When the craving for barbecue hits, these pulled chicken sandwiches are the answer! My easy dry rub adds instant flavor to the meat, while my crunchy coleslaw brings it all together.
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Get ready to fire up the barbecue -or take out the grill pan to transform boring chicken pieces into something exciting for your taste buds. This hearty pulled chicken sandwich recipe makes a big batch to share with family and friends. The process is straightforward for weekend gatherings or weeknight meals.
Before cooking, sprinkle on a flavorful dry rub to instantly boost the taste of the meat. Shred the grilled chicken into bite-sized pieces, then toss in a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. But that’s not all! There’s a quick creamy coleslaw to pile high on the sandwich for extra crunch.
I use boneless skinless chicken breasts for a lean option. Although, it’s essential to flatten them to a uniform thickness so they cook evenly. Store-bought rotisserie chicken works well as a substitute for a quick weeknight meal, or I often use leftover pieces from my slow cooker chicken recipe. It makes meal prep so easy.
If you enjoy dark meat, chicken thighs are a good option as they stay moist due to higher amounts of fat. You don’t have to pound them out since the pieces are already relatively thin. Both light and dark meat provide a combination of textures.
Quick, flavorful dry rub
For instant flavor without the need to spend time marinating, make a sweet and spicy dry rub. The seasonings are concentrated in flavor, so a little goes a long way. Dried spices like cumin, onion, garlic powder, chile powder, and paprika cling to the meat once applied, enhancing the taste on the surface of the chicken.
The rub contains brown sugar, which intensifies the caramelized flavor and accelerates browning on the grill grates. Keep a close eye on the meat to prevent burning and flip once you see dark char marks form.
Cooking on the grill
Heat the grill until very hot so that the Maillard reaction can rapidly occur, giving those gorgeous browned marks and smokey flavor. Close the lid and finish cooking the chicken covered, creating an oven-like environment through conduction as the heat circulates inside. This method produces the most flavor on the exterior while maintaining a moist piece of meat.
Cooking on the stove top
You don’t have to wait for warm weather to make this meal, as a simple grill pan can create gorgeous grill marks. Although, with this method, the cooking temperature needs adjustment. The dried spices and sugar will smoke at high heat, which can become an issue indoors. Instead, use moderate heat for better control and a few extra minutes of cook time.
Checking for doneness
The chicken should be opaque and no longer pink in the center. Use an instant-read thermometer to test for an internal temperature between 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC). Let the meat rest for at least 5 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute, keeping the poultry moist and tender.
Shred the chicken
Pulling or shredding the chicken apart makes it easier to eat in the sandwich. This process also allows more surface area for a barbecue sauce to coat each piece. I find it easiest to use two forks to separate the parts, working in the same direction as the natural lines of the muscle fibers.
Coat with barbecue sauce
Although very flavorful with dried spices alone, tossing the shredded chicken in barbecue sauce provides extra dimension and moisture. I like to use my go-to homemade barbecue sauce recipe, which comes together in less than 30 minutes.
My sauce uses ingredients you may already have in your pantry, like tomato paste, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, and a whole lot of spices. Although, if you’re pressed for time, go ahead and reach for a bottle of pre-made BBQ sauce (it’s okay, I don’t mind).
For added texture contrast, it’s nice to have fresh crunchy coleslaw to go with these chicken sandwiches. I like to cut the cabbage so that I can control the size. The base is a mixture of red and green cabbage and shredded carrots. The dressing is a combination of Greek yogurt, a hint of mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, honey, and paprika. You can even make a bigger batch to serve as a side dish.
These delicious barbecue chicken sandwiches deserve a fantastic bun. I prefer brioche or whole wheat. My pet peeve is hamburger buns that disintegrate with each bite, so find one that holds together. Sandwich architecture is essential!
I like to toast the buns on the grill or pan, just until the bottoms are nice and crunchy but still soft to the touch. Top the bread with a generous amount of chicken, more sauce, and creamy coleslaw. A mini hand-held feast!
Serve this with
Wait to make the coleslaw
When you cut cabbage leaves, the cell walls are exposed. Combined with a dressing that contains salt and sugar, those ingredients like to draw out the moisture. The longer the mixture sits, the more wilted the leaves become and more diluted the dressing. For the crunchiest texture and best flavor, wait to combine the cabbage with the coleslaw dressing until ready to serve.
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BBQ Chicken Sandwiches with Coleslaw
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, or boneless thighs
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon paprika, sweet or smoked
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, or vegetable oil, for greasing
- 1 cup barbecue sauce
- 4 hamburger buns
- Place one of the chicken pieces in between two plastic sheets or in a large plastic bag. Flatten to an even thickness, about 3/4-inch. Repeat with remaining pieces.Alternatively, for pieces about 2-inches thick or larger, cut in half horizontally to create two cutlets, repeat with the remaining pieces.
- In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, cumin, paprika, salt, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper.
- Evenly sprinkle the dry rub over each piece of chicken, about 1 teaspoon per side.
- Cook on the Stovetop: Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Evenly grease the surface with about 1 tablespoon olive oil. Once the oil is hot, working in batches, add the seasoned chicken. Cook until char marks appear, about 4 to 6 minutes. Flip and cook about 3 to 5 minutes. Clean and grease the pan as needed, repeat with the remaining pieces.Cook on the Barbecue: Heat grill over medium-high heat. Clean and oil the grill grates. Once hot, add the seasoned chicken. Cover with the lid and cook until char marks appear, about 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the pieces and cover, about 3 to 4 minutes.
- Cook until the internal temperature reaches between 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC). Clean and grease the grates as needed. Rest the cooked chicken for 5 minutes.
- In a medium bowl, combine yogurt, mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, honey, paprika, salt, and pepper.
- In a large bowl, combine green cabbage, red cabbage, and carrots. Add the dressing and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If not used immediately, cover and refrigerate.
- Use two forks to shred into smaller pieces. Combine shredded chicken with barbecue sauce.
- Right before serving, grill the buns cut-side down. Heat until toasted, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add pulled chicken to each toasted bottom bun and top with coleslaw.
- Using leftover chicken: Shred leftover chicken pieces or rotisserie chicken into smaller pieces. You will need about 5 cups. Heat in the microwave on high power until hot. Toss with some dry rub and barbecue sauce.
- Storing: Cover and refrigerate grilled chicken up to 5 days in advance. Wait to toss with the barbecue sauce until ready to serve. Store the coleslaw in an airtight container for up to 1 day in the refrigerator.
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