Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version. Oscar Quine tucks in

When Christopher Columbus returned from discovering the Americas, he brought with him Europe's first bottle of barbecue sauce. Along with later colonists, he also had introduced the "sacred fire pits" of the Caribbean to mainland America. Soon, something similar to what we now know as pulled pork had emerged as the food de rigeur at communal gatherings in the infant country.

"Pulled meat, or 'pig pickin' as they often call it in America, was literally about taking the skin off a pig once it was cooked and everyone just pulling it apart," says Charles Banks, co-founder of global food trends agency thefoodpeople, which was recently tasked with researching the secrets of barbecue for none other than KFC.

Now a speciality of Memphis, pulled pork has found ubiquity in the UK thanks to our insatiable hunger for US barbecue. Every supermarket in the country offers up a grey-brown, cellophane-entombed version of the meat. Sainsbury's has it in a burrito or on a pizza. Tesco serves it in a pie or a salad. Waitrose does pulled pork burgers and a stew. And Asda mixes it into a bake with wedges and a tangy cheese sauce.

This week, fast-food chain KFC got in on the act with the launch of a burger containing "pulled" chicken, created after Banks went on a fact-finding mission to the US's barbecue belt. KFC's version comes coated in a "Kansas black" dressing of molasses, vinegar and seasoning. It's served with two KFC mini-fillets, so "people get a little bit of something they know", says Louise Direito, the chain's innovation manager.

None of which are likely to be something that Neil Rankin, chef at London restaurant The Smokehouse and all-round barbecue expert who has appeared on the Great British Menu, will be eating any time soon. "If someone asked me 'how do you mass-produce pulled meat without a barbecue?', I'd say you don't," he says. "The best pulled meat is smoked. Artificial smoke flavour is often used in sauce to try to mimic that. And then there'll be too much sauce to try to keep the meat moist."

KFC overcomes the moisture problem with that black dressing, which to me tastes a bit like watered-down sandwich pickle. Strictly speaking, says Rankin, there's nothing wrong with pulling chicken. He's done it a few times at home and he doesn't just serve pulled pork at his restaurant. The menu includes versions with goat, lamb and beef brisket.

But, he hastens to add, just because you can, it doesn't mean you should. "Most places I've eaten pulled meat, it's pretty shit," he says. "People over-pull it. It becomes really stringy. You can't even taste it because they've used so much sauce. A lot of people have treated it as a bandwagon because it's easy to do – but it's difficult to get right."

This, Rankin says, takes "a long fucking time". He cooks a joint for 15 hours at 100-110C. Then, he says, you have to be gentle when you shred it. "It's not like duck confit. You want chunks. You have to pull it with some sort of liquid, usually the fat, and cool it in that liquid too so it starts to suck it up and get really juicy."

So how does KFC's pigless version square up? The version that I taste (there are three products on the menu featuring the pulled poultry, with prices starting at £1.79) comes in a brioche bun, with the Kentucky black marinade and a new "Southern style" coleslaw. Thanks to the inclusion of those mini-fillets though, the overriding flavour is of a KFC. The pepper-heavy batter, carried by the hum of fryer oil, coats the mouth. But texture is just as important with fast food and the sticky, sweet, tender meat certainly helps ease the whole thing down. Authentic or not, I'm afraid to say that it looks as though I've pulled.

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