Outdoor flavor, indoor easy
Here in the US, we’ll be celebrating Memorial Day this weekend. And that means the start of cookout season.
Problem is, the weather forecast says rain in our area. Bummer.
Fortunately, we have the perfect dish for days when the weather gods refuse to cooperate. This slow-cooker BBQ pulled chicken tastes like you cooked it long and slow over an outdoor smoker. But you never need to leave the house.
Most of the cooking is unattended, too, giving you time to do other things. Like chat with your guests over a cocktail. Or two.
Recipe: Slow-Cooker BBQ Pulled Chicken
Traditional BBQ means slow cooking outdoors over a wood fire (the fire burns at a fairly low heat, so it takes the Q a while to cook). This long cooking dissolves the meat’s inner connective tissues, resulting in tender succulence. As a bonus, the wood smoke adds flavor and aroma.
Using a slow cooker isn’t an “authentic” way to make barbecue (you’re really braising the meat). But who cares when the flavor is excellent? In fact, this dish is so good that we think it rivals meat from an outdoor smoker. And this method works particularly well for chicken.
We’ve used a slow cooker to make BBQ before – see our recipe for Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Pork. Our chicken recipe was adapted from that one.
We like to use chicken pieces (not a whole chicken) for this dish. And though bone-in meat has a bit more flavor, we opt for boneless – it’s always available in the supermarket, and is very convenient. The best cuts to use are skinless, boneless chicken thighs and/or breasts. We like a mix of the two: Thighs give terrific flavor and are very moist, but the breast meat adds interesting texture.
We use a rub to season the meat. It’s best to apply the rub several hours before you plan to cook the chicken (this allows the flavor of the rub to penetrate the meat). We generally apply rub the day before, then refrigerate the chicken until ready to cook. You can use a commercial rub, or make the one we describe below.
Prep time for this recipe (making the rub and applying it to the chicken) is about 20 minutes. Then the rubbed chicken needs to rest in the refrigerator for several hours (or overnight) before cooking.
Cooking time is 5 to 6 hours if you set the slow cooker on low (we don’t recommend using the high setting).
Each pound of meat yields about 3 servings. Leftovers keep well for a few days if refrigerated in an airtight container.
For the rub:
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika)
- 2 tablespoons dried chipotle chile powder (can substitute ancho chile powder; it doesn’t have a smoky flavor, but it’s milder than chipotle)
- 1 tablespoon dried ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon onion powder (not onion salt)
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder (not garlic salt)
- 1 tablespoon hickory-smoked salt (may substitute kosher or table salt)
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper (optional)
- ~1 tablespoon liquid smoke (optional, and not to be included in the dry rub; see Step 2 of the Procedure)
- ~4 pounds of skinless, boneless chicken thighs or breasts (we like a mix of the two)
- 1 cup chicken stock
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- 2 to 3 teaspoons liquid smoke (optional)
- Prepare the rub (and coat the chicken with it) ahead of time—preferably, the day or evening before you plan to cook the chicken: Combine all the rub ingredients (except liquid smoke) in a mixing bowl, then mix until well blended.
- Coat the chicken pieces with the liquid smoke (if using) and then with the rub: Remove the chicken pieces from their packaging and pat them dry. Rub the surface of each piece with liquid smoke (we put a bit of liquid smoke onto the palms of our hands, then massage the chicken). Next, with your hands, pat the rub onto all sides of each chicken piece (you’ll use about half the rub recipe, perhaps a bit less; reserve any unused rub for another purpose). Work the rub into the chicken well, because it will provide most of the smoky BBQ flavor. BTW, it’s best to “unroll” chicken thighs and apply rub to both sides; when you’re finished, roll them up again. (If you haven’t worked with skinless, boneless thighs before, this direction will make sense when you see them.)
- Place the prepared chicken pieces in a plastic freezer bag. Seal the bag, then place it in the refrigerator until ready to cook.
- When you’re ready to cook the chicken, position a slow cooker on the kitchen counter. The cooker will be plugged in and operating for several hours, so make sure it’s in a place where it will be out of the way.
- Remove the freezer bag containing the chicken pieces from the refrigerator, and add the contents to the slow cooker. We generally position the thighs at the bottom of the cooker, and the breasts on top, but it doesn’t matter much. Add the chicken stock and cider vinegar (it won’t cover the chicken, but that’s OK). Add the liquid smoke if using. Cover the slow cooker, turn it on, and set it to low. The chicken will be done in 5 to 6 hours (we usually cook it for 6, which makes for extremely tender chicken).
