Pulled pork is easier than you think
By Genevieve Ko
Inside the white brick walls of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina, past the bright dining room, is the pit room, the walls, floors and equipment shades of copper and black. There, pork slowly barbecues over hardwood that has been burned into coals, prepared with the craft that Scott, a chef and a founder of the restaurant, learned from his family.
The meaty smoke was as heavy as a wool blanket and smelled so good, I wanted to gather a handful of air and eat it. Watching the cooks kindle the embers, mop racks of ribs with sauce and turn enormous sides of meat, it quickly became clear that true whole hog barbecue is best left to pitmasters.
The rest of us may not be able to capture the woodsy nuances of pit-smoked pork, but anyone can prepare and share the joy that is pulled pork. Spice-rubbed pork shoulder cooked slowly with low heat sweetens naturally and eventually falls apart with a gentle nudge. It takes time for the meat to soften, but the energy and hours you put in can range widely.
A slow cooker makes for the easiest preparation, and a pressure cooker turns out the fastest version, but for anyone lured by fire — with a whole day to spare — a backyard charcoal grill version of pit cooking is within reach. It takes 14 hours or so, and the tending required can be relaxing or stressful, depending on, well, you.
But if you don’t have a day to dedicate to smoking meat — or, let’s be honest, the desire — you can easily replicate the taste without the commitment.
What’s amazing about wood smoke is that it infuses raw meat right away, so letting it swirl around a fat-marbled shoulder for even an hour gives pork a halo of that unmistakable barbecue scent. This is my preferred method, especially for parties. Set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling, then push the glowing coals to one side before putting the pork on the other. Toss fragrant wood chips and chunks over the coals, and quickly close the lid, sliding the vents open a sliver.
After an hour or two, you can transfer the pork to a Dutch oven and pour in a half-inch of water, stock, soda or cider, slipping in onions or garlic if you like. Once you cover the pot and put it in the oven, you can leave it alone until the pork collapses.
You can also skip outdoor smoking altogether and leave the pork in the oven from start to finish. An initial blast of dry high heat caramelizes it before low heat tenderizes the meat. You can ignore the pork during those hours of slow baking, then return to it for a quick run under the broiler at the end. That will give the meat a little smokiness and create crispy bits.
The Southern dish “pulled pork” is often doused with barbecue sauce. But I see its tender shredded meat as an opportunity to experiment with seasonings and other sauces. Lately, I’ve enjoyed hot ground chile in the rub and mild dried chiles in the braising liquid, which I blend into sauce. This preparation is as inspired by pulled pork as it is by carne con chile rojo, and it works just as well between buns as it does wrapped in tortillas.
The natural sweetness of pork shoulder means it can take on a variety of flavors, so you’ll always end up with a dish everyone loves. That it can take as little as half an hour of your attention or become a leisurely day cooking outside is just another reason to make it anytime you want.
This is party eating — and still easy enough to pull off for dinner whenever you want. Saucy and satisfying, it’s the type of dish that feels festive. Pulled pork from the American South ranges in styles, but usually balances the natural sweetness of the meat, slowly cooked until it slouches into tenderness, with tanginess and spice. Here, ground and whole dried chiles season the meat and blend into a sauce with fruity complexity and mild heat. The preparation is as inspired by barbecue pulled pork as it is by carne con chile rojo. That means that the glossy hunks and slivers of meat taste as good piled into buns as they do over rice or stuffed into tortillas.
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Total time: 4 1/2 hours
3 tablespoons raw or brown sugar, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon ground chipotle or other hot ground chile
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
1 (4-pound) boneless pork butt or shoulder roast
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola
10 dried guajillo chiles (2 to 3 ounces)
2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar, plus more to taste
1. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, chipotle, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, black pepper and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. If the pork came tied, untie it and unroll it. If it has a thick layer of fat, score the fat with a sharp knife. Rub the spice mixture all over the meat.
2. If you’d like to marinate the meat, place the pork fat side up in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot if the pot can fit in your refrigerator and cover. Or place the meat in a bowl and cover it, or set it in a resealable plastic bag. Refrigerate to marinate for as much time as you have, preferably overnight (and up to 1 full day).
3. If you’d like to give your meat a smoky flavor, you can smoke it for an hour or so in a charcoal grill set up for indirect grilling with wood chips strewn over the coals. Then, transfer it to a Dutch oven or pot, cover and bake as directed below.
4. If you’re not smoking your meat, you can cook it in the oven from start to finish. About 4 hours before you want to eat, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Take the pork out of the refrigerator and let stand while the oven heats. Uncover the meat. Set it fat side up, transferring it to a Dutch oven or pot if needed. Scatter the onion around the meat and sprinkle with salt. Drizzle the oil all over the meat and onion.
5. Roast until the onion browns and the pork fat crackles a bit, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, snap the stems off the chiles and discard them, then snap the chiles in half. Shake out their seeds and discard them.
6. Drop the chiles on top of the onion. Add 2 1/2 cups water, cover the pot and reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees. Cook until the meat is tender enough to fall apart when speared with a fork, about 3 1/2 hours.
7. Transfer the pork to a sheet pan. If you’d like the meat to have crispy charred bits, heat the broiler. Broil the pork until deeply browned in spots but try not to burn it. It will still be very tasty if you skip this broiling step. While the pork broils or rests, stir the vinegar into the hot cooking liquid in the pot. If you’d like, you can skim the fat off the surface of the cooking liquid. Transfer everything in the pot to a blender and blend until very smooth. Taste and add more sugar, vinegar and salt, if you’d like.
8. Slide the pork back into the pot and shred with two forks. Pour enough of the sauce over the meat to evenly coat and stir to combine. If the mixture has cooled, heat it over low until simmering. Serve hot, with any extra sauce on the side. This dish keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and in the freezer for up to 3 months. Reheat, stirring now and then, in a microwave or over medium-low heat on the stovetop.