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Our Smoky, Juicy, Indoor BBQ Pulled Chicken Has a Secret Ingredient: Gelatin

Get the flavor and texture of outdoor slow-smoked BBQ pulled chicken in a fraction of the time—and without ever going outside.
By Published Nov. 19, 2021

When do you hit the seasonally appropriate cooking wall? For me, it’s a few months into fall or winter. In the initial weeks of slushy, cold weather, I can’t get enough roasts, braises, squash, stews, pot pies, and root vegetables. I become soup-obsessed.

But after the initial burst of jubilant slow-cooker enthusiasm, I lose the spark. Suddenly, somewhere in November, I’m pining for a backyard cookout. Corn on the cob sounds particularly succulent, or maybe some grilled hot dogs, with ice cream for dessert. I fantasize about pulled chicken sandwiches with barbecue sauce, the meat smoking for hours on a charcoal grill.

The latter, at least, I can recreate indoors, even in the depths of winter. To make cooking indoor pulled chicken faster and easier, start with boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which will only need to cook for about 25 minutes in a Dutch oven, with a sauce that includes liquid smoke in place of wood chips’ flavor. Watch our step-by-step video below.

There’s just one drawback to the boneless, skinless thighs, though. When bone-in chicken pieces are braised, the collagen in their skin, bones, and tendons breaks down into gelatin, which gives those juices a silky, rich texture. Substituting boneless, skinless chicken can result in a too-thin, watery barbecue sauce.

To compensate when making indoor pulled chicken with boneless, skinless pieces, we add our secret ingredient: one teaspoon of unflavored gelatin powder to the sauce. Collagen and gelatin aren’t so different; they’re just two sides of the same unctuous coin.

ATK science editor Paul Adams explains that collagen is a non-water-soluble fibrous protein in the form of a triple helix of intertwined strands. Long, moist cooking—or industrial processing—separates those strands from each other. The strands are then soluble in water—they are gelatin. So whether you braise bone-in chicken or use a packet of gelatin powder, you’ll arrive at the same delicious sauce.

“Either way, you wind up with chicken sauce that's filled with dissolved gelatin,” Adams says. “In the bone-in braise, collagen from the bird turns into gelatin during cooking. In the boneless braise, you add powdered gelatin directly.”

Before you add your gelatin to the sauce, though, remember to dissolve it in cool water; adding the powder directly to a hot liquid will make the granules hydrate too quickly, and their interiors won’t properly dissolve.

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