- When the chicken is done, remove it from the slow cooker and place it on a cutting board or a metal sheet pan. (You can discard the cooking liquid at this point, but see Notes before you do so—it’s really flavorful and has a couple of uses). Let the meat cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then shred it with 2 forks.
- Serve the pulled chicken with or without barbecue sauce (see Notes).
- We like to serve this dish with traditional “cookout” side dishes. Some of our favorites include potato salad, coleslaw, cornbread, and baked beans.
- You could also pile the pulled chicken onto a bun for a BBQ sandwich. Add some onions or pickles for garnish.
- There are several brands of slow cookers available. The Crock-Pot brand is probably the best known, but they all work pretty much the same. Just use one big enough to hold all the meat (a 5- or 6-quart size should be sufficient).
- This recipe calls for liquid smoke to help flavor the meat during the cooking process. Good liquid smoke is a natural product, containing nothing but water and natural smoke concentrate. So don’t be afraid to use it. Do read the label, though—some brands of liquid smoke contain other ingredients, and you may want to avoid those.
- The rub in this recipe contains both pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) and dried chipotle chile powder (made from smoked and dried jalapeño peppers). The naturally smoky flavor of these ingredients helps flavor the chicken.
- BTW, the quantities specified for the rub ingredients are flexible. Feel free to add more or less of any ingredient, or omit an ingredient entirely if you wish.
- Hickory-smoked salt has terrific flavor. But it's often hard to find in grocery stores. If you’d like to try some, you’ll find good information via Google (and in the reviews at Amazon). We bought a pound of hickory-smoked salt, and store it in the freezer to help preserve its aroma. A pound of this stuff will last a long time, BTW.
- The recipe for the rub makes more than you’ll use for this dish. You can store the rest in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple of weeks. It will keep even longer if you refrigerate or freeze it.
- When the chicken is finished cooking, we often remove the fat from the cooking liquid and keep the liquid for storing leftover chicken (we just pour the liquid into the same container that we use for the leftover meat—this helps keep it moist).
- If you cook and shred the chicken ahead of time, you could also use the cooking liquid for storing it until you’re ready to serve. Just refrigerate the cooked and shredded chicken (covered with the cooking liquid). Then, when you’re ready to serve, empty the contents of the storage container into a large frying pan or Dutch oven, and heat over low stovetop heat. Much of the liquid will evaporate, but it will give the meat even more flavor.
- You may also want to use some of the cooking liquid for moistening the chicken before serving. The cooking liquid can be quite flavorful—though if you used a great deal of liquid smoke in cooking, you may find the smoke flavor too strong. So taste it first. You may find the liquid flavorful enough that you don’t need barbecue sauce.
- Having said that, we’ll admit that we can never resist using Q sauce. We recommend our Tangy Barbecue Sauce, but your favorite store-bought sauce will work just fine.
- A Carolina-style mustard barbecue sauce would also be ideal with this dish.
Summer Barbecue Recipe Roundup
“Yumm-ee,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she attacked her pulled chicken. “One of the best dishes you’ve made this year.”
“I didn’t think it was possible to beat our Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Pork,” I said. “Or our Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Pulled Pork. But this dish may be even more flavorful. Who’d have thought that about chicken?”
“I still think our Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Spare Ribs might be our best Q of all,” said Mrs K R.
“Or if you want really deep beef flavor,” I said, “our Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Beef Brisket is wonderful. And you can use the leftovers to make BBQ Beef Brisket Chili.”
“Of course, since we’re in St. Louis, we can’t overlook our great local specialty,” said Mrs K R. “Barbecued Pork Steaks."
“Those are classic!” I said. “Particularly when smothered in our Tangy KC-Style Barbecue Sauce.”
“Good thing summer lasts a few months,” said Mrs K R. “We’ll need all that time to test those recipes again.”
“Our research never ceases,” I said. “No summer slacking for us.”
Happy Memorial Day!
You may also enjoy reading about:
Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Pork
Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Pulled Pork
Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Spare Ribs
Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Beef Brisket
BBQ Beef Brisket Chili
Barbecued Pork Steaks
Tangy KC-Style Barbecue Sauce
Or check out the index for more recipes