North Carolina-Style Pulled Barbecue Chicken Sandwiches
As Steven Raichlen said, “Barbecue means different things to different people in different parts of the country.” True barbecue cooks meat in the presence of abundant wood smoke, long and slow over low, indirect heat - next to, not directly over the fire. In North Carolina, barbecue means fall-off-the-bone, tender, smoked pork shoulder that has been slathered with a vinegar sauce and eaten with coleslaw on a hamburger bun.
This is a revised version of Steven Raichlen’s North Carolina Pulled Pork recipe from his masterpiece, The Barbecue! Bible 10th Anniversary Edition. It substitutes chicken legs for the traditional pork shoulder and use the eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce condiment made from vinegar, salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes and a little brown sugar to cut the edge. The chicken will be done in a relatively quickly, one to two hours compared to twelve to fourteen hours for pork shoulder. Chicken is also more delicate than the pork and prone to drying out. Make sure to leave the skin on chicken to provide protection that helps retain moisture.
(makes approximately ¼ cup)
2 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
½ teaspoon dry mustard powder
½ teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon celery salt
½ teaspoon garlic salt
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 chicken thigh/leg quarters, skin-on, bone-in
hickory wood chips, soaked in water overnight
North Carolina Vinegar Sauce
(makes approximately 2 cups)
1½ cups cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 soft hamburger buns
coleslaw or summer vegetable slaw
TO MAKE THE RUB AND PREPARE THE CHICKEN: In a small bowl, combine the paprika, brown sugar, dry mustard powder, onion powder, celery salt, garlic salt, kosher salt and pepper and mix well.
Rub the spice mixture onto all sides of the chicken thigh/leg quarters. Cover the chicken with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 1 to 2 hours.
TO MAKE THE SAUCE: In a medium-size nonreactive bowl, combine the cider vinegar, sugar, hot pepper flakes, onion, jalapeño, salt, and black pepper. Stir with a whisk until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Taste and adjust salt and sugar as necessary.
TO PREPARE THE BARBECUE AND SMOKE THE CHICKEN: Set up the grill or smoker with the soaked wood chips for indirect heat. The goal is to not cook directly over the fire and the barbecue or smoker maintains a temperature of less than 300°F. The lower the temperature the better.
Cover the grill or smoker and smoke-cook the chicken thigh/leg quarters until it is fall-off-the-bone tender and the internal temperature on an instant-read thermometer reaches 160°F, approximately 1½ to 2 hours. The cooking time will depend on the size of the chicken and the heat of the grill or smoker.
Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes.
Pull off and discard any skin and the bones from the meat. “Pull” the chicken into shreds using your fingertips or two forks. Transfer the shredded meat to a nonreactive bowl. Stir in 1 to 1½ cups of the vinegar sauce, enough to keep the chicken moist, and cover. Keep meat warm.
TO SERVE: Place the pulled chicken on the hamburger buns and top with coleslaw. Serve additional vinegar sauce on the side.
ADVANCED PREPARATIONS: The vinegar sauce does not store well so make it no more than 1 day ahead of time.
SUBSTITUTIONS AND OPTIONS: To make pulled pork: substitute pork shoulder for the chicken, rub the pork 8 hours ahead of time and smoke-cook the pork to an internal temperature of 195°F, approximately 4 to 6 hours. Again the cooking time will depend on the size of the meat and the heat of the grill or smoker.
BEVERAGE NOTES: The hickory flavor of the barbecue and the sweet vinegar based sauce requires either a rye beer to cut through the acidity or a porter to keep up with smoky potency of the meat. For the teetotaler in the group, Cheerwine, created by LD Peeler in 1917 In Salisbury, North Carolina amid a sugar shortage during WWI, is a one-of-a-kind Carolina specialty. It’s a bubbly, effervescence soft drink with a hint of wild cherry flavor.
Makes 4 sandwiches