Smoked Buffalo Chicken Potato Skins
The absence of going to bars this year due to the pandemic has also meant a lessoning of the type of food I usually partake in while downing a few beers. From time to time, I've been making things likes wings and sliders at home, but it's not quite the same and never in the vast assortment of goods I end up ordering while out and under the influence. So when my brother-in-law requested a night of pub food while we were vacationing together over the summer, I was only too happy to oblige. On that evening, I pulled out my recipe for potato skins, which I haven't made in a really long time and became instantly re-enamored with them, so much so that I had a hankering to cook them again just a month later while back at home. This time though I took things a little further than the standard cheddar and bacon topping and filled them with smoked buffalo chicken, and they were every bit as delicious as that sounds.
For your average appetizer, these represent a bit of extra effort, but if you approach them like I did and make them when you might already have the grill and/or smoker going for other things, they're a nice bonus to a meal. The extra time really comes from the need to smoke the breasts, which you could easily shortcut by picking up barbecued chicken from a smokehouse or swap in one of those rotisserie birds available at most supermarkets. Of course, doing every step at home allows for close attention to details, and for me, one of those is ensuring that the chicken, which ends up being cooked twice, remains as juicy as possible in the end dish. To help get me to that outcome, I started by brining bone-in chicken breasts to inject some added moisture in the meat.
After brining, the breasts went in to the smoker that I had running at 225°F with a chuck of cherry wood on the coals. You can see the ribs I also had on at the same time, which was the real reason I had the smoker fired up that day. Getting the smoker up and running for just a couple of chicken breasts might feel a bit excessive, so I wrote the final recipe to include the grill too—if you go with the grill, just use a small amount of charcoal for a low heat fire and cook using indirect heat.
Another way I set out to ensure the final chicken would be moist was to undercook it from the usually recommended 165°F. That temperature is the FDA standard because it's the point at which most nasty bacteria die instantaneously, but those same bacteria also die at lower temperatures, it just takes longer. I pulled the breasts out when they hit around 145°F, and at that temperature it takes just over nine minutes for common food-based bacteria to die, and since the chicken was going to rest for more than 15 minutes before I pulled it, combined with a little extra carryover cooking, it would be just as safe to eat and a whole lot juicier than chicken cooked to 165°F.
With the chicken done, it was on to the potatoes. Over my many years of recipe development, I've tried over and over again to use the microwave to speed up spud cooking, and usually the end results are never as good as if they were solely roasted. The one exception I've found has been for potato skins. This is due to the fact that the potatoes will still be cooked a lengthy amount of time on the grill, which renders the exterior nicely crisp, while a large portion of the interior is scooped away and discarded, so there's not a huge amount of flesh left to make a noticeable textural difference.
After zapping the russets in the microwave for eight minutes, I transferred them to the grill to finish cooking. I needed to cook them until they could be pierced with a paring knife and there would be little to no resistance, which took about 20 minutes more using a freshly lit batch of coals and indirect heat. Depending on the size of your spuds, this could take longer or shorter, so it's a good practice to start testing after about fifteen minutes, then every five minutes there after.
It was during this roasting time that I prepared the buffalo chicken filling. I used the standard Frank's and butter combo, going in heavier with the hot sauce, and then adding in the meat that I had pulled from the bone. I took a taste and the chicken was a juicy as could be and with a nice background smokiness, but the heat was not as prominent as I thought it would need to be to create a little mouth burn in the end dish. So I added a bit of cayenne into the mix and that fixed things up nicely.
Once the potatoes were done, I removed them from the grill, split them open, and let the rest to cool off. I was losing the light I needed for ideal photos, so I attempted to scoop out all but about 1/2-inch of flesh while they were still pretty hot and ended up mangling more than one spud because of it. Still, I had enough to venture forth and did so by next brushing the potatoes all over with melted butter, seasoning them with salt and pepper, and putting them back on the still hot grill. This second roasting session is meant to really crisp up and lightly brown the potatoes, making them the ideal potato skin vessel.
They seemed pretty perfect after seven minutes, at which time I finished them up by filling each potato boat with the chicken, topping with cheddar cheese, then replacing the grill lid and letting them cook until the cheese was well melted. All that was left to do to them now was to plate them up, squeeze on a bit of ranch dressing, and garnish with chives.
I've tried this potato skin method with many different filling variations, and it always delivers. The multiple roasts on the potatoes renders them with a skin that has a nice crispness to it and enough creamy innards to add heft and more potato character to the final dish than many potato skins I get at restaurants. This particular filler was high on the flavor scale with that tangy, rich, and spicy buffalo sauce which got bonus boosts from the mellow smokiness and sharp cheddar cheese.. I'm a ranch man, so the herbal and garlicky tang was the fitting pairing for me, but if you're of the blue cheese persuasion, by all means, use a blue cheese sauce instead. Now that I've let these potato skins back into my life twice this year, I keep thinking of new topping ideas and imagine the longer I'm stuck at home over the winter, the more likely they are to make repeat appearances.
Smoked Buffalo Chicken Potato Skins
- Yield 4-6 servings
- Prep 30 Minutes
- Inactive 1 Hour
- Cook 2 Hours 10 Minutes
- Total 3 Hours 40 Minutes
- For the Chicken
- 2 quarts cold water
- 1/3 cup Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 2 lbs bone-in chicken breasts
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup Frank's Red Hot Sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
- For the Potatoes
- 4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
- 1/3 cup ranch dressing
- 3 tablespoons finely sliced chives
- To make the chicken: In a medium bowl, whisk together water, salt, and sugar until solids are dissolved. Place chicken breasts in brine and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove chicken from brine and pat dry with paper towels.
- Fire up smoker or grill to 225°F, adding chunk of smoking wood when at temperature. When wood is ignited and producing smoke, place chicken in smoker or grill, skin side up. Smoke until an instant read thermometer reads 145°F when inserted into thickest part of breast, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove from smoker and let sit until cool enough to handle. Remove skin and pull meat. Discard bones.
- Melt butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Add in hot sauce and cayenne pepper and whisk to combine. Add in pulled chicken and toss to coat. Remove from heat and set aside. Adjust heat with more cayenne pepper to taste.
- To make the potatoes: Prick potatoes all over with a fork. Microwave potatoes on high for 4 minutes. Flip potatoes over and microwave on high for an additional 4 minutes.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place potatoes on cool side of grill close to, but not over, the coals. Cover and cook potatoes until a paring knife glides easily through the flesh, about 20 minutes. Remove potatoes from grill, slice each in half lengthwise, and let sit until cool enough to handle.
- Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the flesh of the potatoes, leaving a 1/2-inch layer of potato flesh on the inside of each skin. Brush the potatoes all over with melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Place potatoes back on cool side of grill, cover, and let cook until light golden brown and crisp, about 7 minutes.
- Fill each potato with buffalo chicken and top with cheese. Cover and continue to cook until the cheese is fully melted, about 5 minutes more. Remove from grill and let cool for 5 minutes. Top with ranch dressing and chives. Serve immediately.