The Food Lab: How to Make the Best Oven-Cooked Pulled Pork

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Moist and flavor-packed pulled pork from the oven. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The easiest way I know of to ruffle the feathers of food-minded folks mounted atop high horses is to refer to some sort of vegetable preparation as "bacon." Second is to speak ill of a regional specialty that ought to stay regional (here's lookin' at you, cheesesteaks).

Coming in a close third? Suggesting that pulled pork can be prepared via any method other than low-and-slow in a smoke-filled barbecue.

I used to count myself among those rankled by that third one. My experience with indoor pulled pork was limited to the extra-wet and extra-sweet variety, braised in a slow cooker like a beer-bellied vacation-goer who accidentally fell asleep in a hot tub of bottled barbecue sauce. How could it ever compare to the tender and moist—but never wet—texture of real barbecue with a dark crust, a rich, smoky flavor, and a lovingly crafted sauce?

Easy: It can't compare, and it shouldn't compare. Just as it's perfectly possible to love both grilled steaks and pan-seared steaks, or grilled burgers and burgers smashed on a griddle, it's okay to enjoy pork shoulder cooked both outdoors and in-. The two dishes are similar but completely different foods that can both be appreciated on their own merits,* without it being a slight to your man- or womanhood.

* That said, I am working on a method for producing real barbecue-style pulled pork at home, complete with smoke ring and bark, which will show up in the follow-up volume to my first book. Stay tuned!

But, just as there are great burgers and poor, not all indoor pulled pork is created equal. My goal with this recipe was to come up with a technique to produce pulled pork that shreds into large, tender chunks that are moist but not wet, with a flavor that balances sweet molasses, bright vinegar, heat, and just a hint of smoke. Oh, and I wanted it to be darn easy to boot.

Going Dutch

Most simple pulled pork recipes involve dumping a pork shoulder into a slow cooker, adding some bottled barbecue sauce and stock, and letting it cook until the pork falls apart. There were two simple and obvious upgrades that could be made to this method.

First was to ditch the slow cooker and use a Dutch oven placed in the oven instead. A slow cooker heats only from the bottom and, subsequently, only cooks through simmering and steaming. A Dutch oven placed in the oven, on the other hand, heats from all sides, allowing browning to occur on the surface of the stew and around the edges of the pot, leading to far superior flavor. I'll trade the convenience of countertop cooking for more flavor any day, and besides, so long as you're hanging around the house (or are comfortable leaving the oven on), the convenience factor is more or less equal.

The second step was to ditch the bottled barbecue sauce and instead mix up a quick sauce of my own: dark molasses, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, cider vinegar, hot sauce, and a spice blend consisting of black pepper, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin, paprika, brown sugar, and salt. Seeing as I was already mixing up a spice blend for my barbecue sauce, I let the same blend perform double duty as a dry rub for my pork shoulder.

The browning I was getting around the edges of the Dutch oven was better than nothing, but giving the shoulder a sear at the start of cooking boosted flavor even more. (It goes fast because of the extra sugar in the spice rub.) I also sautéed an onion in the browned bits left behind by the pork.

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On a whim, I decided to grab a bottle of bourbon from my liquor cabinet and dump some into the pot. First I made sure to do this with the burner off in order to prevent accidentally setting it on fire and losing an eyebrow, then I carefully ignited the booze with a long lighter, letting it flambé until the flames died down. It was a good whim to follow, adding complexity to the finished sauce.

(Plus, flambéing gives you an excuse to both play with fire and take a sip of booze while you work. Double win.)

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The next issue was sauce quantity. Some recipes call for as much as a full quart of liquid in the pot, perhaps based on the idea that more moisture to start will lead to moister pork in the end. But, as my Ultra-Crisp-Skinned Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder recipe proves, it's perfectly possible to get supremely moist pork even with no added liquid at all. Adding excess sauce during cooking is the prime culprit in the wet-pork issue. We're after pulled pork here, not ragù.

The other interesting factor I noted was that no matter how bright and flavorful my sauce was to begin with, it would lose that brightness over the course of cooking. Sure, it picked up some great pork flavor, but the tanginess was gone. Turns out I could fix both of these problems with one simple solution: Don't add the sauce all at once.

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By starting with only half the sauce, along with a small amount of chicken stock, and then adding the remaining half after shredding the pork, I ended up with pork that had better texture and sauce that had brighter flavor. A small splash of good-quality liquid smoke (I like Wright's brand because it contains nothing but real smoke and water) simulates that true smoked flavor.

By the way, just as it's possible to overcook beef in a beef stew, it's quite possible to overcook pulled pork. You want your pork to be pull-apart tender—an indication that the connective tissue binding muscle fibrils together has broken down—but not so cooked that the muscle fibrils themselves start to lose structure and turn to mush.

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As soon as the pork pulls apart in easy chunks, you're done.

I'd nailed the moistness of the pork and the flavor of the sauce, but there was still a little something lacking: texture. Whether indoors or out, I like my pulled pork to have a combination of moist meat and crunchy bark. This was another easy fix: Orienting the pork fat (or skin) side up and taking the lid off of the Dutch oven for the last hour of cooking allowed the exposed surface of the pork to brown and crisp into a dark bark.

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Subsequently shredding that pork and mixing the bark in with it all gave me the texture I was looking for.

At this stage, you could take this pork in any direction you like. Mix it with a vinegary, Eastern North Carolina–style barbecue sauce. Shred it and stuff it into tacos with salsa. Maybe go with a mustard-style sauce.

In this case, I stuck with the sweet-and-tangy, Kansas City–style sauce I'd already started with.

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After skimming the excess fat off the surface of the liquid in the Dutch oven and adding the rest of my barbecue sauce to the pot, I folded in the pork, adding a little more vinegar to help brighten up the richness of the meat and stirring it around to try to get some of the great flavor in the browned juices around the side of the pot.

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Despite giving away mountains of pulled pork to neighbors, my wife and I and the dogs were on a steady pulled pork sandwich diet for over a week, which helped me to make one last observation: From the moment you mix the shredded pork with the sauce, the pulled pork is on a steady decline. At first, it tastes as it should: moist pork, flavored with a tangy barbecue sauce. After it rests in the sauce and gets reheated the next day, however, it more closely resembles that wet, ragù-style pulled pork I'm used to seeing in slow cookers. The flavor is there, but the texture starts to suffer.

My advice? Keep the sauce and the pulled pork separate, dressing only what you'll eat in one go. (For some of you out there, that may be all of it.)

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P.S. Cheesesteaks are just swell, but let's take bets on how many feather-ruffled folks jump straight down to the comments section before reading through the article, shall we?