The best dishes emerge from the fog as a result of trial and error, which is one reason why slavishly following recipes is a route destined for failure. There are all kinds of variables which may result in a different dish from that presented in the recipe book, but the knack is to find an idea then develop it yourself until you can turn out something that works brilliantly. And often your own additions may make all the difference; but… if you don’t have a few failures along the way, you’re not really trying very hard. Persevere and you will find the best approach, then churn it out to perfection a thousand times once you’ve learned the knack.
Tea-smoked chicken, a dish I’ve long thought about adding to my repertoire, was a lot like that. I’ve seen variations on a recipe all over the web, on TV and elsewhere, but was keen to find the best way to find the best way to make some truly succulent chicken with a delicately smoky flavour.
The first thing I did differently was to brine a big pile of chicken thighs, bone in, for about 8 hours. This was for two reasons: I had some brine in my fridge left over from a previous culinary adventure (here is one good recipe); but mostly because brining brings out the best of many meats, tenderising and sealing in the juices – perfect for this occasion.
After brining I washed the chicken, patted it dry and put into a carrier bag with a dry rub spice mix comprising the following:
- Whole spices, crushed to a powder: black peppercorns, Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, coriander seeds
- Five spice powder
- Cayenne pepper
- Minced garlic
The chicken was then left to soak up the spices for a further hour. Meanwhile, I prepared the smoker. In the absence of a proper smoker, the ideal long-term solution if you intend to smoke foods on a regular basis, it required a Heath Robinson contraption to provide an acceptable alternative. In this case, the goal was hot smoking in order to cook the chicken as well as infusing with smoky flavours, as opposed to cold smoking used for smoked salmon and other cured raw foods (the difference is explained here.)
In this case, I took a conventional wok, lined it with foil and added a combination of Chinese tea leaves, light brown sugar and basmati rice, roughly in a ratio of 3:2:2. I put the chicken on a rack above, and in the absence of a metal domed lid for the wok topped it with a glass bowl before tearing strips of foil to keep the smoke inside. I grant you it looked odd, but it did not take long on the hottest hob on the Aga before the tea mix was smoking heavily.
The problem with this arrangement became apparent after 20 minutes or so: the Aga hob simply isn’t hot enough. If you have a seriously hot gas burner it will work to perfection, but clearly this was going to take a very long time. Being nothing if not resourceful, I tried out an alternative for size: off came the glass lid and on went another layer of foil. Then the whole assembly went inside the hot oven of the Aga for a further 20 minutes or so before being turned.
Yet another 20 mins later, out came the chicken – not completely cooked, but for my purposes that was fine. The chicken was destined to be transformed into part of my daughter’s 19th birthday feast at my ex-wife’s house, so temporarily it went into Tupperware boxes.
Flash forward to today. The chicken was placed in a glass casserole and doused heavily in light soy sauce. Into a hot oven for a further 20 minutes, then out came the thighs, crisped on the outside, tender inside, moist, flavoursome and delicately smoked.
This is unmistakably a work in progress, but in terms of diner satisfaction it could scarcely have worked out better – in fact, my son was very keen to eat the leftovers. I reckon the brining is the secret, and next time I will find a better solution to the Aga smoking riddle, and eventually find the daddy of all smoked chicken recipes. The results will probably be just as good each time, but the method will be refined and updated on these pages. Do give it a bash and tell me how you get on – any variations will be included in my next version!