When it comes to pulled meats, pulled pork sits atop the heap. It’s the type of meal that needs no introduction — it’s the friend who always has your back. At times sweet, smoky, tangy, salty, and sometimes spicy, it is the meal that most of us on staff here at The Manual could have every day for every meal.
Recipes vary by region and personal preference, but they have one thing in common: 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 a pre-made sauce? The labyrinthine world of pulled pork can be intimidating.
Never fear, though. If you’ve never cooked pulled pork in your life, you can get started right here with three different ways to cook pulled pork. We suggest working your way through all of them and having yourself a pork-a-palooza.
First, a quick note.
As with all barbecue, the secret to really great pulled pork is time.
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. If you need a place to find a good cut of pork, you can always check out these mail-order meat companies.
OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.
Classic Pulled Pork
(Recipe courtesy of Epicurious)
- 1 5-6 pound pork butt, bone-in
- 1 tbsp mild paprika
- 2 tsp light brown sugar
- 1.5 tsp hot paprika
- .5 tsp celery salt
- .5 tsp garlic salt
- .5 tsp dry mustard
- .5 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- .5 tsp onion powder
- .25 tsp salt
- 6 cups hickory chips, soaked for 1 hour in cold water and drained
- 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 degrees Fahrenheit. 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 .5 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), 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.
Slow-Cooked Pulled Pork
- 1 4-5 pound pork butt, excess fat trimmed
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 2 tsp salt, more to taste
- 2 tsp paprika
- 2 tsp ground mustard
- 1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- .5 tsp cayenne pepper
- .25tsp ground chili pepper
- .25 tsp ginger
- .25 tsp fresh ground cumin
- 5 cloves garlic, smashed
- 3 vine-ripened tomatoes, rough chopped
- .5 large white onion, rough chopped
- .5 cup red wine vinegar
- .5 cup water (or chicken stock, if preferred)
- 1 dash Worcestershire sauce
- Combine 1.5 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 .25 cup of water to the drippings in the skillet and whisk. Add the drippings to the slow cooker along with the remaining .5 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.
Root Beer Slow Cooker Pulled Pork
- 1 4-5 pound pork butt, excess fat trimmed
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 12-oz 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.
Article originally published by Lisa Dunn on January 26, 2016. Last updated by Sam Slaughter on February 15, 2019.