Battle of the Butts: Pulled Pork Three Ways
Pulled pork needs no introduction. It’s the friend who always has your back. At turns sweet and smoky, tangy, salty, and sometimes spicy, it is the Super Bowl staple that won’t quit. And with that holiest of days fast approaching, The Manual highly suggests pairing pulled pork with a day of screaming at the television and being underwhelmed by Coldplay’s halftime show.
Recipes vary by region and personal preference, but everyone thinks they have the secret to the best pulled pork ever. Do you grill it or stick it in a slow cooker or maybe in the oven? Do you want it crispy and caramelized on the outside or dripping with sauce? Should it be sweet? Spicy? Are you a traitor to barbecue if you slather it in pre-made sauce? The labyrinthine world of pulled pork can be intimidating.
But never fear. The Manual test drove three recipes this weekend so you don’t have to agonize over which pork to feed your friends on Super Bowl Sunday. Just follow our road map to the best pulled pork for your needs, and you’ll have a grand old time stuffing your face.
Let’s Get Down To Business
First, a quick note.
You might see recipes out there that call for chops or loins. Do not betray the melt-in-your-mouth sensation of a hunk of well-cooked pork butt. There’s a reason pulled pork is made from the butt which, it should be noted, actually comes from the front shoulder of the pig. (Ham, in fact, is from the rear end, in case you were curious.) Why the butt? Because it’s delightfully fatty. A high quality butt will have some exquisite marbling throughout, and that fat is one of the keys to a successful dish.
As with all barbecue, the secret to really great pulled pork is time. Slow cooking will make it taste better, and that’s not just in your head: we’ve got science to back up what our taste buds already knew. So even if you were just going to throw a pork butt into a slow cooker with some water and salt, it would still turn out better than if you tried to rush things by cooking it with high heat or using a faster-cooking (read: leaner) cut.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.
1 5-6 pound pork butt, bone-in
1 tablespoon mild paprika
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1½ teaspoons hot paprika
½ teaspoon celery salt
½ teaspoon garlic salt
½ teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon salt
6 cups hickory chips, soaked for 1 hour in cold water and drained
This is a classic North Carolina recipe, courtesy of Epicurious, that we just had to try. Combine the mild paprika, brown sugar, hot paprika, celery salt, garlic salt, dry mustard, pepper, onion powder, and salt and rub all over the butt. If desired, wrap the butt in plastic wrap and put in fridge for anywhere from 4 to 12 hours. (Applying a rub that far ahead of cooking is not necessarily going to help make the pork more flavorful, but barbecue is weird and personal and full of superstitions. So, do whatever you feel is right.) The original recipe says you can skip the rub and salt generously just before grilling, but we did both, and the rub is the clear winner of the two.
Prepare the grill for indirect grilling. Place a drip pan in the center, or directly below wherever you’re putting your butt. If using charcoal, adjust the vents so you get a temperature of 300. Spread the hickory chips on the charcoals when you’re ready to cook. If using a gas grill, put the chips in the smoker box, turn the heat up until it starts smoking, then turn it down to medium-low.
Place the butt over the drip pan, fat side up, and cover. Cook until tender, anywhere from 4-6 hours. If your pork is getting too dark, you can always drape it with aluminum foil. For a charcoal grill, you’ll need to add coals and ½ cup of chips to both sides every hour or so. When the pork is done, transfer it to a plate to rest with an aluminum foil tent over top. Remove the bone and fat when done resting. Shred and serve.
The original recipe says that, after you remove the bone and fat, you should shred the pork, mix it with about 2 cups of sauce (any vinegar-based barbecue sauce will do, though they provide a recipe), cover, and keep warm on the grill for an additional half hour. We say, however, that the best part of Carolina barbecue is that the pig speaks for itself, sauce optional. So we say to forego the sauce and let the crispy, juicy butt sing.
Difficulty of Execution
This one requires substantial time and effort, especially if you’re not already a grill master. Depending on your grill preferences, you have to replenish the briquettes and hickory chips several times throughout the process and make sure the pork isn’t getting too much heat. Don’t forget, as well, that with the crust on the outside, pulling the pork will initially be a struggle–until you get to the sweet juicy meat inside, that is. Not to mention: grilling in this weather might be a bit of a challenge. But hey, if you don’t mind standing in two feet of snow for a mound of crispy, juicy pork, we say go for it.
Maximum smoke, minimum fuss. There’s no bringing out the sweetness or search for tang–this recipe lets the pork speak for itself. Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, this grilled version is the most straightforward. If you don’t mind grilling instead of watching the game, opt for this one.
