Easy Oven-Baked Pulled Pork Sandwiches With Pickled Peppers

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Oven-roasted pulled pork is just about the easiest and most inexpensive way to feed a crowd of meat lovers. At my local supermarket, fresh pork shoulder (sold as pork butt or Boston butt in some markets, despite being anatomically nowhere near the hog's rear end) is by far the most inexpensive cut in the display case. Treated wrong, it come out tough, rubbery, or dry. Treated with just a bit of patience and know how, it'll be as tender and flavorful as you'd ever want it.

There are other benefits to roasting whole pork shoulders. For one thing, the neutral-but-tasty meat forms a fantastic foundation for any number of dishes. Mix it into your pasta sauce. Use it in soups. Beat it in a stand mixer to form a quick rillettes-style pâté. Crisp it up in a skillet and serve it in tacos. It's really versatile stuff. In this case we're seasoning it Eastern North Carolina-style with some cider vinegar and a hint of sugar and stuffing it into sandwiches with pickled cherry peppers.

As with true slow-smoked Southern-style barbecue pork shoulder, the key here is low and slow cooking. As the shoulder slowly heats up, protein-rich connective tissues will start to break down, causing the whole thing to become more tender. Simultaneously, creamy pork fat will render, lubricating and flavoring the meat within.

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Let the meat get too hot, and you end up losing moisture through evaporation. But keep it too cool, and your pork can end up taking half a day to cook, if not more. At 250°F, for instance, a shoulder will lose only 20 percent of its initial wait in moisture loss. Cook the same shoulder at 375°F, and it'll take about three hours to cook, but will lose closer to 28 percent of its initial moisture. (See my discussion of slow-roasted pork shoulder for some more details.)

For this recipe, ease and time are of the essence, so I went with a moderate 325°F, resulting in meat that's still plenty juicy in just about three hours. To help it build some flavor, I rubbed the skin-on shoulder with a sugar, salt, and spice mix before roasting it.

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See how nice and burnished brown it gets during its stay in the oven?

So how do you know when it's done?

Like this:

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Jam a fork in there and twist it around. If the meat doesn't shred freely, then you still have some time to go.

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In many parts of the country, it's difficult to find a pork shoulder with the skin still attached. If you live in one of these sad districts, I feel sorry for you. For everyone else, you'll probably notice that the skin on this pork is firm, but a little tough and leathery. We're going to fix that.

Start by lifting it up and off the meat in a single piece. If your pork is done cooking, this should work out with no effort.

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Next, scrape off the excess fat and meat from the interior surfaces. Keep this stuff—it'll be used to add more flavor and moisture to meat later on.

At this stage, the skin's been largely broken down and softened, but to add crispness, we still need to blast it with heat to get it to puff and bubble, adding surface area and crunch. A short stay in a 500°F oven does the trick. I like to chop up the skin and mix it in with the meat, but you can keep it in distinct chunks if you prefer.

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All that's left now is to pull the meat from the bones—it should come off with an amount of effort small enough that we can refer to it as zero in the parlance of our times—and shred it up, bark and all.

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We're not really gonna kid anyone here—this is not an imitation or even an attempt at an imitation of smoked pulled pork. You get a similar juiciness and tenderness, but you won't get any of that smoke flavor in here. If you are so inclined, a modest amount of a naturally-produced liquid smoke (like Wright's) can actually do a decent job at bringing smokiness to the mix, so long as you don't overdo it.

You can also add some bottled barbecue sauce if sweet and ketchupy are your bag.

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Personally, I prefer my pulled pork hot and vinegary. I use a mix of apple cider vinegar, red chili flakes, and just a touch of sugar to season my pork before stuffing it into soft, toasted buns.

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For some reason I've been on a pickled pepper kick recently, adding them to everything from a smoky bacon and pickled cherry pepper relish to topping my pizzas with them. They make a great hot alternative to standard cucumber pickles on a sandwich.

Check out the full step-by-step recipe below, then stay tuned for next week when we'll use THE EXACT SAME PORK in a completely different sandwich. See how that works?

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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