Why It Works
- Homemade barbecue sauce has better flavor than bottled versions.
- Cooking pork in a Dutch oven allows the meat to slowly get tender, while developing a bark-like crust on top.
- Adding only half of the barbecue sauce at the beginning keeps the pork from coming out too wet.
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 a pulled pork recipe include 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 vacationer 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. 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.
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.
Ditch the Slow Cooker for A Dutch Oven for the Best Pulled Pork
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.
"I'll trade the convenience of countertop cooking for more flavor any day"
First was to use a Dutch oven placed in the oven instead of a slow cooker, which only heats from the bottom and cooks by simmering and steaming. A Dutch oven in the oven heats from all sides, allowing browning to occur on the surface 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, as 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 sauce and mix up a quick homemade barbecue sauce: 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.
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.)
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 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, 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 brightness over the course of cooking. Sure, it picked up some great pork flavor, but the tanginess was gone. I could fix both of these problems with one simple solution: Don't add the sauce all at once.
By starting with half the sauce and a small amount of chicken stock, 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 has broken down—but not so cooked that the muscle fibers themselves start to lose structure and turn to mush.
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.
Subsequently shredding the pork and mixing the bark in 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, or 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.
After skimming excess fat off the surface of the liquid in the Dutch oven and adding the rest of my barbecue sauce and a splash of vinegar to the pot, I folded in the pork.
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 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, it 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.)
5 tablespoons dark brown sugar (2 1/4 ounces; 65g)
1 tablespoon (about 9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed
Large pinch cayenne pepper
1 whole bone-in or boneless pork butt (5 to 7 pounds; 2.25 to 3kg)
1 cup ketchup (8 ounces; about 225g)
1/2 cup dark molasses (4 ounces; about 115g)
1/2 cup (120ml) cider vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons (30ml) Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon (15ml) high-quality liquid smoke, such as Wright's (see Note)
1 tablespoon (15ml) brown mustard
2 teaspoons (10ml) hot sauce
1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely minced (about 6 ounces; 170g)
1 cup (240ml) bourbon
1/2 cup (120ml) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock or water
Adjust oven rack to lower position and preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). Combine sugar, salt, paprika, cumin, black pepper, coriander, ground fennel seed, and cayenne pepper in a small bowl and mix. Season pork with 2 to 3 tablespoons spice mixture, making sure to rub it on all sides. Reserve remaining spice mixture.
Whisk together ketchup, molasses, half of cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, mustard, and hot sauce in a medium bowl. Whisk in remaining spice mixture. Set aside.
Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add pork and cook, turning occasionally, until well browned on all sides, about 5 minutes total. (Pork will brown fast because of the sugar. Do not let it burn.) Add onion and cook, stirring and scraping up browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until softened, about 2 minutes.
Turn off burner and add bourbon. Relight burner. Carefully ignite the bourbon with a long match or lighter. (Stand back and make sure there is nothing flammable above it; it will produce tall flames.) Let cook until flames die out, about 2 minutes.
Make sure pork is oriented fat side up. Add half of sauce and chicken stock or water. Cover Dutch oven, transfer to oven, and cook until pork is just starting to turn tender, about 4 hours. Remove lid and continue cooking until a knife or fork shows very little resistance when twisted inside the meat and a dark bark has formed, about 1 hour longer.
Transfer pork to a large bowl, reserving liquid in pot. Using a ladle, skim off excess fat and discard. Add reserved sauce and remaining vinegar to pot and whisk to combine. When pork is cool enough to handle, shred with two forks.
Transfer shredded pork to pot and toss with sauce. (If making ahead to serve over the course of several meals, store pork and sauce separately, adding sauce only to the portion you are serving immediately.) Season to taste with more salt, sugar, liquid smoke, or cider vinegar. Serve.
Use a high-quality liquid smoke, with no ingredients other than water and smoke. Avoid brands with molasses or vinegar, as these can affect flavor. For a stronger smoke flavor, combine 2 tablespoons (30ml) liquid smoke and 3/4 cup kosher salt (7 1/2 ounces; 210g) with 1 gallon (3.75L) cold water. Submerge uncooked pork and let rest in refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 8.