep smoker at 200 to 250 degrees and if you have a propane burner those are way better in my opinion smoke with cherry and mesquite and apple chips soaked at all times and keep smoker with water and chips every 30mins a must (burnt chips and water is no good flavor for chicken or turkey etc... and always REMEMBER IF YOUR LOOKING YOUR NOT COOKING!!!! Baste with your shootem up stuff on the hour other than that set your timer for what the time calls for for the lbs or ozs of whatever you are smoking!!! OH ANOTHER MUST it might be a little pricey but well worth it get a meat thermometer to get the internal temp and do not go to the bone of any of the meat always check the fattiest part of the meat!!! ENJOY!!! OH FORGOT ONE THING TOO LOL ALWAYS rub your meat with a good mustard and salt and pepper and your good to go!!
You might try this. Take old large wok. With dome lid. 2 table spoons dried uses tea from tea bags,or dry saw dust of good wood. Heat wok on open flame till very hot. Throw in tea leafs or saw dust. Set in rack. Set in fowl. Chicken or duck. Slap on lid. Wait 2 nin. remove flame. let set 5 min. Remove lid. All smoke should be gone & into bird. Skin will be crisp & dry. to touch. Smoke will soak into flesh. Chines fast smoked fowl. Now bake best I think. Or fry fowl. The skin seals the meat. Nice smoked flavor. This will leave a burnt spot in bottom of wok so use the old one for this. The trick is to have just enough heat in wok to charcoal all the tea or sawdust you put in & set time for fowl to absorb it before lid is raised.
The first lesson is easy, "The Beer Can Chicken". There are several similar devises that will help you to smoke a chicken. You place about 1/2 can of beer (or coke, mountain dew, sprite, ginger ale) that in the holder and mount the chicken over the can through the back end. (you can dispose of the top half of the can however you please.)
This will provide extra moisture and flavor and help to avoid the unpleasant dried out meat.
Second lesson, rubs & injections. A good rub administered below the skin (there are lots out there, google is your friend) will help seal in juices and provide great flavor (if you choose the right rub). Same with injections. There are any number of "turkey injectors" out there that work just fine with chicken. Inject the meat with a marinade and that will help prevent the leather you want to avoid.
Third lesson, patience. Use a meat thermometer and cook the bird low and slow, then when it is done, let it rest for 15 minutes or so before slicing it.
Steam pans do not add moisture to the meat in a smoker. The water pan is there to act as a heat sink to prevent the temperature from fluctuating too much.
Like others have said, cook hotter and for less time and brine the meat beforehand.
Te best why I have found in smoking chicken in my smoker is set the temperature at about 220 - 225 and cook for about 2.5 to 3 hours. I found that apple wood provide the best flavor. I have used various rubs over olive oil.
I don't understand the problem. I have an electric water smoker, never had any problems w/ chicken. I always let the smoker warm up first and I boil a kettle of water for the water pan, but the rest is hands off. I find that it takes less than half of the time suggested in manual for cooking, a whole chicken(s, I always cook at least 2 or 3) cook in 45-60 minutes. Oil, salt, pepper on outside of chicken, spices in cavity, half lemon in cavity to keep moisture in.
The coolest part of your bird should be 160-165F when you pull it out of the heat. I understand nervousness with food borne illnesses, but the best way to keep a bird tender and juicy is to bring it right to the edge of done. I recommend smoking until you get to 140-145 then put it in a 350-400 oven to bring it to 165 and crisp up the skin. You will want a meat thermometer and keep a close watch the first few times. You can read a recipe here: How to Smoked Chicken Wings.
I just tried a fresh chicken today on my Traeger wood pellet grill. This chicken was "fresh" (well not frozen who knows its history) from Walmart in some kind of liquid it claimed was "natural chicken broth" whatever that is. I figured (and was lazy) it's good enough.
So put on the Traeger and set for about 350°F. I stuffed it with apple slices, sliced onions and fresh garlic and spread a small amount of rub on it. Cooked for about 2 hours until the inside temp was 220°F ... I put foil over the grill top so it wouldn't burn.
Damn. Best chicken I ever had. Still juicy and incredibly good. Not rubbery or dried out like I often get with longer lower temperatures. Even eating the apple slices straight (still a bit crisp ...) was delicious.