My Goals

  • Moist, juicy meat

  • Quick cooking time

  • Unctuous texture and chicken-y flavor

  • Deep smoky barbecue flavor

Traditional pulled chicken is a true labor of love: First you brine bone-in, skin-on parts for an hour or so. Then you cook them slowly over coals and wood chunks until the meat is moist and tender within and kissed with smoke flavor throughout. With the skin burnished to a deep mahogany, smoked chicken is a beautiful thing—making it feel almost like a crime to pull off the skin, shred the richly flavored meat, and douse it in barbecue sauce for sandwiches.

I developed a killer recipe for Smoked Chicken (July/August 2011), and if I make it for friends, you'd better believe I'm going to get full credit for all the work by showing off its burnished parts. But for those times when I need a quick weeknight meal or when my grill is covered with 16 inches of snow, I had a hunch that I could make some really good pulled chicken by simply braising chicken parts in a smoky barbecue sauce. It wouldn't give me burnished skin—but I wouldn't need that anyway.

Smoke and Mirrors

My Smoked Chicken recipe calls for whole breasts and leg quarters; I pull the white meat off the fire early since it cooks faster than the dark meat. But in the interest of keeping things as simple as possible, I decided to use only thighs for my indoor pulled chicken. They are our preferred cut for braising since they have lots of collagen, which turns to gelatin and gives the meat a moist, tender texture. Using the boneless, skinless type was one more way to streamline things.

I arranged 2 pounds of thighs (enough to make 6 to 8 sandwiches) in a Dutch oven along with the makings of a tangy barbecue sauce—ketchup, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and salt and pepper—and enough water to comfortably cover the chicken. I also stirred in a couple of teaspoons of liquid smoke. I know what you might be thinking, but stick with me: Liquid smoke is an all-natural ingredient made from real woodsmoke and would replicate the flavor achieved via wood chips.

Don’t Shy Away from Liquid Smoke

Until we did some research years ago, we assumed (as many people do) that there must be some kind of synthetic chemical chicanery going on in the making of liquid smoke. But that’s not the case.

Liquid smoke is made by channeling smoke from smoldering wood chips through a condenser, which quickly cools the vapors, causing them to liquefy. The water-soluble flavor compounds in the smoke are trapped within this liquid, while the insoluble tars and resins are removed by a series of filters, resulting in a clean, all‑natural smoke-flavored liquid. Some manufacturers add other flavorings to liquid smoke, but our top-rated product, Wright’s Liquid Smoke, contains nothing but smoke and water.

I brought the pot to a simmer and let it bubble until the thighs were tender, about 25 minutes. To shred the chicken, I found that our usual method of pulling it apart with a pair of forks was overkill for meat so fall-apart tender. It was also slow. Putting the thighs in the bowl of a stand mixer and using the paddle attachment—which we sometimes use to shred large quantities—worked, but it was a big piece of equipment to haul out for 10 seconds of use. In the end, shredding the meat with a pair of tongs was the most efficient way to get the job done.

Once our chicken is cooked, it’s so tender that we simply use tongs to pull it apart; no need for bulky equipment such as a stand mixer or the time-consuming technique of using forks to shred the meat.

I stirred some of the braising liquid into the shredded chicken and piled it onto buns. Between bites, my colleagues offered critiques. One was that the meat was washed-out: It lacked seasoning and had none of the concentrated chicken-y taste that you get in real smoked chicken. Also, the sauce was thin.

I changed up my method, this time simmering the thighs in a much smaller amount of liquid, hoping it would produce better-tasting meat. I used only 1 cup of water mixed with sugar, salt, molasses, and liquid smoke. Sugar and salt are common brine components and would flavor the meat, molasses would add bittersweet notes, and liquid smoke would of course contribute the smoky element. I separately prepared a thick barbecue sauce to coat the chicken in before serving.

Sure enough, the salty/sweet braising liquid had infused the meat with the taste of a brined, slowly smoked bird. Still, it was lacking the deep poultry flavor and unctuous meatiness of real smoked chicken. But aside from the cooking method, the only other difference between this recipe and my outdoor recipe was the lack of skin and bones.

Fat Chance

Chicken skin contains fat that renders and bastes the meat as it cooks. Chicken skin, bones, and tendons offer collagen, which breaks down during cooking to form gelatin, giving the meat a rich, luxurious texture. How could I get more of these missing elements—fat and gelatin—into my recipe?

As I prepped my next batch, I thought about how we normally trim and discard the fat attached to boneless, skinless chicken thighs. This time around, I decided to leave it. Once the chicken was cooked, I strained the braising liquid, skimmed off the fat (2 pounds of thighs yielded about 3 tablespoons), and added it to the chicken. I also swapped the braising water for chicken broth and stirred in some powdered gelatin. The extra fat, along with the broth and gelatin, greatly improved the flavor and overall unctuousness of the meat.

Tasters participate in a blind taste test to see if they can tell the difference between our new recipe for Indoor Pulled Chicken and pulled chicken smoked on the grill.

The chicken needed to be reheated after shredding, so I mixed it with some of the braising liquid and a little barbecue sauce and heated it until it absorbed all the liquid and appeared dry, which took about 5 minutes. (Since the liquid smoke flavor seemed to diminish during braising, I added a bit more at this point.) After this step, the chicken was meaty and dense, ready for extra sauce to be added at the table.

For some variety, I mixed up two more sauces: a mustardy South Carolina–style sauce and a vinegary North Carolina–style option. Now when I crave pulled chicken, will I head outside? Maybe, if the sun is shining and I have time to burn. Otherwise, I'm staying in.

Speeding the Way to Pulled Chicken

Cooking untrimmed boneless, skinless thighs with powdered gelatin replicates the fat and gelatin naturally found in bone-in, skin-on parts.

Keys to Success

  • Moist, juicy meat

    Using untrimmed boneless, skinless chicken thighs (we add any rendered fat to the finished chicken) and cooking them with gelatin yields meat with a moist, juicy texture
  • Quick cooking time

    Instead of slow-smoking the chicken outdoors, we simmer it in a flavorful liquid before shredding it for sandwiches
  • Unctuous texture and chicken-y flavor

    Retaining the fat on the thighs rather than trimming them provides richness and deep flavor to the finished dish.
  • Deep smoky barbecue flavor

    Braising the chicken in broth, salt, sugar, molasses, gelatin, and liquid smoke develops rich, smoky flavor.