Smoked chicken legs are one of the simplest ways to make tasty, handheld chicken for a crowd. What makes drumsticks such a great choice is how they absorb the flavors from the smoke and dry rub while staying tender and juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
This smoked drumstick recipe is about backyard barbecues, picnics, and parties. The drumsticks can be served straight from the smoker or slathered with your favorite barbecue sauce and crisped up on the grill. This simple recipe is easy to scale up or down whether you’re having a few people over dinner or tons of friends over.
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Picking Out Drumsticks
Chicken legs consist entirely of dark meat and are one of the most economical cuts of chicken. In many recipes, the terms leg and drumstick are used interchangeably. The drumstick is the bottom half or calf of the leg, while the upper part is the thigh. This recipe is focused on drumsticks but also works well for quarters and thighs.
Chicken drumsticks are an excellent choice for dinners or parties where people will be eating a full meal and can use their hands to hold the legs as they eat. They’re also a fun choice for kids.
Quarters, which consist of the thigh, leg, and a part of the back, are a better choice if people are using utensils, which is a fancy term for knife and fork. Our Smoked Chicken Quarters recipe has deep smokey flavors and tons of crispy, crackly chicken skin.
Another popular choice for parties is Smoked Chicken Wings, which are usually served as drummettes and wingettes that are an excellent choice when people are grazing on lots of different dishes. Although drummettes look like miniature legs, they are a part of the wing and much smaller than drumsticks.
When picking out chicken legs, look for fresh pieces that have a clean smell and don’t feel gummy to the touch. Avoid pieces with a grayish or off-color tinge, have a strong smell that lingers, or a sticky residue on the skin that sticks to your fingers.
Smoking Chicken Legs
The key to smoking drumsticks that taste delicious is to use seasonings that infuse them with flavor and smoke them to the point the meat starts to pull away from the bone, but not so long they dry out.
This recipe uses our Smoked Chicken Rub to help the legs develop complex flavors as they smoke. The rub has a little sweet and a little heat that comes from the combination of brown sugar, which promotes caramelization, along with smoked paprika that accentuates the smoky flavor, while the chili and chipotle powders add some heat and pizzaz.
The drumsticks are doused in apple cider vinegar and hot sauce to help the spice rub adhere to the legs and give them a little more pluck. The rub can be applied to the legs up to a day in advance.
For barbecue chicken with more heat, increase the chipotle in the rub by a 1/2 tsp while reducing the brown sugar by a 1/2 tsp.
How Long Does It Take to Smoke Chicken Legs?
The most common question asked about smoking chicken legs is how long does it take to smoke them at 225℉ (107℃), 250℉ (121℃), or 275℉ (135℃). The simple answer is it usually takes between an hour and a half to two and half hours to smoke drumsticks. The amount of time depends on the smoker and other factors like the weather and where the legs are placed in the smoker.
There is so much variation in smokers that internal temperature is a significantly better way to tell when the legs are done than time alone. For planning purposes, we set aside a couple of hours of cooking time when we’re smoking chicken at 250℉ (121℃).
We recommend smoking chicken legs at 250℉ (121℃) for an hour and a half or so until they have cooked all the way through and their internal temperature reaches 175℉ (79℃).
Once the internal temperature of the smoked chicken drumsticks has reached 165℉ (74℃), the USDA considers them safe for consumption. We recommend cooking them until the internal temperature reaches 175℉ (79℃); this lets the chicken develop a texture similar to when the meat in Smoked Baby Back Ribs starts to fall off the bone.
To measure the internal temperature of the meat, insert an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the leg. Using a wireless thermometer makes the process a lot easier and lets you get stuff done around the house without having to constantly check the smoker.
The most commonly recommended temperatures for smoking chicken range from 225℉ (107℃) to 275℉ (135℃). Throughout our testing, we found that using 250℉ (121℃) allows the chicken to develop flavor without drying out as it can at higher temperatures or having the skin come out gummy, which sometimes happens at lower temperatures.
We recommend using a smoking temperature of 250℉ (121℃) because it gives the drumsticks time to develop their flavor and produces juicy chicken with a better texture than at lower temperatures, where the meat can develop a slippery texture.
Unlike quarters or thighs, chicken legs can hold up to higher temperatures without drying out. During testing, we found smoking legs at 275℉ (135℃) helped them cook faster while staying juicy. The higher temp and shorter time in the smoke did reduce the deep smokey flavor that developed at lower temperatures with more time in the smoke.
