How to Spatchcock and Smoke a Whole Chicken: Tips from the butcher

Chicken is this butcher’s favorite protein. It's hard to believe but it’s true! Don’t get me wrong, I still love a big, fat, medium-rare ribeye steak from time to time. During the week though, I usually turn to chicken for its versatility and easy preparation. So if you’re looking for the best smoked chicken recipe, it’s a lot simpler than you’d expect!

What to look for when buying chicken

When buying a whole chicken, look for one that is naturally raised on a vegetarian diet and without antibiotics or added hormones. The ideal size for a whole chicken is 3½ to 4 pounds. Interestingly, there are three grades of chicken: A, B, and C.

Grade A is the highest quality and most commonly found in your local market. Grade A chickens have a good meat-to-bone ratio, no torn skin, no bruising, and no broken bones. Grades B and C are most commonly used in products that are further processed.

Photo of raw whole chicken next to a pair of kitchen shears

How to spatchcock a whole chicken

There are a couple of things you’ll need to spatchcock a chicken:

  • Cutting board
  • Sharp pair of kitchen or poultry shears

Start by taking your chicken out of the package and pat it dry with some paper towels. Remove any giblets (neck, liver, gizzard) you may find in the cavity of the bird and set aside. Next, lay the breast down on the cutting board and identify where the backbone is (it runs the length of the chicken and is about 1 inch wide).

Photo of a whole raw chicken with a finger pointing at the backbone

Using your kitchen shears, cut along one side of the backbone the entire length of the chicken. I prefer to start at the butt of the bird and work my way up toward the neck. Do the same on the other side of the backbone until you can remove the backbone from the chicken. You can save the backbone and giblets for making stock at a later date.

Photo of whole raw chicken with kitchen shears cutting along backbone

Photo of a raw whole chicken with the backbone being removed

Now spread the chicken open and flip it over. Using both hands, press down on the breast until you hear the breast bone crack. It’s that simple! This is a super cool technique that will WOW your family and friends next time you have them over for a BBQ.

Photo of whole raw chicken

A spatchcock chicken will also cook more evenly and quicker (about 25% faster) than a whole bird, with no trussing involved. It’s very easy to carve a chicken with this technique: cut the bird in half, separate the legs from the breast, and now you have a quartered chicken! This is also a great life skill to know. You can teach someone else and spread the love of BBQ!

Photo of raw spatchcocked chicken opened up

Prepping your spatchcocked chicken for the smoker

When smoking a chicken, I always try to achieve a crispy skin. Some people prefer to brine overnight, but this works against getting the crispiest skin. Instead of a brine recipe, sprinkle the chicken with kosher salt the night before spatchcocking the bird and leave it uncovered on a tray in the fridge overnight. If you don’t have the time to do it overnight, a few hours will definitely help.

This technique allows the skin to dry up, which helps achieve that crispy, delicious skin you want. One hour before I’m ready to smoke it, I season it with my favorite rub: Dead Rooster’s Redwood Barbecue Rub! It’s a great smoked chicken rub, perfectly balanced between sweet and salty. But we know that the best dry rub for chicken is the one you have on hand!

Photo of spatchcocked chicken covered in barbecue dry rub

How to smoke a spatchcocked chicken

Now that you have your chicken prepped and seasoned, it’s time to smoke that bird! The first step is to choose the best wood for smoking chicken. I prefer milder woods like apple, cherry, or any fruitwood. You only need to use one or two wood chunks, as too much wood can result in a bitter taste.

Your first thought might be to smoke it at a low temperature for a long period of time. But remember this: you risk getting rubbery skin and overcooking the chicken if you do this.

I like to smoke whole chicken at 300-325 degrees. This temperature works best to really crisp up the skin. Place the bird on the smoker grates for 1½-2 hours – this is typically how long to smoke a chicken.

Once the chicken is in the smoker, insert a thermometer probe into the thickest part of the breast to know when your chicken is done, so you can keep your pit closed. Once the temperature registers 165 degrees for the breasts and 170-175 degrees for the thighs, then we’re done! During the last 30 minutes of cooking time, you can also baste with a favorite bbq sauce if you prefer. Smoked chicken is just as good with the dry rub only.

Once the bird is done, let it rest for 5-10 minutes. From here you can slice or serve in larger pieces.

Photo of smoked spatchcocked chicken

Save the carcass

The carcass from a smoked chicken is a wonderful addition with other bones in making chicken stock. I always wrap up the carcass along with the backbone and throw them in the freezer until I have enough bones saved up to make stock.

Mark Holzkopf

About the author:

Mark Holzkopf

Contributing Writer

Mark Holzkopf has been in the meat business for over thirty-five years. He started as an apprentice meat cutter and over the years has worked his way up as a meat manager, meat buyer, and even owned his own meat market. Being around meat all day has sparked and heightened Mark’s passion for grilling and barbecuing over the years. Mark enjoys using his expertise as a butcher to help spread more knowledge about meat, tips on buying, grilling, and smoking those prime cuts!

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