Charcoal Chimney at Night

As I’ve mentioned, the in-laws gave me a big pile of wood chips for Christmas: three kinds of which I’d never used before, and one (apple) that I had, but wasn’t sure about. Faced with twenty-plus pounds of wood filling up my closet, I decided that I needed to try them out, one at a time, on chicken.

So I got out one of my weirdly numbered gaming dice — my collection includes the usual suspects, plus things like 3- 5- and 7-sided dice — and randomly chose “apple” as the first wood to try out. For the Chicken Project, I decided to stick with a simple rub (ground peppercorns, ancho chile powder, sea salt, and onion and garlic powders) and serve it without sauce.

Unfortunately, I overloaded my weekend. The store had great-looking catfish, so I brought that home intending to cook it today, but didn’t get it into the beer brine quick enough to cook tonight (yeah, it’s that catfish). So, instead, I cooked the chicken — but started late. Hence, the really cool photo above.

I have finished smoking after dark before, but tonight was different — I started after dark. I figured it would be No Big Deal, but I learned something: my grill is not insulated enough to remain unaffected by the outside temperature. All my thermometers read 250 tonight, but the chicken took an extra half hour to cook — meaning that the heat in the cooking chamber escaped to the cold air faster than it transferred to the chicken.

Science at work,” as we say around these parts.

So that was Lesson Number One. Number Two was the discovery of the limit on how long you can smoke poultry skin before it goes all leathery: roughly an hour and a half. Longer than that, and you’ve cooked all the water out of the skin, and left all that nasty collagen. If you pan-fry your chicken, you’ll heat the skin fast enough that the collagen will break down and evaporate with the water, but smoking doesn’t do that.

This is the reason why it’s a good idea to apply that barbecue sauce to your chicken about an hour in. It re-moistens the bird, and keeps the collagen from getting all nasty. Theoretically, you could spritz your chicken with a liquid while cooking, and it should help keep the skin moist. I haven’t tried it myself, yet.

So what about the Apple Smoke?

Auntie Pasto describes it as “light and fruity, and kind of caramel-y.” I agree with her on the “light” assessment — for me, the chicken was actually the stronger taste. This kind of thing isn’t unusual for us: I’m a super-taster, and she’s a normal taster, which means that certain tastes will punch through the rest of a dish’s flavors for me. If you want to find out which you are, the BBC has a quick little quiz.

This probably means that I’m going to use apple on light fish, like tilapia or trout.