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Smoked Summer: How To Smoke Chicken Legs

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I smoked chicken in several different ways this summer. Here’s what I learned.

Our goal at the beginning of the summer was to do more articles about smoking meats because Brian, Mike, and I all have smokers of one sort or another. I think we collectively did two articles. I did zero. Part of the reason for that is because my smoker was broke at the start of summer, and part is because I’m just lazy. We will rectify both of those problems now.

I went out to use my Masterbuilt Sportsman Elite smoker in May and noticed that it had shut off 30 minutes into it's warm up cycle. No matter what I did to fix it, it kept doing the same damned thing - before it even warmed up it would shut off. I bought it in February from Cabelas on sale (CHEAP), which is a really stupid time to buy a smoker if you live in Minnesota, and I had only used it three times by May.

It worked reasonably well previous to it’s death and I was pretty disappointed. The massive amount of meats stayed in the freezer with the exception of a full chicken or two which I did on my old, cheap barrel charcoal smoker.

I put off calling Masterbuilt for a couple weeks, because I thought the conversation might be difficult and as humans we don't like to have difficult conversations. When I finally called Masterbuilt and related to them my tale of woe about their smoker they were very accommodating. The customer service woman requested the model number as I explained my problem and thenasked me to take pictures of the smoker after I removed the back plates and cut the main electrical wire. I was confused as first, but understand basically they wanted me to render the old smoker useless. She said that they would send me a new smoker as a replacement.

I waited a couple weeks (seemed forever) and there it was! I expected the same smoker I purchased previously, but was pleasantly surprised that the new smoker is way better than the old smoker. Not only does it work well, but it looks good, has a window and remote control. Did I mention it works? On to smoking.

One of my goals in smoking of meats was to focus on being “heart healthy”, while at the same time being cheap and lazy.

I sought to find recipes I could make that were lower in fat and didn't rely on heavy salt to bring out their flavor. Most of the food we eat in America is based on lard and salt. If you want to make something taste good, you just put a lot of salt in it. When you're forced, because of health reasons, into a low salt or no salt diet, you immediately recognize this because everything tastes salty. Way too salty. Restaurant food that you loved before is terrible. (I’ll stop beating on this - it’s another article, maybe) I don't mean to be religious about it but as Americans we need to eat less, exercise more and not smoke. If we don't those three things we probably can leave healthy lives.

I bought an electric smoker because I'm lazy. I know there's a religion around smoking that says you're supposed to use charcoal or wood chunks and if you don't things taste metallic or there's something missing, but I am LAZY. I’m not a world-class cook nor will I ever be. The difference in taste between my electric smoker that runs by itself and a charcoal smoker that I had to babysit is not that big a difference for me to worry about anymore.

You can go all over the Internet and find recipes about smoking different kinds of meats. My goal was to find food that would please my family. Mrs CN doesn't care too much for beef. We both grew up in western Nebraska spending our early lives eating meals made of beef, corn, and potatoes. I think it wore her out. That, and beef is very expensive relative to my targets - the two white meats - chicken and pork.

Over the summer I've tried various cuts of chicken; I have smoked full chickens, wings, thighs, and drumsticks. If you want to smoke chicken, legs and thighs are by far the easiest and highest value pieces you can smoke. Legs and thighs can typically be purchased for one third of the cost of chicken wings, and that's only because chicken wings are sold by restaurants and through marketing made popular.

I'm sure you can see that there is a much higher meat to bone and fat ratio in the chicken leg and/or thigh than there is in a wing. I'm not going to look this up (LAZY) but I'm sure at one point somebody said “What are we going to do with all these wings?” and a marketing person seeking to make themselves valuable said “I'll take care of that for you”. Thus wings are three times the cost of the other pieces of chicken.

Mrs CN doesn’t care for chicken thighs, and there is a lot of work in dealing with a full chicken as comparing to buying a full pack of legs or thighs. That left me to focus on chicken legs. Drumsticks. Drummies.

I use a rub to prepare the chicken. There are many many many rub recipes on the Internet, all you have to do is look for them. I don't recommend that you purchase a rub ahead of time unless you're really lazy or don’t understand spices at all (IT HAPPENS). Purchased rubs tend to be more expensive and loaded with salt because salt is a cheap ingredient. (I don't mean to be fanatical about being against salt. I tried a couple rubs that had no salt in them and they sucked, but salt shouldn’t be the main focus of the rub.)

I don't brine my chicken because I'm lazy however if you choose to brine which typically involves salt (GASP!) and sugar then don't bother with a rub. Do one or the other not both.

The rub I eventually settled on is this:

  • 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

Or... something like it.

I HAVE A SECRET SPICE. IF YOU’LL ONLY SEND ME $9.99 I’LL GIVE YOU THAT SPICE.

or not.

Here it is:

- used Chile Arbol Molido in place of Cayenne.

I just happened to buy this from a local Mexican food source. It’s a hot hot pepper that makes cayenne taste like some kind of puss boy spice.

I smoked the chicken with mesquite for “around” two hours at 225 degrees. I say “around” because chicken just needs to get to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. You’re not trying to get the fat to congeal like you are with other meats, so it’s relatively simple compared to a beef brisket.

Two other things that are common advice in smoking recipes that I don’t do:

Brush on “your favorite barbecue sauce”, 30 minutes before, an hour before, whatever.

Open the smoker and “turn the food”.

I say no to both.

First, my favorite BBQ sauce is different than my son’s favorite, and different from Mrs. CN. I see no point in this. Plus, the batch of legs I made - neither of them bothered with sauce, so that must have been an indication that they were good without it.

Second, the more you open the smoker door, the more heat escapes. Did I mention I live in Minnesota? I’m opening the door as minimally as possible because I’m skeptical of this thing working properly when it’s 20 degrees and not at all at -10.

Here’s the chicken, done:

Try it and enjoy!