How To Cold Smoke Chicken For Mouth Watering Deliciousness

“This is really good Mom,” my 15 year old son looked at me with serious appreciation. My heart glowed with maternal delight and I grinned at him. Our fingers and faces were sticky and we were beyond caring what it looked like – in that place of intimacy – pigging out together on finger lickin’ good food. I tore another piece of chicken from the carcass and said, “you know we should stop.”

“Yeah,” he said with theoretical whimsy as he continued nibbling on a wing.  And then we both laughed because we knew this was too good and we weren’t going to stop anytime soon.

I hadn’t cooked meat by cold smoking it in years.  But our freezer had gone out unexpectedly and before I realized it, a bunch of chickens had thawed.  Not about to waste our precious homegrown food, I started going through my options for quickly preserving the meat.

simmering chicken in pot on stove for enchiladas copy400x300Several birds were immediately put in a pot to simmer to be turned into enchiladas that would then be frozen for future quick meals.

Another went into the slow cooker along with a heaping of Thai seasonings and vegetables for dinner that night.chicken in slow cooker thai style 400x300copy

I briefly toyed with my other backup plan of pressure canning the remainder when I remembered the old smoker we had.  Since the freezer wasn’t out of commission permanently and would be available again soon I thought, “why not cold smoke these birds and then freeze them afterwards?”

I hadn’t done this in years but it is a fairly simple process.  And it tastes so good…  I figured I should write about it for you.

OK here is how I did it.  And just to let you know, this is considered very dangerous (see down below).

The first thing to do is marinate the birds.  I use a cold smoked chicken marinate with salt sugar and basil 500x375copycombination of salt, sugar, and some basil (home grown and dried from our aquaponics test system).

I rarely want to use sugar in my food, but the sugar does something that really helps in this process.  Maybe you bio-chemist types can comment (down below) on that part, but all I know is salt, sugar, and basil makes it taste delicious.  Rub in equal amounts (approximately) of salt, sugar, and basil.   How much?  Uh, a lot.  I don’t know exactly, but yes, it is more than you would think.  It is going to get absorbed deeply into the flesh of the bird and you need a lot.

You want to rub it in everywhere that you can.  I gently separated the skin from the carcass while keeping it as intact on the bird as possible.  I am not super skilled at this and did tear some skin.  A few tears is not too important – it just doesn’t look as good.  Rub in that salt and sugar and basil and try to get it all over on the flesh itself not just the outer skin.

You could add other seasonings like garlic or onion powder, or chili.  Or whatever…

Some people make a sugar and brine solution and simply soak the meat.  But I find that a big waste of sugar and salt and prefer to rub it in.

The meat should marinate like this for 1marinating the chickens in a big pot copy400x3002 to 24 hours.  Refrigerating might be a good idea during this time.  I didn’t have the fridge space or 12 hours so I put the six birds I rubbed down into a big pot, covered it to keep out flies, and let it sit for about four hours.  The room temperature was in the upper 60’s (F).

My husband cleaned out the old smoker for me (isn’t he sweet?).  And I got a fire going.  It had been raining heavily and was springtime so most of our firewood was used up or wet.  I normally never cook with charcoal, but there were two bags someone had dropped off as a gift a few months back, and my favorite motto is “use what you’ve got.”   So I built a fire with the wood I had and put some coals on top.  Note that you don’t really want a fire, just a lot of hot coals and a bit of wood on top to provide smoke.

My husband was a little dubious about this whole project and asked me how I would keep the skins of the birds from becoming thick and crusty and black.

That is a good question.  And I was so glad he asked.

Every year our family raises up a flock of meat chickens.  It’s about a four-month project.  We start in April picking up day DSCN1908 the chicks arrive picking up from post offic copy500xold chicks at the Post Office and end with butchering them over a few weekends in July.   It’s some great quality family working on the project together.  And all year long we have in our freezer as much healthy free-range chicken as we want.  (I am writing about this years project in a blog in the membership area if you want to see that process in detail).

One of the many useful by-products of the annual chicken project is a quantity of paper feed bags.  I find these bags very useful for a variety of tasks and I have a neatly folded stack of them stored in the barn.

Now my husband’s first wife tended towards ‘hoarder’ and twenty years later he is still in a recovery process.  Why he doesn’t get some kind of therapy, I don’t know.  But he often gives me grief about my propensity to save useful things even though I am clearly not pack-rat material.  To him, a stack of paper feed bags looks completely unnecessary and should be put in the trash as soon as possible before it starts mating and reproducing.

I usually give him the old “yes dear,” and stack the bags up on the shelf anyway.

So when my husband asked me how I would keep the smoked chickens from becoming a black crusty rock, I hid the little smirk of satisfaction as I reached for some of the paper feed bags.  I really do use most of that stuff I store.  (Oh, you might be interested in this awesome video about how to store your things to maximize usefulness, check it out here).

