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Pulled Chicken BBQ on a Charcoal Grill
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. Then, 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 start to finish, but most of that is the brining time of the chicken, which is optional. Otherwise, you need a whole chicken, a spice rub, supplies to turn your charcoal grill into a smoker, and a favorite barbecue sauce.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
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What You Need
If you don't have a smoker, smoking any kind of meat requires a few extra supplies. This method is for smoking on a charcoal grill and for this process, you are going to need a full-sized charcoal grill. 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.
You will need:Continue to 3 of 10 below.
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Brine the Chicken (Optional)
Although not mandatory, brining adds moisture and helps to prevent the chicken from drying out, especially during a long cooking time. To brine a whole chicken you are going to need:
- A large plastic bowl that will fit the whole chicken with room to spare
- 1/4 cup salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 4 cups water
- Herbs and spices as desired
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl or measuring cup, making sure that the salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Place the chicken in the large plastic bowl and pour over the brine; the chicken should be completely submerged in the brine. (The amount of brine may need to be doubled.) Brine the chicken for 4 to 6 hours.
After the 4 to 6 hours removed the chicken from the brine and rinse thoroughly. Pat dry with paper towels.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
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Coat With Spice Rub
With the chicken brined, rinsed, and dried, it is time to apply the spice rub. This can be almost any combination of herbs and spices, but since the brined the chicken already has all the salt it needs, avoid a rub with extra salt. If you have skipped the brining step use a rub that contains salt.
Putting spices on the chicken skin doesn't do a lot for the flavor of the bird, particularly if it is going to get shredded and the skin is thrown away. For this reason, it is much more important to get the rub under the skin and inside the body cavity.
Once the chicken is heavily coated in the rub, cover it and put it in the refrigerator while you prepare the grill.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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Prepare the Grill
Full-sized charcoal grills can be easily set up 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.
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.
Heat the grill to 250 to 275 F/120 to 135 C and then adjust the vents on the grill to hold that temperature. Once the grill has reached the temperature it is time to put the chicken on the grill.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
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Smoke the Chicken
As 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, directly over the drip pan.
Replace the grill lid and let the chicken cook for about an 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.Continue to 7 of 10 below.
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Flip and Rotate the Chicken
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 may 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.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
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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. (Since we can't trust that our chicken will cook evenly it is important to test each side.) 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.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Pull the Chicken and Add Sauce
After the chicken has had 15 minutes to rest, it is 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.
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, and either pulling each away from each other or using one to hold the meat and the other to pull away, shred the chicken meat.
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.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
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Enjoy Your Pulled Chicken
What you do with your 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!
Some Sandwich Recipes to Try: