A wonderful staple that you should consider adding to your barbecue repetoire, that ranks highly along pulled pork, and brisket sandwiches, is smoked pulled chicken.
It’s an affordable meal for the family, the kids will think it’s a treat, and you’ll walk away looking like a hero when you pull off this easy enough task, with a complex taste.
We have prepared a full guide and recipe, covering everything you need to know to make the best pulled chicken at your home.
Things to Consider
If you have ever tried pulled pork, then you have probably been amazed by the texture and the amazing taste it has. It is made from pork shoulder and slowly smoked until all the connective tissue are broken down from the heat, transforming it into a juicy and tender piece of meat, ready to be shredded easily just by hand.
In the other side, the pulled chicken, as tender as juicy as it can be, it lacks the amount of fat and connective tissue found in the pork meat.
For this reason, pulled chicken will be ready in a short amount of time when compared to pulled pork.
Also, since it has less fat than pork, chicken is more prone to drying out, so leaving the skin on is important as it provides a layer of protection to retain more moisture.
Probably the most important thing when making smoked pulled chicken is to retain as much moisture as possible. A super juicy pulled chicken is what you should aim for.
The factors which directly impact the moisture are the cooking temperature, brining and not overcooking. If you follow the instructions carefully and have these factors in mind, you will definitely have great results.
Why Smoked Pulled Chicken?
Pulling smoked chicken is easy, affordable, and can be prepared ahead of time. We have tried using a whole chicken for this meal, but we have found that for a better all-around flavor, that maintains moisture and richness through each bite, utilizing chicken thighs and legs is by far a better route to take when constructing a sandwich.
Plus, using chicken thighs allows you to smoke at a little higher temperature than normally since the thighs retain so much moisture compared to the whole chicken option. For 3-4 lbs of chicken legs, we are thinking to cook for about 2-3 hours at 230-250°F.
Internal Meat Temp
Peach, Apple or Pecan
To begin, as we suggest with all chicken recipes, get that fowl into a brine. Let us list out everything we’ll need to get to brining our chicken and smoking, so we can start cooking and finish eating our meal.
(For 3-4 lbs of chicken)
Dry Rub Ingredients
(A few of them are optional)
Smoking Method & Wood Type
For this recipe, we are using an offset smoker but you can use whatever you feel more comfortable with.
As for wood type, four pieces of a fruit wood, peach, apple, or cherry works fine.
Brining Your Chicken
Before we start the brining process, you should know that brining is important since it does two things: First, it maintains moisture. We’re using dark meat sections today, and they already have a great reputation for retaining moisture. Second, it infuses the meat with the flavor you are composing it with. The flavors aren’t overbearing, but they will give your pulled chicken a little bit of a positive demeanor with each bite.
Now, let's start with the chicken brining process.
First, warm the water enough that the salt and sugar will dissolve. No need to boil the water, especially since you can’t add the meat until the water gets back to room temperature.
Once the water is back to ambient, add the rest of the brine ingredients. Break the celery into small pieces, and even dice the apples up. This creates more surface area for the brine mixture to interface with.
Divide the chicken thighs and legs evenly into the zipper lock style bags, and ladle the brine into the bags.
Place the bags into a disposable tray, and slide it into the refrigerator. For the best results, this should sit in its juices for a minimum of 12 hours, and ideally up to 24 hours. If you are in a hurry, let them brine for at least 3 hours.
- Also Read: An Ultimate Chicken Brining Guide
Preparing for Smoking
After a spending the night brining, drain off the liquid and discard the chunky ingredients. Dry off all the pieces with a paper towel. Now you can take your chicken to the next level by adding the rub.
We pour our rub mixture into the second disposable pan. Start adding chicken to the pan and coat each piece. Try to get rub under the skin so that flavor goes everywhere. When the pan is full transfer the chicken to the first pan. Repeat the rubbing process with the rest of the meat. Throw away any excess rub mixture, and evenly distribute the chicken in both pans.
Smoking the Chicken
With other meats we like to follow the philosophy of “low and slow”. Low temperatures, and a slower time frame to finish cooking.
When our goal is to smoke chicken and then pull it, we have other options. We raise the temperature to 230-250°F. This will be a quicker smoke since we are cooking higher. The dark meat sections can tolerate the higher temperatures and maintain the moistness we’re looking for.