1 4-5 pound pork butt, excess fat trimmed
2 cups brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt, more to taste
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground mustard
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground chili pepper
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon fresh ground cumin
5 cloves garlic, smashed
3 vine-ripened tomatoes, rough chopped
½ large white onion, rough chopped
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup water (or chicken stock, if preferred)
1 dash Worcestershire sauce
Combine 1 ½ cups of the brown sugar, the salt, paprika, mustard, black pepper, chili pepper, cayenne pepper, and ginger in a bowl. Apply the rub to the pork. If desired, wrap the butt in plastic wrap and put in fridge for anywhere from 4 to 12 hours. (Again, the jury is out on whether or not an overnight rub helps, but you do you.)
Add the garlic, tomatoes, onion, vinegar, half of the water and Worcestershire sauce to your slow cooker and put it on low heat.
Add a tablespoon of either vegetable or coconut oil to a skillet. Brown the pork on all sides then transfer to the slow cooker, which should already be on low heat. Add remaining ¼ cup of water to the drippings in the skillet and whisk. Add the drippings to the slow cooker along with the remaining ½ cup of brown sugar. Stir the ingredients until well mixed, then cover and let sit for anywhere from 6 to 8 hours. Flip the butt every hour and a half to two hours, as needed.
When the pork is done, transfer to a plate to let it rest for 15-20 minutes. In the meantime, transfer the liquid to a saucepan and put on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Let the liquid reduce by about half. If the sauce isn’t thickening to your liking, you may add cornstarch, a pinch at a time, stirring with every addition. If you prefer a smooth sauce, use an immersion blender to get rid of the tomato chunks.
Because the pork is essentially stewed, you’ll hardly have to do any work to pull it apart. You can mix the pork back into the sauce, or you can serve separately and let people add their own sauce.
Difficulty of Execution
This one looks complicated on the surface, but once the rub is done, you largely leave it alone. This is also a highly customizable recipe. After you apply the initial rub, you can tweak it to your taste. In the past, we have added Secret Aardvaark hot sauce and stone ground mustard to give a little extra oomph.
You can also sub tomato paste for the tomatoes in this recipe, so long as you slightly increase the amount of water you add. We prefer the tomatoes just because it gives the sauce a nice texture, and we can get away with using less water. While you do need to check on it every couple of hours, this recipe largely takes care of itself. Bonus: it also makes a nice, rich barbecue sauce to go with the pork.
This version is tangy and sweet with a spicy kick on the back of the tongue. The pork is sultry and soft, and it melts on your tongue. The large amount of brown sugar gives it a caramel body, but the cayenne and chili pepper adds depth to what could be a one-note dish. The barbecue sauce has a familiar vinegar-and-tomato tang, but the brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce take it to the next level. If you have the time to dedicate to this recipe, we highly recommend.
1 4-5 pound pork butt, excess fat trimmed
2 teaspoons salt
1 12-ounce can or bottle root beer
Place the pork butt in your slow cooker. Add salt. Pour in root beer. We prefer Sioux City Root Beer, because it uses cane sugar, but sodas like A&W, Barq’s or Mug are fine, too. Hell, you could even use Dr. Pepper (as some recipes do), but we prefer root beer because of the subtle earthy, herbaceous flavor it lends. Let sit for six hours, flipping the butt every hour and a half to two hours.
Difficulty of Execution
Suspiciously easy. Like, really, really easy. You really do just pour some soda and salt over the butt and leave it alone. That being said, you might require more condiments and fixings for this version, since it’s largely just sweet with a little bit of saltiness.
Why the soda? Because it gives a nice caramelized sugar flavor. The pork is tender, but it isn’t fall-apart-with-a-whisper tender or mushy. It’s still got legs, if you will. Because there’s so little liquid in this recipe, there’s the added bonus of a nice crust on the outside. It’s not a complex flavor profile by any means. It’s just tender, a little sweet, and begging for some of your favorite barbecue sauce to be slathered on top. We added Stubb’s Spicy Bar-B-Q Sauce, which gave it a nice habanero kick.
If you want pulled pork but don’t have a lot of time, we recommend going for this one. Trust us. We know it’s weird, but it is ridiculously delicious.
These three recipes are so different that there is no clear winner. Pulled pork styles are as varied as barbecue itself, so as long as you choose the recipe that sounds best to you—saucy or dry, grilled or slow cooked–there’s really no way to go wrong. Same with the fixings. You can add cheese, your own sauce, slaw—the possibilities are endless. While we added some red cabbage and carrot slaw and arugula, all three versions were just as good on their own.
After all, it’s freakin’ slow-cooked meat.
Header image courtesy of Slick via Creative Commons.