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Pulled Chicken

AS GOOD AS PULLED PORK AND SO MUCH EASIER

Smoky, spicy pulled pork bathed in a tangy tomato-based barbecue sauce might just be one of the best things you can eat, which is why people from all over the country (in truth, all over the world) trek to the barbecue belt.

And though pulled pork appears unfussy—the shredded pork is usually piled onto squishy hamburger buns and served on paper plates with pickle chips and coleslaw—this dish takes a lot of skill and time to execute. It’s an all-day project (the pork must smoke for 8 to 12 hours) best left to seasoned pit masters.
We have a more practical alternative for the home cook that is almost as appealing and far less work—chicken. Now, we know many of you are rolling your eyes as you read this claim. How can pulled chicken even come close to pulled pork? First off, the spice, smoke, and sauce are pretty much the same. As for the meat, we tend to think of chicken as bland, and the white meat certainly is. But barbecued leg quarters are a revelation.

As with pork shoulder, leg quarters are loaded with flavorful fat as well as collagen, which converts to gelatin during the cooking process and gives the pulled meat its silky texture. Indirect heat is key to slowing things down so the chicken has enough time to absorb plenty of smoke. And it’s important to cook the chicken past the usual stopping point, until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. In effect, “overcooking” maximizes the conversion of collagen to gelatin—so the pulled chicken is really tender.
We will still travel to the Carolinas and Kansas City for great pulled pork, but we think pulled chicken is the most practical option at home. Try this recipe once and see if you don’t agree.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

A Leg Up

Whole chicken legs (thighs and drumsticks attached) are our top choice for this recipe. They are inexpensive, the dark meat is nearly impossible to overcook, and they have a rich, meaty flavor that stands up to smoke and barbecue sauce.

Light the Right Fire

A double-banked charcoal fire divides the lit coals into two steep piles on opposite sides of the grill, leaving the center free of coals. The chicken is placed in the center of the grill and receives a steady, even level of indirect heat from both sides. A disposable pan placed in the center catches drips and prevents flare-ups. A wood chip packet placed on either pile of charcoal will generate a significant amount of smoke (see this section for more details).

“Overcook” the Chicken

Chicken must always be cooked thoroughly. Technically dark meat is “done” when the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees, but we keep on cooking the leg quarters to 185 degrees—the point at which the meat is falling off the bone. The intermuscular fat (as well as the skin, which is rendering and basting the chicken during grilling) keeps the meat plenty moist and tender.

Make Your Own Sauce

Homemade barbecue sauce is easy to make from pantry ingredients and isn’t overpoweringly sweet or smoke-flavored like store-bought. Pureeing onion and water to make “onion juice” gets onion flavor into the sauce without any distracting bits of onion to mar the texture.

Pulse and Shred

Shredding pulled chicken with forks yields attractive strips, but the meat doesn’t hold together very well on the bun. To fix this problem, pulse half of the chicken in a food processor to create smaller pieces that absorb sauce better and bind the larger pulled chicken pieces.

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Dark meat chicken is a surprisingly good vehicle for smoky barbecue flavors.

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Barbecued Pulled Chicken

SERVES 6 TO 8

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 20 to 25 minutes to soak chips and set up fire
  • 1 to 1½ hours to cook chicken (make barbecue sauce while chicken is cooking)
  • 30 minutes to rest, pull, and sauce chicken

Essential Tools

  • Disposable roasting pan (if using charcoal)
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil to make wood chip packet
  • Wood chips

Substitutions & Variations

  • Two medium wood chunks, soaked in water for 1 hour, can be substituted for the wood chip packet on a charcoal grill.
  • To make this recipe for a crowd, arrange the chicken quarters in a slotted rib rack or roasting rack. Depending on the rack, you should be able to stand up a dozen or so leg quarters. Make sure to position the rack over the disposable pan. The cooking time might be slightly longer if the leg quarters are squeezed tightly together.
  • To make serving easier, the pulled chicken can be held in a 250-degree oven for up to 1 hour. Once the chicken and sauce have been combined and heated through, transfer the mixture to a 13 by 9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish, cover with foil, and keep warm in the oven.