You should expect to add one piece of wood every thirty to forty five minutes. After 2 hours in the smoke, check the chicken thighs and legs. Using a trusty meat thermometer, aim for as close to the center of the meat as you can. If you need the extra time to finish it off, let it go, and watch the temperature gauge.
You will be ready to pull it off the cooking surface once the internal temperature reaches 165-170°F. Pull the pans out and cover them for about thirty minutes.
What Temperature to Pull Smoked Chicken?
This has been a debate for a long time, since everyone recommends a different temperature.
For the best results, I recommended to start making pulled chicken once it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. Then, take it off the smoker, cover it with foil and let it rest/carry-over cooking until it reaches 170-175°F.
This is the temperature which I have had the best results. Some pitmaster even recommend to go up to 200°F, like you do on pork butt or brisket, but I think that you get better results with a lower target temperature. Pulling it on higher temperatures will result in dry and not-so tender meat.
Also, some may ask, why 175°F instead of the normal 165°F that we use to smoke other cuts, such as chicken breast?
Well, the main reason is that chicken thigs, which we are using for this recipe, have more fat than other parts of chicken, such as breast, and as a result, they can handle longer cook times. Also, the brining we are using, adds extra moisture to the meat, reducing the chances of them drying out from heat. We want them to cook a little bit longer, so they end up more tender, making the pulling process much easier.
If you think you will have better results with higher temperatures, then give it a try and let me know in the comments below your results.
If you are using boneless, skinless chicken thighs, then there are a few things to have in mind, so you won't end up with dry out meat.
1. The first thing you can try to prevent drying out, is to let the meat smoke for around 1.5 hours and then place in foil pans, covered with foil. Add some chicken broth and apple juice inside the pans, so will create a steam, tenderizing the meat. Continue smoking them in covered pans until they reach 175°F internal temperature.
2. The other thing you can try is to brush them continuously with butter every 15-20 minutes, so they keep staying moist during the process. Keep in mind that this extra method will add a little bit to the overall cooking time, since you will open the smoker lid often to brush the meat and the heat will escape.
For the ideal setup, use 1 stick of butter (melted), which is around 1/4 lb, 1/2 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of your favorite dry rub.
Turning it Into Pulled Chicken
After you pull the pans out and covered them for about 30 minutes, your chicken pieces should have started to cool down a bit.
Start by transferring all the chicken pieces into one pan. Reserve all juices to a glass pitcher. Using a pair of new and clean dish-washing gloves begin breaking the chicken pieces apart. Pulling the meat off of the bones.
The moist meat, being made even easier to handle because you maintained the cover over it after the cook, will help break down the meat. It should be fairly quick to just pull apart.
The cooks treat. Since you cooked your chicken at the higher temperature, the skin didn’t get soggy, it becomes a little crispier. You don’t need the skin when making pulled chicken, so you and your helpers can snack on this while preparing the chicken for its grand appearance.
Serving Your Smoked Chicken
Everyone enjoys a little more sauce on their sandwiches, your options shouldn’t be limited. They can be unique though.
You can use some of the reserved juices, your favorite Barbecue sauce, or a few dashes of hot sauce. Let us suggest our favorite spin on this sandwich made of pulled smoked chicken.
Take 1 cup of reserved juice, one cup of barbecue sauce, a few dashes of hot sauce, and simmer. Salt and pepper to taste. Prepare your sandwiches and serve alongside your favorite roasted root vegetables, we mixed French cut carrots, potatoes and turnips.
That's all for my smoked pulled chicken recipe. Share it with your guests and serve with some unsweet iced, a lemon-lime soda or your favorite IPA, and Enjoy it!
Pulled Chicken Recipes
If you are looking for a few recipes to make the most out of your pulled chicken, then here are some suggestions:
One of my favorites and probably the easiest one, is using it on a sandwich. It is very easy and everyone can make it.
Start by toasting the buns. After they are done, take the pulled chicken and add a good portion of it on the buns. Then, add some barbecue sauce or hot sauce, depending on your preference and finish it by adding some fine-sliced slaw on top of it. If you want, you can add a few pickles but they are not my favorite.
If you are looking for a little more advanced recipes, here are some suggestions: