“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.
Several 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.
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 combination 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 12 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 old 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 have 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.
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.
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.
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, or 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 you 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.
Marjory Wildcraft is an Expedition Leader and Bioneer Blogger with The [Grow] Network, which is an online community that recognizes the wisdom of “homegrown food on every table.” Marjory has been featured as an expert on sustainable living by National Geographic, she is a speaker at Mother Earth News fairs, and is a returning guest on Coast to Coast AM. She is an author of several books, but is best known for her “Grow Your Own Groceries” video series, which is used by more than 300,000 homesteaders, survivalists, universities, and missionary organizations around the world.