One of the things that I miss about living in North Carolina the most is the food, especially Carolina barbecue. There are a few different types of barbecue floating around NC, but my absolute favorite barbecue ever involves a vinegar-based sauce over pulled pork or chicken. Unfortunately, unless you own a smoker, which I don’t, replicating this barbecue style at home is difficult.
Now, I can tell you that most die-hard NC barbecue lovers would likely be mortified by the idea of recreating this recipe in the slow cooker. But after 3 years of only being able to enjoy my beloved NC barbecue a few times a year, I got desperate. What I found was that you can create unbelievable Carolina barbecue in your slow cooker in just a few hours.
I’ve experimented with both pork and boneless, skinless chicken thighs for this recipe and, ultimately, decided that I preferred the boneless, skinless chicken thighs. The first reason is that pork shoulder options are not plentiful in grocery stores around Louisville. The ones that I’ve gotten in the past are incredibly fatty, and even with trimming off tons of excess fat prior to cooking, I still felt like my final product was nothing but fat. This isn’t a problem in all methods of cooking pork shoulder, but has been a major problem to me in this and other slow cooker recipes. Also, pork shoulders are large and there are only two of us in this house. While I can devour a ton of barbecue, 5 pounds of pork shoulder is a little too much.
In the end, the boneless, skinless chicken thighs worked perfectly. In order to give it less of a slow cooker feel, I included liquid smoke in the recipe to give it a smoky note. I also threw the shredded thighs coated in sauce under the broiler for a couple of minutes to crisp up their tips, providing a bit of texture variety. My two biggest pet peeves about slow cooker recipes are that chicken often ends up dry and that the end result is all the same texture. Using chicken thighs solves the dryness issue (that and knowing your own slow cooker and how long it takes for different types of meat to cook in it), and broiling the end product helps with the texture issue.
I love this recipe. You can bet your bottom dollar that this will show up on our dinner table at least once a month from now on. Seriously. If you’ve never had the pleasure of feasting on Carolina vinegar-based barbecue before, you must know that it absolutely has to be served on a white bread bun. It’s important, trust me. Also, most people love to smother it in coleslaw. I am not one of those people, but if you like coleslaw, you should definitely consider topping your sandwich with it. Some people are still trying to convince me that the coleslaw is as important as the white bread. I am not a coleslaw fan, so I don’t really listen to that part.
A couple tips – The chicken cooks in apple cider vinegar, which can produce a somewhat overwhelming scent, so I would suggest cooking this in your garage, if possible. I would not forgo making the recipe if you can’t do that (this recipe is so worth it), but just be prepared. Also, taste the final sauce as you’re making it. It’s slightly spicy, but you can control this as long as you taste as you go.
Hope you enjoy this as much as we did!
- 2.5 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- ½ tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
- 1½ tablespoons hot pepper sauce (I used Frank’s RedHot), divided
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, divided
- 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, divided
- 5 white buns (for plating)
- Coleslaw for topping, if desired
- Place boneless, skinless chicken thighs in a slow cooker. Season chicken thighs with ½ tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Pour in the apple cider vinegar and liquid smoke.
- Cover and cook on low for 4-6 hours.
- Once chicken is cooked, remove chicken from slow cooker and place on a cutting board. Shred chicken using two forks.
- Transfer liquid from slow cooker to a large glass measuring cup. Strain and discard as much of the fat layer that rises to the top of the liquid as possible using a spoon.
- Transfer 1 cup of the cooking liquid back to the slow cooker (save the rest of the cooking liquid for later). To the liquid in the slow cooker, add 1 tablespoon brown sugar, ¾ tablespoon hot pepper sauce, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, and 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Stir to combine. Add chicken back to slow cooker and toss to coat with sauce. At this point, you can either enjoy the chicken as is, or transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet and broil the pulled chicken for a few minutes to get the ends a little crispy (watch closely so that the chicken doesn’t burn!). The crispiness adds some nice texture, which helps to make it feel like the chicken was prepared on the grill or in a smoker.
- To prepare additional sauce: The remaining liquid can be used to make extra sauce for topping the pulled chicken. I took a remaining cup of the cooking liquid and added 1 tablespoon brown sugar, ¾ tablespoon hot pepper sauce, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, and 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Stir to combine.
- Serve on white burger buns topped with coleslaw, if desired.