Chicken leg quarters consist of drumsticks attached to thighs; often also attached are backbone sections that must be trimmed away. Serve the pulled chicken on hamburger rolls or sandwich bread, with pickles and coleslaw.

CHICKEN

  • 2 cups wood chips, soaked in water for 15 minutes and drained
  • 1 (16 by 12-inch) disposable aluminum roasting pan (if using charcoal)
  • 8 (14-ounce) chicken leg quarters, trimmed
  • Salt and pepper

SAUCE

  • 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1½ cups ketchup
  • 1½ cups apple cider
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1½ tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Hot sauce
  1. For the Chicken: Using large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, wrap soaked chips in foil packet and cut several vent holes in top.
  2. 2A. For a Charcoal Grill : Open bottom vent halfway and place roasting pan in center of grill. Light large chimney starter three-quarters filled with charcoal briquettes (4½ quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour into 2 even piles on either side of roasting pan. Place wood chip packet on 1 pile of coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 5 minutes.
  3. 2B. For a Gas Grill : Place wood chip packet directly on primary burner. Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot and wood chips are smoking, about 15 minutes. Turn off all burners except primary burner. (Adjust burner as needed during cooking to maintain grill temperature between 300 and 350 degrees.)
  4. Clean and oil cooking grate. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Place chicken skin side up in single layer on center of grill (over roasting pan if using charcoal), or on cooler side of grill (if using gas). Cover (position lid vent over meat if using charcoal) and cook until chicken registers 185 degrees, 1 to 1½ hours, rotating chicken pieces halfway through cooking. Transfer chicken to carving board, tent loosely with foil, and let rest until cool enough to handle.
  5. For the Sauce : Meanwhile, process onion and water in food processor until mixture resembles slush, about 30 seconds. Pass through fine-mesh strainer into liquid measuring cup, pressing on solids with rubber spatula (you should have ¾ cup strained onion juice). Discard solids in strainer.
  6. Whisk onion juice, ketchup, cider, molasses, 3 tablespoons vinegar, Worcestershire, mustard, and pepper together in bowl. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Stir in chili powder, garlic, and cayenne and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in ketchup mixture, bring to simmer, and cook over medium-low heat until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes (you should have about 4 cups of sauce). Transfer 2 cups sauce to serving bowl; leave remaining sauce in saucepan.
  7. To Serve: Remove and discard skin from chicken legs. Using your fingers, pull meat off bones, separating larger pieces (which should fall off bones easily) from smaller, drier pieces into 2 equal piles.
  8. Pulse smaller chicken pieces in food processor until just coarsely chopped, 3 to 4 pulses, stirring chicken with rubber spatula after each pulse. Add chopped chicken to sauce in saucepan. Using your fingers or 2 forks, pull larger chicken pieces into long shreds and add to saucepan. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar, cover, and heat chicken over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until heated through, about 10 minutes. Add hot sauce to taste, and serve, passing remaining sauce separately.

A Better Way to Add Smoke Flavor

Real barbecue requires the addition of smoke flavor. (without smoke, you’re just grilling.) Many cooks rely on wood chips sold in hardware stores. Unfortunately, these chips burn up very quickly—releasing a blast of smoke rather than the slow, steady smoke that imparts real barbecue flavor. Here’s how to get maximum smoke flavor from wood chips.

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1). Place wood chips in bowl and cover with water. Soak for 15 minutes. We prefer hickory chips. If you prefer wood chunks (with pieces about the size of a lime), soak them for 1 hour.

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2). Wrap soaked and drained chips in large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. (The combination of soaking and the foil will slow down the rate at which the chips burn.) Use paring knife to cut several slits in packet so smoke can escape. Use 2 cups of chips in 1 single packet and add second packet for additional smoke flavor.

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3). If using gas grill, lift up cooking grate and place packet on primary burner (burner that will remain on during cooking time). Light and heat grill as directed. (Note that wood chunks cannot be used on a gas grill.)

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4). If using a charcoal grill, arrange lit coals as directed in recipe and then place packet with wood chips onto coals. (If using chunks, don’t bother with foil; simply nestle soaked chunks into lit charcoal.) Position lid vents over food to draw smoke into maximum contact with food.

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