But back to smokin’ chickens.

These feed bags are triple layers of paper.  Some feed bags cold smoked chicken close up of paper feed bag with three layers of paper 450x238copyhave liners of plastic which you don’t want.  So make sure when you do this to only use bags that are all paper.  If you don’t have feed bags, you can use multiple layers of paper grocery store bags.  I do recommend three layers though.  That is the right amount to filter out most of the carbon from the smoke, yet allow the heat and some delicious smoke flavor through.

Note also that these feed bags held non-GMO grains.  There is not any chemical or other residue to worry about in the bag itself.3 chickens into paper feed bag for smoking copy500x

Since the bags are fairly large I put three chickens in each bag and folded over the excess paper to seal the bag shut.  I could have put more in each bag, but I only needed to cook six chickens.

I then put the two bags full of chickens on the smoker.

I never really let the fire get that hot.  I just like a nice steady stream of smoke.  Every two hours or so, I put a small bucket full of fresh coal on the pile.cold smoked chicken tow bags with three chickens each are loaded into the smoker copy400x300

How hot is it?  Surprisingly, not very hot at all.  Since I didn’t measure (next time!) if I had to guess, I would say it varied somewhere around 100 to 180 degrees F.  That is based on my hand experiences with the water temperatures for scalding the birds after butchering them.

At its upper range (near the 180 deg F), yes that is when the chicken is ‘cooking’ very slowly.

And I have to say, I fell in love with cooking with coal and I totally get why making coal used to be a good home business.  It is so much more convenient than tending a wood fire all the time.  I think it might be equivalent to the technological leap from bicycles to automobiles.cold msoked chicken smoke fromt he top of the smoker looks good copy350x263

So how long does this take?  I kept these chickens on there for a little over a day.  My husband kept the fire going late into the night (yes, he is a sweetie).

And yes, the fire died down in the wee hours of the morning until I got it re-started again when I awoke.

Yes, I occasionally got distracted and it occasionally got a bit cooler than it should have.

Yes, sometimes it got fired up hotter than I wanted (which was probably a good spike to wipe out what ever bacteria might have been growing).

That is how it goes in the real world.  ☺

Note that after every six hour period or so I would turn over, chicken smoking for over 24 hours 500x375copyor swap places with the bags in the smoker to ensure even exposure of all the birds.

With so much smoke I was not at all concerned about insects.  And it was a bit of a balancing act to ensure the temps stayed up enough to ensure I was killing possible bacterial growth (i.e. botulism), yet keeping it cool enough to keep the meat cooking slowly for that tender and moist deliciousness.  The salt and sugar marinating also helps to keep down bacterial growth.

But you do need to know that this is an extremely dangerous activity!

Here is the obligatory disclaimer: The National Center for Home Food Preservation does not recommend cold smoking at home because of the risk of food-borne illness. Pregnant women, young children, elderly people and anyone with gastrointestinal problems should avoid cold-smoked chicken.

Got that?  OK.

Like Joel Salatin says, “everything I want to do is illegal.”   At least smoking this isn’t illegal (yet).

So after about 30 hours I opened the bags and inhaled.  Mmmmm!  The meat was moist and warm and tender and smoky and utterly delicious.  I wish the internet could transmit “aroma.”

We devoured a whole chicken in no time flat.  This is the taste cold msoked chicken final delicousness 400x298copyyou are really craving when you go out for BBQ.  Free-range chicken, marinated, and slow smoked for more than a day.

Could we have done it faster?  Maybe.  Could it have been done ‘safer?’  Probably.  If you’ve got a more perfect way to smoke chicken, by all means, let me know down in the comments section (yes I do read them, even if I don’t respond to them all).

What about the other chickens I smoked?  After they cooled, I individually wrapped the five birds in butcher paper and put them in the freezer.

Here is the fun part.  To revive one of these frozen smoked chickens, all I do is put the frozen bird in a steamer for anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes and it comes out tasting just as moist and delicious as when we first opened the bag on the grill.

Mouth watering deliciousness that is based on solid nutrition and healthy food.  It is the reason I grow my own.  It is also nice to have a teenage son (and the rest of the family) so appreciative of my cooking.

My next project is to try this cooking method on some very old chickens.  Can this process make an old tough rooster tender?  Give me a few weeks and I’ll keep you posted.  Sign up for our updates if you aren’t already getting emails from the [Grow] Network.   We are always doing cool experiments.


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This post was written by Marjory


  • Chris Homesteader says:

    Looking forward to finding out how that works on an older chicken. Funny story, I had a layer who, after much service, quit laying. We butchered and cooked her. She made the best tasting chewing gum ever. Wow! Talk about rubbery.