Drumsticks are juicy enough and have enough flavor that there is no reason to brine them before smoking. It is ok to marinate them if it’s done to infuse them with flavor. They can be prepped up to a day in advance and should be allowed to come up to room temperature before going into the smoker.
To learn more about smoking, read our Complete Guide to Smoking Food.
Types of Wood to Use for Smoking
Our preferred wood for smoking chicken is hickory or mesquite. There is a tanginess to hickory and mesquite wood chips that complement the dry rub’s sweetness while adding the rich smoky flavor found in the best smoker chicken. Other good choices are apple, maple, or pecan, which give the dark meat a lighter smoke flavor with more fruit notes.
This chicken leg recipe will work with gas, electric, pellet, or charcoal smokers. If the smoker being used doesn’t include a water pan, set an aluminum foil pan filled with water below the drumsticks to keep them moist and stabilize the temperature in the smoker. It can also be done on a charcoal grill using indirect heat and wood chunks.
If you don’t have access to a smoker or in case of bad weather, the drumsticks can be made in a 350℉ (177℃) oven and cooked on a rack placed on a baking sheet for 45 to 55 minutes. They’ll still have a solid barbecue flavor from the rub but won’t have the same deep smoky flavor that makes them so tasty when smoked.
For more delicious smoked meat recipes and a plethora of helpful tips, check out The Best Meats to Smoke & How to Make Them Taste Delicious.
How to Get Crispy Skin on Drumsticks
In general, legs crisp up reasonably well in the smoker, especially if they are smoked between 250℉ (121℃) to 275℉ (135℃). For those that like their chicken skin super crispy or like to sauce the legs at the end of the cooking process, nothing works better than a couple of minutes on a hot grill.
The best way we’ve found to crisp up the skin on smoked drumsticks is to use a hot grill for a few minutes at the end of the cooking process.
To crisp the skin on a grill, wait until the legs have finished cooking, then place them on a medium-high grill for 2 to 3 minutes or until the skin has reached the desired level of crispness. This is also the best time to sauce the legs, using the Flip, Fire, and Paint Method and some Old No. 44 BBQ Sauce.
The legs should rest on a cooling rack for 3 to 5 minutes before being served. They are small enough that there is minimal carry-over cooking while they rest.
What to Serve with Smoked Chicken Legs
When it comes to bigger barbecues and parties, the drumsticks go well with the ever-popular Taco Salad, Grilled Sweet Corn when it’s in season, and Quick Pickled Carrots that have a bit of a bite and lots of crunch.
Storing & Reheating Drumsticks
Leftover chicken legs can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 to 5 days after being smoked. They’re pretty delicious cold, especially with a little BBQ sauce for dipping.
The best way to reheat a smoked chicken leg is on a medium grill. It usually takes 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat to warm them through. To make sure the skin crisps up, the legs should be turned every 5 to 7 minutes.
They can also be warmed in a 350℉ (177℃) oven in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet for 15 to 20 minutes.
- 8 chicken drumsticks
- ½ tbsp hot sauce
- ½ tbsp apple cider vinegar
Smoked Chicken Rub
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp smoked paprika, ground
- 1 tsp Ancho chili pepper, ground
- 1/2 tsp cumin, ground
- 1/4 tsp chipotle pepper, ground
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp Kosher salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- Make the dry rub by mixing the brown sugar, smoked paprika, ancho chili, chipotle, and ground cumin with garlic powder, salt, and pepper.1 tbsp brown sugar, 1 tsp smoked paprika, 1 tsp Ancho chili pepper, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp chipotle pepper, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, 2 tsp Kosher salt, 1 tsp black pepper
- In a large bowl, mix the chicken drumsticks with the apple cider vinegar and hot sauce. Once the legs have been coated, add the dry rub and mix everything until the legs are covered.8 chicken drumsticks, ½ tbsp hot sauce, ½ tbsp apple cider vinegar
- Preheat the smoker to 250℉ (121℃), making sure to clean off the grill grates.
- Smoke the chicken legs at 250℉ (121℃) until the internal temperature reaches 175℉ (79℃). This generally takes around 2 hours.
- For crispy chicken skin, finish the drumsticks on a medium-high grill, placing the chicken over the hot part of the grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side.
- The drumsticks should rest for 5 minutes before serving.