Pulled Barbecued Chicken on a Grill

Three barbecued pulled chicken sandwiches on a cutting board
Regarding BBQ Inc.
  • Total: 3 hrs 20 mins
  • Prep: 20 mins
  • Cook: 3 hrs
  • Optional Brine Time: 5 hrs
  • Yield:

Chicken is one of the most forgiving meats you can cook, making it one of the easiest items to smoke and the perfect item to learn meat smoking. Pulled chicken is a simplified and quicker version of pulled pork; all it needs is a slow roasting time in a smoky environment. Once the meat is pulled by hand into a pile of delicious barbecue, it is perfect for sandwiches and so much more.

This method takes about 8 to 10 hours from start to finish on a full-sized charcoal grill, but most of that time is brining the chicken, which is optional. Because the entire method requires indirect grilling, the cooking area needs to be no more than half the grate space of the grill. The two aluminum pans needed to smoke this chicken should take up half of the cooking grate area, but no more. 

Ingredients

  • For the Chicken:
  • 1 (5 to 6-pound) whole chicken
  • Poultry rub
  • Barbecue sauce
  • For the Optional Brine:
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 4 cups water
  • Herbs and spices as desired

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients needed for brining the whole chicken in preparation for grilling
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  2. If you choose to brine your chicken, combine the salt, sugar, and water in a plastic bowl and stir until the salt and sugar are completely dissolved.

    Place the whole chicken in a plastic bowl or container large enough to fit the whole bird with a little room to spare. Pour the brine over making sure the chicken is completely submerged. (The amount of brine might need to be doubled.) Brine the chicken for 4 to 6 hours. Then remove the chicken from the brine, rinse thoroughly, and pat dry with paper towels.

  3. Apply a spice rub under the skin of the breast and in the chicken cavity. The rub can be almost any combination of herbs and spices, but if you have brined your chicken, it already has all the salt it needs, so avoid a rub with extra salt. If you have skipped the brining step, use a rub that contains salt.

    Once the chicken is heavily coated in the rub, cover it and put it in the refrigerator while you prepare the grill.

    Ingredients displayed on a marble needed to make a spicy poultry rub
    Claire Cohen
  4. Set up your full-size charcoal grill for smoking. The trick is to separate the fire from the food. To do this, light enough charcoal to cover half the coal grate with two layers of burning coals. It is best to light the charcoal with a charcoal chimney; this allows you to light more charcoal outside the grill if necessary.

    Steps for setting up a full-size charcoal grill to become a smoker
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  5. Place one of the aluminum pans on the coal grate next to the burning coals, but not on the coals. This is the drip pan that helps to keep the grill clean and prevents any dripping fat from reaching the fire which can cause flare-ups.

    Add wood chunks to the coals, spreading them around evenly over the fire. Large chunks of hardwood are ideal. There is no need to moisten them. Now replace the cooking grate and put the second aluminum pan directly over the fire. Fill that pan with water and put the lid on the grill.

  6. Heat the grill to 250 F to 275 F/120 C to 135 C and then adjust the vents on the grill to hold that temperature. While the grill is heating up, take the chicken out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature. Once the grill is ready, place the chicken, breast-side up, on the grill grates directly over the drip pan on the coals and next to the pan of water on the grate.

  7. Replace the grill lid and let the chicken cook for about 1 hour to 90 minutes. It is important to keep an eye on the grill to ensure that the fire is still burning and that the temperature is being maintained.

    A whole chicken on a charcoal grill that has been set up for smoking
    Regarding BBQ Inc.
  8. After about 90 minutes, it is time to flip and turn the chicken. Since our makeshift smoker won't cook evenly, it is important to do this halfway through the cooking time. Flip the chicken upside down, placing the side that was away from the fire close to the fire. This should make for an evenly cooked chicken.

    This is also a good time to check the fire to make sure there is enough fuel to continue. Also, you might need to add additional water to the water pan on top, as well as wood chunks to the fire to produce more smoke. Smoke is absorbed better at the beginning of the cooking process so it isn't as important for the second half, but if you want a strong smoke flavor, you are going to want to keep up the smoke production.

    The chicken is turned over on the grate to continue smoking until done
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  9. The total cooking time is about 3 hours depending on the size of the chicken. As the chicken gets close to being done, it is time to start checking the temperature. Make sure to use a reliable meat thermometer; a high-quality digital thermometer is recommended. Check the center of each breast as well as the thickest part of each thigh. If the part away from the fire is lower in temperature, you might want to rotate the chicken again. Look for a temperature around 185 F/85 C. Chicken is cooked at 165 F/75 C, but it is best to overcook the chicken to make it easier to shred. Generally, any type of barbecue is overcooked to maximize tenderness.

    Once the chicken is cooked, remove it from the charcoal grill to a clean cutting board or large platter. Cover with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes. With the chicken out of the grill, close all the vents and allow the fire to die.

    Barbecued chicken right off the grill ready to be shredded
    Regarding BBQ Inc.
  10. After the chicken has rested for 15 minutes, it's time to start shredding the meat. This is best done with a pair of insulated food gloves so the hot chicken can be easily handled. It is something of a messy job, so a large, clean workspace is needed.

  11. There is no trick to shredding the meat, so you may need to try out a few techniques before you find what works for you. Start by pulling off the skin and breaking down the larger pieces of meat, removing bones and fat as you go. Once you have the pile of meat, taking a portion at a time, use two forks to shred. Either pull each fork away from each other or use one to hold the meat and the other to pull away, shredding the chicken meat.

    Barbecued chicken pulled and shredded on a cutting board waiting for barbecue sauce
    Regarding BBQ Inc.
  12. To keep the meat warm, place it in a large pot over a low flame, tossing occasionally, or if you are going to be eating later, a slow cooker on the warm setting works well. Once the shredded chicken is warmed, add your desired barbecue sauce, tossing to evenly coat. Enjoy!

Tip

How you serve homemade pulled chicken is entirely up to you. This is very similar to pulled pork in texture and to some degree flavor, so anything that can be done with pulled pork can be done with pulled chicken. To be traditional, pile generous amounts of pulled chicken with the sauce onto rolls or hamburger buns, top with a good coleslaw, and enjoy.

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