    1. LOL, yup, that is a funny story. And yes, I will keep you posted. There must be techniques for handling older chickens. Historically the only chickens that were eaten were older…. Chickens are ‘expensive’ to grow out – herbivores much easier in general.

  • samnjoeysgrama says:

    The Native Americans and other cultures used cold smoking for most of the food they wanted to preserve. The smoke itself has some antibacterial qualities. I have been using an indoor method somewhat similar to this on many of my meats. I heat the oven to 450 with a very heavy glazed cast iron pot in it. It has a lid and I just heat the entire empty pot until it is all up to 450. I plop the raw meat in and if it is a large piece, I let the oven remain on for 15 minutes. Then I turn it down to 250 or 300 and don’t open it for an hour or more. I check it and keep it on very low heat if it isn’t done enough. I stumbled across this years ago when I was cooking a tough round steak and had to run my son to Boy Scouts. I turned the oven off and closed the door after it had just started to broil. We were gone longer than usual, and when I opened the oven door upon my returned, the steak was fantastic. That slow cooking is so great. Smoke can only make it far, far better. Also, I bet your home butchered meat has a lot less bacteria on it than the stuff you buy that has been through a commercial slaughterhouse. My brothers worked in the local one in high school. All three of them still refuse to eat bologna or hotdogs and that was 35 years ago.

    1. Hi, oh yes, the commercial meat has stickers on it for how to handle it safely – and that is because the meat is intolerantly unsafe! these chickens were raised right here in my yard and we processed them here too. They were frozen within a short time from being butchered. No chance for anything bad to grow or develop.

  • Dean H says:

    Cold smoke temperatures should range between 90 to 120 degrees. All cold smoked meats should be cured with Sodium Nitrate or Sodium Nitrite because botulism grows well in this temperature range. Anything over that temperature would be considered hot smoked. Whole chickens should be hot smoked and at a temperature of at least 250 degrees. Just for safety…

  • J. Angler says:

    Part of what makes this “not recommended” by the Health Dept. is most people aren’t starting with healthy, home-raised animals, processed by someone who cares about it being done right. Commercial large scale meat production is full of dangerous pathogens – Joel Salatin has done tests for that! Home processing equipment that dries out thoroughly between uses is also less likely to harbor bad bacteria.
    As for paper feed bags, they line our nest boxes, hold our kindling (and get burned when shabby), cut open are used as a disposable table cover or large pattern templates, and when the pile gets too large, I use them under mulch on garden paths – I couldn’t possibly throw any of them out! 😉

  • Jo says:

    Thanks for sharing about the real world experience – such rare honesty! This sounds like something worth trying at least once…

  • Rich says:

    The cold smoking process is new to me and sounded interesting. But, since your chickens were previously frozen and thawed, it is never recommended to cook and re-freeze ANY previously frozen meat. Even after the cold smoking process, all of that chicken should’ve been consumed, donated, and not put in the freezer. Personally I wouldn’t re-freeze any food (especially poultry). The cooked chicken photo looks delicious but the risk of salmonella isn’t worth it. Otherwise, if you don’t re-freeze the chicken, I enjoyed reading your article.

    1. Well Rich, I differ on your opinion. I’ve heard that before the “don’t refreeze meat’ rule. But hen I’ve known lots of people who make sausage taking thawed frozen meat, grinding it up into sausage, and then refreezing. It was fine to eat.
      A lot of this comes down to the initial quality of meat If you are getting it from the commercial supply, well yes, be very careful in what you do.

    2. Kathleen says:

      Frozen thawed meat that is cooked (as in this case) is safely refrozen.

  • Daryle says:

    Fortunately, you were not COLD smoking. You were not quite HOT smoking, either. Cold smoking does not COOK food. It flavors it. As such, there isn’t enough heat to kill clostridium botulinum. Cold smoking can flavor cheese or even butter without having either drip through the cooking grid. Most of us who actually know how to cook with smoke and have won ribbons attesting to the fact, know that cold smoking ranges from 70 degrees F. to 120 degrees F.
    Safe(r) cold smoking requires CURING! In a wet brine we are talking around seven (7) DAYS fully submerged with the joints injected. DRY curing takes weeks. Fat-containing meats – sausage, bacon and the like are cold smoked. That keeps the fat from dripping out, landing on the embers, igniting and burning that which you are smoking to a crisp. The ghost of the hog that died to give you the bacon will visit your bedside at night, rightfully so, and haunt the daylights out of you for being so wasteful.
    You were hot smoking, Marjory, which is why you were able to write this article without being on life support. Hot smoking begins to happen at about 140 degrees F. up to about 185 degrees F. Some of my fellow competitors hot smoke up to 275 degrees, to be sure the beasties are killed.
    BTW, sugar is used to balance or offset the salt. The Morton people … little girl with the umbrella … sell a safe cure with nitrates. Buy it and use it. They will even tell you what a pellicle is and why cold smokers need one.
    And, yes, my secret sausage recipe includes Craisins and cashews. That’s why it wins ribbons.

    1. Hi Daryle, Well it sounds like you know what you are doing! LOL. Yeah, I wa sglad it got too hot sometimes. It reminds me of the stock pot on the back of my stove. When I was a girl I asked my mom why we didn’t get sick yet we never refrigerated the stock. My mom told me she made sure to heat it up every day – probably more than once per day – to kill anything that might grow. that pot was always back there and we put everything into it – bones, broccoli stems, potato boiling water, etc. She always had the most delicious soup.

      1. Daryle in VT says:

        Hi Marjory,
        I’ve been known to keep a pot on the back of the wood stove – which I had to light last night, May 14th! I keep a turkey frying thermometer in the pot. Part of my training as a smoke chef is avoiding the “100 degrees of danger zone.” To maintain food safety keep it below 40 degrees F or over 140 degrees F. Most stock pots on the back burner do stay above 140 degrees.
        Sometime I’ll have to tell you about the day the game warden stopped in with 150 pounds of road-kill (venison). We built some of the best sausage! Being late fall, the Cajun smoker (from Loosee-ana) was in the warehouse, which is up a bit over the lay of the village. We had a coil of raw sausage the size of a truck tire taking on a cold smoke. Well, being uphill from all the folks in town…

  • Marsha T says:

    Hello, my name is Marsha. I have a yoga holistic health center in Los Angeles. I was wondering if you do lectures in the LA area? I am interested in healthy eating, living a healthy and sustainable lifestyle through exercise, meditation, eating and growing my own food.

    1. HI Marsha,

      I removed your phone numbers so it wouldn’t be all over the net…. I don’t currently plan to be in L.A., but gosh the world is changing so rapidly you never know! If I am in or near the area, I’ll mention it in the newsletter so I hope you are subscribed.

    2. Oh, and thanks so much for the invite!

  • Vicki O says:

    THX for you thrift, observations and experience shared! I also benefited from your recent online GYOG Summit … and I ordered the GYOG videos and the Bug Eater’s book. Had your e-commerce website section allowed me to, I would have ordered several copies of each–but just “one at a time” made me think to check them out before gifting friends. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive the Bug Eater book. I contacted your “customer happiness” via email over a month ago and have yet to hear anything back from GYOG. Hope to hear from you soon. xo, v

    1. Hi Vicki,

      I just sent you an email with Cindy who handles deliveries. Th Bug book is not a physical book so I hope you weren’t expecting that in the mail…

  • Robert says:

    Remember that fumes from coal are toxic!

  • Greg says:

    Great article on smoked chicken. What you’re describing, which sounds wonderful, isn’t truly “cold” smoking, but more like just slow smoke/cooking. I have a smoke generator mounted to the outside of my smoker where I can truly cold smoke things like salmon (lox) and cheese. With this method there is no heat entering the smoker, just smoke. Even a low temp of 100f is too hot for smoking most cheeses.
    I’ve been slow smoking/cooking meat and poultry for years using the method you described in your article. Sometimes if I’m in a hurry I’ll take the chicken, pork loin or flank steak right out of the freezer, rub it down with spices, and put right in the smoker on low temperature. I’ll gradually raise the temp over the next 8 – 10 hours until done. I always use a meat thermometer to make sure the meat is fully cooked.

  • Carol says:

    I think you mean charcoal, not coal.

  • Samantha L says:

    Hello Marjory,
    That sounds so good. I will try it with ducks. I too have many feed bags. My favorite way so far to cook ducks is all day on low on the crock pot. No water or anything else. Just a plucked cleaned bird. I turn it over towards the end and it is a challenge to keep it from falling apart. The meat I will not use right away I pack into mason jars and freeze.

  • Kerry says:

    Just wanted to express my appreciation for the email links to all your cool articles and contest submissions. I usually unsubscribe from email subscriptions in very short order, but I am really enjoying reading the links you send. The presentation in the summit about living w/o refrigeration got me thinking about how our foremothers kept their families fed – and I think realistic techniques like the ever-simmering stockpot and the smoker played a big part. As several people have commented, the initial cleanliness of the food is also crucial – I wouldn’t try this stuff with commercial meat. Lastly, as someone who uses freezing extensively, my impression is that refreezing food which has been properly handled isn’t really dangerous, although refreezing can adversely impact the texture of the food if not carefully done.

  • Jacqui says:

    I’m really interested to know if it helps make old rooster delicious. I have 6 in my freezer and I have no idea what to do with them other than soup.

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