BBQ with Aloha: Huli-Huli Chicken using a Pit Barrel Cooker

Mr. Mankeung “MK” Ng cooking Huli-Huli Chicken in Hawaii. Photo by Pomai.

There is nothing like the smell of a good barbecue. Growing up on the east coast I remember the smell of family roadside BBQ stands in Virginia and Maryland as you drove down the road. A tent next to the house with a big BBQ rig and family members standing by the road waving you in for a half a chicken and sweet corn on the cob. The best I ever ate. That is until I moved to Hawaii. It was on the Big Island that I first encountered the smell and taste of Huli-Huli Chicken. Strategically placed roadside stands let the sweet BBQ smoke blow down the road into oncoming traffic making it very difficult not to stop for a meal.  Huli-Huli Chicken is a teriyaki-based chicken that is cooked over hot kiawe wood in an open pit that is turned (Huli”) rapidly over the coals. The taste of the smoked, juicy chicken in a sweet Huli-Huli sauce is an amazing experience and well worth the effort. I have worked out my own recipe over time, which I share here, but it is a variation of existing recipes (such as Guy Fieri’s recipe and that at Amazing Ribs) adapted to my family’s tastes.

I created this recipe to work on a Pit Barrel Cooker which is quite simply the best economical smoker in the world and produces amazingly sweet and juicy chicken. Of course, you don’t need one to use this recipe as it will work fine on any grill or smoker but it probably won’t be as good and you’ll need to figure out your own timing. Anyway, here is my recipe which is based on cooking one whole chicken.

Prepping the Pit Barrel Cooker and Chicken

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The Pit Barrel Cooker.

Fill the charcoal basket with charcoal and add several chunks of Kiawe (or mesquite which is similar). Place the basket at the bottom of the smoker and light the coals using your favorite method. At sea level let the coals burn for 20 min with the vent 1/4 of the way open (it will take longer and the vent needs to be open more at higher altitudes; see their website).

Charcoal with mesquite chunks.
Charcoal with mesquite chunks.

While the coals are getting ready clean and split the chicken in half and pull the Pit barrel hooks through the meat. Then apply the dry rub. The recipe works fine without the rub but the garlic-onion-pepper rub adds another layer of flavor that compliments the sweet soy-based sauce. You can also just add salt and pepper before you cook it, brine it the night before, or marinate it in the Huli-Huli sauce for a few hours. However, you really don’t need to brine the chicken when using the Pit Barrel cooker as the smoker acts like a convection oven and keeps the meat moist and juicy.

Dry rub

  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1.5 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp coarse black pepper
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp ground cumin

When the coals are ready, place the chicken halves in the smoker so that they hang over the coals and close the lid. The beauty of the Pit Barrel Cooker is that you don’t really need to check the meat, just watch the time and it will turn out great (although I always check the temperature at the end before serving).

Chicken with rub and meat hooks (left). Hanging the chicken in the smoker (right).
Chicken with rub and meat hooks prior to cooking (left). Hanging the chicken in the smoker (right).

While the meat is cooking prepare the Huli-Huli sauce in a medium saucepan on the stove.  Mix all the ingredients, let it simmer on low heat for 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and let it cool down until it thickens. Reserve a cup of the sauce for dipping and use the rest for basting. For those of you that don’t like pineapple (like my wife), you can substitute with other citrus fruits (I use ¾ orange + ¼ lemon). I strongly recommend shoyu sauce (especially Aloha Shoyu) as it has a milder flavor than most other soy sauces. Fresh garlic and ginger are key to the recipe but powered substitutes will work in a pinch. Other variations of the sauce included adding 2 tbsp of Worcestershire sauce and/or 2 tbsp of Sriracha sauce if you like it a bit hot.

Huli-Huli Sauce:

  • 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup shoyu sauce
  • 2 tablespoons chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 2 tsp minced ginger
  • 1 tsp minced Garlic
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Chicken being basted after 90 min. with Huli-Huli sauce.

Let the chicken cook for 90 min, remove and baste with the sauce, then place back in the cooker with the lid on. Repeat after 15 min but this time leave the lid open 1/3 of the way to heat up the coals. You may want to check the meat temperature at this point to make sure it doesn’t need more than 15-30 more min in the cooker. The breast should be at near 160F and thighs near 165F. After another 15 min (two hours total cook time) pull the chicken, baste again, remove the rods and place the grill grate inside of the cooker (with gloves!).  Now place the chicken on the grill for the last 10-20 min to add some char to the outside, turning every 5-10 min. When it looks good to pull the chicken, pour some of the reserved sauce over the meat, and eat!  As you can see below I like my chicken with more char then most. As they say in Hawaii: dis Huli-Huli chicken broke da mouth brah! Aloha!

These photos of Huli Huli Chicken using this recipe are from Shannon Murray from the “Pit Barrel Nation” FaceBook page (Thanks Shannon!):




9 responses to “BBQ with Aloha: Huli-Huli Chicken using a Pit Barrel Cooker”

  1. Thanks, Brian. Looks like a wonderful recipe. Charlotte McDaniel

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Tried this for memorial day today. Excellent sauce and cooking technique. Came out perfect!

  3. Made this for memorial day today. Excellent sauce and I loved the additional technique to crisp and char the skin. I’ll be making this one again for sure!

  4. This was the most AWESOME chicken ever! I made Hulu Huli chicken before but not like this. This has to be the best ever!

  5. Looks great. Did you order your PBC straight from the site? I wanted to get one, but the shipping cost to Hawaii is insane.

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