For centuries meats and fish have been salted and smoked to limit spoilage, so they could be safely eaten for extended periods. Modern farming techniques and refrigeration have made fresh meats inexpensive and readily available all year-round, but smoked and cured meats are still popular just because they taste good. If you'd like to try home smoking, chicken thighs are a good choice. They're inexpensive, flavorful and easy to work with.
Foods can be either hot-smoked or cold-smoked, depending on the result you're looking for. Cold smoking takes place in a chamber that's separated from the fire, so the temperature stays low and the food isn't cooked during smoking. Chicken is usually hot-smoked at higher temperatures, with the smoke-producing fire or heating element in the same chamber as the food. Electric smokers provide the most reliable temperature control for home cooks, while professionals often have gas-powered models. Charcoal smokers are harder to regulate, and are often better suited to smoke-roasting.
Cold-smoking takes place at temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and commercial smokehouses sometimes have refrigerated smokers to ensure food safety. At home it's safer to hot-smoke your chicken. Hot smoking requires temperatures of 165 F to 185 F, which gradually cooks the meat or poultry without creating harsh flavors. Chicken thighs are fatty enough to remain moist and juicy at 185 F, while breasts are better at the lower temperature. If you have a charcoal-based smoker or kettle barbecue, you can smoke-roast your chicken thighs at temperatures of 200 F to 225 F. That's usually the lowest temperature they'll reliably maintain.
The correct length of time for smoking your chicken thighs will vary. If you're cold-smoking, five to seven hours will give your chicken thighs ample smoke flavor. If you're hot-smoking, three to four hours at 185 F should be enough to cook your thighs to a food-safe internal temperature of 165 F. If you're smoke-roasting your thighs on a charcoal kettle at 200 F to 225 F, it will take your thighs approximately two hours to reach that temperature.
Cure your chicken thighs first by brining them overnight, or as directed in your recipe. Pat them dry with clean paper towels and let them dry overnight in your refrigerator, uncovered. This dries them out and gives them a slightly tacky surface, called the "pellicle," which helps the thighs retain the flavor of the smoke. Finally, prepare your smoker according to the manufacturer's directions. Mild fruit woods are the best for delicate meats such as chicken, so save your oak and mesquite for steaks. For best results, arrange your thighs on the racks with ample space between them for the smoke to circulate.