We’ve found the secret to the most delicious, juicy chicken on the planet, and it is a simple process that you can do with ease. If you’ve ever tried to smoke chicken, it is often a challenge to get the breast meat cooked all the way without overcooking the thigh and leg meat. The process can be nerve-wracking and stressful, which isn’t the best way to cook anything. The trick to getting the best tasting, juiciest, and most perfectly smoked chicken ever is a process called spatchcocking.
What is Spatchcocking?
The term originated in Ireland from the phrase “dispatch the cock.” According to foodrepublic.com, the term was used in the 1700s, a time when rural living was the only way. In those days, it would have been less common to eat hens unless they were old and had stopped laying eggs. Roosters, on the other hand, don’t serve much purpose. A farmer needs only a few roosters to keep things going, so dispatching the cock was a great way to cut down on unnecessary livestock and provide a meal for the family.
Today, the term refers to the process of removing the spine and flattening the carcass before cooking, which may have come about in reference to the process used to prepare eels known as spitchcocking. Eels are split lengthwise, then grilled, roasted, or fried. If you like lobster, you’ll like eel, but that’s a topic for another day.
Essential Tools for Spatchcocking a Chicken
The good news is that you don't need a bunch of fancy tools – after all, this is a process that was developed before the Age of Reason. The key tool we think you should invest in is a great set of kitchen shears. A good, sharp knife can stand in for shears, but it will be a bit more work. Other than that, you’ll want to have basic brining supplies, lump charcoal or pellets for your smoker, and a handful of seasonings.
What Makes Spatchcocking Different from Smoking a Whole Bird
When you go to the grocery store today and buy a whole chicken, you are almost guaranteed to get a young hen. Hens put on more weight than roosters, have more fat, and are generally considered to have more tender, juicy meat. Spatchcocking was developed to help tenderize the tougher, leaner roosters that were more commonly eaten on rural Irish farms. That doesn’t mean that spatchcocking is unnecessary, though. The truth is that you’ll get a juicier, more tender, more flavorful chicken that isn’t as likely to dry out and will cook more evenly.
Steps for Spatchcocking a Chicken
The first step in the process is to clean the chicken. Remove the chicken from the packaging and make sure to remove the gizzards, heart, liver, and neck from the cavity. Rinse the chicken in cold water, making sure to clean the cavity well. This is a good time to ensure the bird was properly plucked. You can use tweezers to pick out any feather pins that were left on the bird. It’s pretty common to find pins under the wings and in the areas around the thighs against the body. You’ll want to use a quick motion to avoid tearing the skin.
We typically use a wet brine before spatchcocking the bird. We know some folks that spatchcock first, but that’s up to you. We find that it is easier to leave the bird whole while brining to keep everything tidy.
The brine we use is a very simple recipe. Start by bringing four to six cups of filtered water to a low boil, then add the salt, bay leaves, and other herbs you choose to use. We like to use a small amount of oregano, thyme, rosemary, and whole peppercorns. The hot water is essential to allow the aromatics from the herbs to release into the water. Let the water cool to room temperature. If you add the bird to the brine while it is hot, you’ll start the cooking process which can allow bacteria to form.
How Long to Brine
The easiest way we’ve found is to use a large zip lock bag. Ensure that the chicken is fully immersed in the brine and remove as much air as possible. Place the brining bag in a bowl to prevent spillage and put it in the refrigerator.
The amount of time you brine the chicken is debatable. We tend to brine for at least four hours, but not more than eight hours. Longer than that and the saltiness can get to be too much.
The Right Way to Spatchcock
Once the chicken has soaked in the brine, remove it and drain the liquid. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Place the bird breast-side down on a cutting board. Using good kitchen shears, cut from the neck opening as close to one side of the spine as possible all the way through to the rear. Repeat on the other side of the spine to completely remove the spine.
Next, flip the bird over so the breast is up. Place your hands directly on the sternum in between the breasts and press down in one, swift, forceful motion. You’ll feel the sternum crack and the bird will lay flat. Arrange the spatchcocked chicken so that it looks neat.
Add a Dry Rub
We will add a dry rub to our chicken which is also a simple recipe similar to the ingredients in the wet brine. Lots of recipes will have you add sugar, but we don’t. Instead, use fresh garlic that is crushed. The natural sugars in the garlic will be enough to get a great bark on the chicken and won’t give you a sweet meat flavor. Our dry rub consists of our Bearded Butcher Blend Original Seasoning along with the crushed garlic.
Smoking the Spatchcocked Chicken
You’ll want to set the temperature on your smoker to 225 degrees. The choice of hardwoods is up to you, but we tend to gravitate toward hickory or applewood along with oak lump charcoal when using a charcoal smoker. A good hardwood pellet mixture using a combination of oak and hickory works great when using a pellet smoker.
Time and Temperature
Place a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh of the chicken before placing it in the smoker. Smoke the chicken for about four to five hours until the internal temperature of the thigh hits around 160-degrees. Check the breast with an instant read thermometer to make sure that it has hit at least 160-degrees.
Resting the Spatchcocked Chicken
Once the internal temperature has hit the perfect internal temperature, remove the chicken from the smoker and place it in a bowl or on a cutting board with a bowl covering it completely, but not touching the skin. Let it rest for at least 15 minutes. We tend to let the chicken rest for between 30 and 45 minutes before digging in.
Quartering and Serving Spatchcock Chicken
A perfectly smoked chicken is a dream to quarter. The thighs and wings basically pull off and the breast meat can simply be sliced away from the rib bones. It’ll be amazingly tender and juicy. Serve with a summer salad, roasted potatoes, or rice.
Our Go-To Spatchcock Chicken Recipe
- 4-5 lb whole chicken
For the Brine:
- 4-6 cups cold water
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 4-6 bay leaves
- 2 Tbsp whole peppercorns
- Two sprigs fresh oregano, thyme, rosemary
For the Dry Rub:
- 4-6 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
- Bearded Butcher Blend Seasoning Original
- Clean chicken, making sure to remove gizzards and any plastic straps or bags from the cavity.
- Bring water to a boil. Add salt, peppercorns, and herbs. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes, then cool to room temperature.
- Place chicken in a large bag, then add brine. Remove air, ensuring chicken is covered.
- Refrigerate for 4-8 hours. Remove from brine, drain, and pat dry.
- Place chicken breast-side down, then cut along both sides of the spine.
- Flip chicken over and press down on the breast to crack the sternum. Arrange the bird so it lays flat.
- Mix dry rub ingredients and rub all over the bird.
- Preheat the smoker to 225-degrees. Smoke chicken for 4-5 hours until the internal temperature of the thigh and breast reach at least 160-degrees. Rest for 15-45 minutes before quartering and serving.
Not only does the spatchcocked chicken make for a beautiful presentation, but the process of laying the bird open also helps to evenly cook it throughout and keeps the juiciness in place. We’ve experimented with lots of different ways to cook chicken in the smoker over the years, and this is by far our favorite way to get great results.
You can get creative with your dry rub, too. Try adding soy sauce and ginger paste for an Asian-inspired twist, or barbecue sauce to give it a Texas twang. There really isn’t a wrong way to go. Try this process out and you’ll agree that a spatchcocked chicken is the tastiest, juiciest, most delicious way to create a simple meal to feed your whole family.