Pulled Pork Sandwich with Carolina Style BBQ Sauce
If you eat pork, then most likely you have had a “Pulled Pork” sandwich at some time or another.
The roots of Pulled Pork can be traced to the southeastern coastal states where indigenous peoples were slow smoking game over open fires to help preserve the meat. Early Spanish settlers adapted the method using cheap and easy to maintain pigs as the main protein source. As more people came into the areas they added their own cultural tastes with seasonings and condiments until each region had its own cooking style and sauce preference. Still one thing is common to all — the use of the low and slow cooking method.
Now that Pulled Pork is enjoyed all over the country, many home cooks have found that one sure fire method of achieving low and slow cooking is using their trusty ‘crock pot‘ or slow cooker.
So why am I writing about slow cooker Pulled Pork… and does it have anything to do with Lista’s Italian Cuisine? Not much — but I recently chatted with a co-worker about her slow cooker Pulled Pork disaster and thought I could share some of my experience and methods and maybe help some of you have a successful Pulled Pork experience (after all it’s a popular food served during the football season).
But first let me reminisce. Not about Lista’s Restaurant, but about my very first experience eating Pulled Pork nearly 30 years ago. We were attending the Renaissance Faire in Sterling NY with some friends and while walking around, taking in all the sight and sounds, I first smelled — and then saw a vendor selling pork sandwiches and I decided I had to have one. The sandwich consisted of barbecued Pulled Pork topped with pineapple coleslaw stuffed into a pita pocket. It had some clever (Faire appropriate) name which I can’t recall… but the taste was amazing and I still remember how tender and juicy the pork was and how the tangy sauce and crunchy coleslaw complimented it so well. And I couldn’t wait to figure out how to make it myself. And that’s when I started learning how to make delectable Pulled Pork and the various cooking methods out there.
Although I have tried different ways to make my Pulled Pork at home, by far my favorite and easiest method is to use my trusty slow cooker. For me, using the slow cooker is not only convenient it saves energy (some studies say half the cost of a conventional oven). And slow cookers are considered safe to leave unattended for long period (assuming there are no defects such as a damaged cord or heating element) and that allows me to use my time for other things… like writing this blog.
When making Pulled Pork you need the right cut of pork, and by far the most popular, economical, and flavorsome cut is the pork shoulder or “Boston butt” roast. The shoulder roast comes from the upper shoulder (the lower portion is called picnic) and is sold both bone-in and boneless (I prefer bone-in because it imparts more flavor) and is generally found to weigh from 5 to 12 lbs. The shoulder has a combination of leaner “light” meat and fattier “dark meat” in the same roast. This combination provides the needed moisture to keep the meat tender during the long cooking process — and it gives the final dish a nice even texture and flavor.
The pork shoulder roast will also have a “fat cap” or layer of white fat covering one side… and that’s a good thing since this fat is what keeps the Pulled Pork from drying out during the slow cooking. When you’re done cooking you can very easily remove the excess fat before shredding it for serving.
At our local grocery chain you can buy a very nice bone-in pork shoulder roast at an extremely reasonable price year round, however, the roasts are often too big for some families and they end up buying a smaller roast at a much higher price. Here’s a tip: buy the larger roast and take it to the meat counter and ask to have it cut in half, which they will gladly do at no extra charge. Now you have two smaller roasts at the lower price and you can cook one immediately and freeze the other for another time.
Now that you know what to buy, you need to know how to cook it. The recipe below is my go-to way of making tender, juicy Pulled Pork in a slow cooker. My slow cooker holds 7 quarts so it can accommodate a large roast. I like to season my pulled pork very simply with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper — but you can add a complex rub (homemade or store bought) and/or aromatics (garlic, onions, herbs, bay leaf, etc.) if you want. I do add some broth to the slow cooker and often 1-2 teaspoons of liquid smoke flavoring. You can add whatever liquid you prefer water, beer, cola, etc. and it will still cook the same — only the flavor profile will change.
Slow Cooker Puller Pork
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 6 hours
Serves: about 16 servings
8 lbs Bone-in Pork Shoulder Roast
1 -2 TBSP Kosher Salt
1 TBSP Freshly Ground Black Pepper
2 cups Beef Broth
1-2 tsp Liquid Smoke Flavoring (optional)
Cooking Spray – as needed
1. Remove roast from packaging, rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Poke the roast all over with a carving fork or small sharp knife. Season generously on all sides with salt and pepper (or whatever seasoning you choose).
3. Spray crock of slow-cooker with cooking spray (or use a slow-cooker liner). Pour broth (or other liquid) into crock, add liquid smoke if using and stir. Place the seasoned roast fat side up in crock, cover and set to high. (Make sure the slow-cooker is plugged in!)
4. Cook on high for 3 hours and then cook on low for 3 more hours (if you want to cook while you’re at work, etc. cook on low the entire time). You might want to turn the roast over after 4-5 hours to ensure even cooking – but this is not necessary.
5. After 6 hours the roast should be fork tender and bone easily removed. If not continue to cook for 1-2 more hours.
6. Carefully remove whole roast and place fat side up on large platter or rimmed baking tray. Using tongs remove the bone and discard, remove as much of the excess fat as possible and discard. Using tongs or a couple of forks, gently “pull” the meat apart into shreds or small bite-size pieces. Add some of the cooking liquid if you want to have the Pulled Pork moister (especially if you are serving it without added sauce).
7. Serve as is, or on rolls — adding your favorite style BBQ sauce, gravy or condiments.
After I cooked my Pulled Pork I decided to use some of it to make a version of a “Cuban” sandwich similar to one served at a popular local BBQ joint. This is by no means an authentic Cubano but it came out pretty tasty and was a nice change from a typical Pulled Pork on a roll with sauce.
Dan’s Pulled Pork “Cubano”
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
1 cup Leftover Pulled Pork (with out sauce)
4 slices Deli Smoked Ham
4 slices Deli Swiss Cheese
1/4 cup Dill Pickle Slices
1-2 TBSP Softened Butter
2 Sandwich Rolls (split) or 4 slices Good Quality Bread (we used Gluten Free)
2 TBSP Mayo
1 TBSP Yellow Mustard
Pinch of Cayenne Pepper
1. First, blend the mayo, mustard and cayenne in a small bowl. Spread this evenly over the cut sides of the rolls.
2. Next layer the other ingredients on the two roll bottoms in this order: one slice Swiss cheese, 1/2 cup pulled pork, 2 slices ham, a few dill pickle slices, then another slice of Swiss cheese. Place the roll top over the filling and spread a little butter on the outside of the roll.
3. Heat a skillet over medium heat until hot. Place the two sandwiches side by side with the buttered top down on the hot pan. Spread a little butter on the bottom of the sandwiches and place a weight on them to press them down while they cook. [You can use a foil wrapped brick, another heavy skillet – like cast iron, or one of those sandwich presses that sometimes come with a grill pan.]
4. Grill the sandwiches until they are brown and crisp on the one side, then flip them over and press them down to grill the other side until it is crispy and the filling has warmed through.
5. Remove sandwiches from pan, cut at an angle and serve with some plantain chips.
So there you have it, a basic recipe for making delicious Pulled Pork in your slow cooker and a variation on a classic “Cuban” sandwich to help utilize some of the leftovers. If you’ve struggled making Pulled Pork or if you’ve never attempted it, I think this simple method will yield great results.
Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”