Updated: Oct 20
Many inventions occur near the intersection of Accidental Avenue and Necessity Street… exactly where I found my own way to make pulled pork.
My experience as an over-the-road trucker not only gave Andrea and me a priceless look at all of America in granular detail, it also sparked within my brow a new pair of late-life fascinations– Civil War history, and Barbecue. Strong feelings about both are never far beneath the surface in the Land of Cotton, NASCAR, and SEC Football… and so– at the risk of insulting every man, woman, and child (and their pets) south of the Mason-Dixon Line enough to ignite an armed rematch– I present here a Yankee’s hack for making foolproof pulled pork. But first, some background…
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The worldwide Canons of Cookery include many a tenet based more on folklore than accepted science… none more so, perhaps, than American Barbecue, a mish-mash of cultures (as in Old-World vinegar and pig meet New-World tomato and pepper) and techniques (a somewhat blurred continuum of smoking/barbecuing/grilling, with a little braising thrown in.) Accordingly, there are plenty of opinions and superstitions out there regarding the best method for transforming a lowly bone-in shoulder of pork into one of the fundamental centerpieces of the BBQ genre, all generally falling within two distinct categories– one that takes place in a smoker, and the other in a crockpot or other enclosed vessel.
For the smoked version, many (but not all) recipes call for a prior overnight marination, usually in cider, followed by spicing up the shoulder with your favorite rub mix and then a long (10-12 hour) session in an enclosure with low, indirect heat (225º) and a steady stream of hardwood smoke. For this cooking method you’ll of course need a smoker, even if you have to jury-rig your patio Weber into one. Pork– especially a thick chunk like we’ll be using– is particularly forgiving to temperature variations and thus doesn’t need one of those computerized commercial smokers that requires registration with the DMV. It follows that most of the smoked recipes are quite doable even for the beginner.
And then, much later in history, there came the “slow cooker” version.
The Crockpot became a thing in the early 1970’s when more and more women were fleeing the shackles of unrelenting domestic servitude and entering the workforce. (Like my very own mother, who proudly earned her night school master’s degree in nursing around that time.) This wonderful cooking device– available, like many appliances of the era, in avocado-green– allowed a multitasking mom to insert raw meat and veggies in the morning, work all day, and then come home to the fragrance of perfectly cooked stew awaiting her and her hungry family, all without slaving over a hot stove or burning her house down.
I scored this vintage puppy for six bucks at a fabulous thrift shop in my region.
Much to the indignation of southern barbecue purists, crockpot recipes for “E-Z Pulled Pork” and the like started appearing in the fancy Yankee magazines. And not coincidentally, commercial barbecue sauces increasingly included “natural smoke flavor” to replace the precious flavor component theretofore imparted only by fire and patience… the upshot of which, taken to its logical extreme, meant that even tofu could magically become “barbecue” with a splash of such crap. It’s a wonder they didn’t haul off and shell Fort Sumter again.
So, enough with the prelude… let’s cut to the chase and get to my Sacrilegious Pulled Pork Hack– a marriage, shotgun or otherwise, of these two very different cooking techniques.
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When smoking a large cut of meat for many hours, we encounter what’s called the “stall”-- a temperature point at which the evaporation of moisture from the meat’s surface exactly negates any temperature increase from the heat imparted by the fire. Left unattended, a potentially delicious and tender shoulder of pork will be turned dry and tough. To avoid this, experienced pitmasters employ what they call a “Texas Crutch”-- wrapping the meat in butcher’s paper and/or foil to prevent the escape of moisture. However, once I was trying to make pulled pork on a tight schedule. It was stupid, I know, completely antithetical to the unwritten ethos of barbecue, and, some might say, of the South itself– don’t ever try to do ANYHING important in a hurry. In short, I had to switch over from smoking to braising in order to hasten it to surefire doneness. And by God it worked beautifully. That’s because, much more so than slow smoking, braising by definition virtually guarantees fall-off-the-bone tenderness. (See our recipe for Red Wine Pot Roast in the essay Five Easy Pieces.)
Crockpot, Slow Cooker, or Braising Pot
Spritzing Bottle (From a restaurant supply store or website)
1 Bone-in Pork Shoulder Roast
Spice Rub, either Purchased or Home-Made
(For the latter, I recommend starting with Betty Crocker’s Basic Rub– Equal proportions of Paprika, Kosher Salt, Granulated Garlic, & Brown Sugar.)
Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Yellow Onion, Chopped
Generously sprinkle the meat with your rub of choice. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight.
Set your alarm nice and early. Pull meat from fridge to let it warm up while you get your fire going. I like to get it started with glowing charcoal and then add cherry wood all day. Mix cider and cider vinegar in your spritz bottle. Pour a generous amount of cider into a small mixing bowl, which will serve as the smoker’s “humidifier.” here’s my set-up–
Try to keep the smoking temperature around 225ºF. If your smoker has a thermostat and/or allows you to run it from your phone, great. If not, no problem– since pork is so forgiving, varying between 200ºF and 250ºF is not an issue. As it smokes, periodically spritz the meat with the vinegar/cider mixture. By mid-afternoon you’ll be nearing the stall point, approximately 155º F.
Add the onion that I had you chop to the bottom of your braising pot. Add the meat and the cider that was in the smoker, where it picked up some great flavor. Add more cider if necessary. Using your instant-read thermometer as before, gently simmer it– barely bubbling– until the temperature reaches 200ºF. Turn off the heat and let it sit for a few minutes. Carefully remove meat and place in a mixing bowl.
Reduce the braising liquid (with what’s left of the onions) until it starts to noticeably thicken. This combines beautifully with your favorite barbecue sauce or, alternatively, provides a foundation for making absolutely delicious gravy for your next pork roast. (It freezes perfectly well.)
After shredding the pork and mixing it with the sauce, spread it out in your largest Pyrex dish and give it a judiciously brief broil. This will reinstate a bit of the crust– so highly prized by barbecue purists– that you lost by braising it. Dare we call this final stage… RECONSTRUCTION? Probably not a good idea within earshot of proud southerners.
Enjoy in a sandwich or all by itself.