How to make perfect pulled pork

  • By Natalie Hardwick - Deputy editor - bbcgoodfood.com

Tender, juicy pulled pork has well and truly made its trotter mark on UK dinner tables – but what’s the secret to creating an authentic American version? Read our guide to seasoning, slow-cooking, serving and everything in between.

How to make perfect pulled pork

Slow-cooked meat is no new thing, but there’s something about US-style pulled pork that has piqued our appetites in a big way. But as familiar as we now are with this Stateside great, it’s still worth remembering that some details are easily lost in the long journey across the Atlantic. Truly authentic pulled pork is actually a barbecue dish, cooked for hours over a charcoal pit until it falls apart, ready to be easily shredded or ‘pulled’ apart to serve.

As so many of us are woefully bereft of a huge outdoor fire pit, you’ll be pleased to know even Americans admit it can be made in a standard domestic oven – although, like any national dish, there’s plenty more debate to be had about seasonings, temperatures and serving methods.  Our kitchen team sat down with their best Stetsons on to come up with our ultimate cooking tips. Would we dare serve our version to a South Carolinan? You bet...

Watch and learn... 

Watch our video guide to making perfect pulled pork:

Choice cuts

BBQ pulled porkPork shoulder is ideal for pulling purposes. It has an optimum fat content that yields to create tender, melty meat, but it’s essential you cook it slowly to allow the protein to break down properly. Take it out of the oven too early and you may as well dine on a pair of wellies. Americans prize the Boston butt cut of pork, which comes from the upper part of the shoulder, but whichever hunk of meat you use, it's up to you whether it has the bone in. Some people say bone-in helps the meat stay moist, but lots of off-the-shelf supermarket shoulder comes boneless, which is fine. As ever, buy the best quality meat you can afford.

Under the skin

Pork shoulder that’s due to be pulled should always be skinless to allow the flavours to permeate. You can ask your butcher to do this for you, but if you’re removing it yourself, don’t let the skin go to waste – roast it until crunchy and serve it on the side or as a snack. This pork crackling straw recipe gives timings and ideas for seasoning.

Rub it in

You might be of the belief that marinade equals juiciness, but in the case of pulled pork the tenderness is created using a dry rub. Senior food editor Barney gave us a hot tip, direct from the States – according to an old saying, “there isn’t an animal on earth that isn’t made better with one third brown sugar, one third salt and one third smoked paprika.” Kudos to that. 

Overnight delight

Pork shoulderIf you have the time, try mixing sea salt and sugar in a bag and rub it over the pork before leaving it in the fridge overnight. Make sure you rinse it off thoroughly before putting it in the oven with the spices of your choice or you’ll have super-saline meat, and not in a good way. If you’re cooking pulled pork in one go, American food writer Jennifer Joyce recommends searing the shoulder in a non-stick pan before adding rub.   

Sugar, spice, all things nice

The heavenly triumvirate of salt, sugar and paprika gives you a subtle flavour that allows the pork to sing with its own pure flavour, and for you to get more creative with your serving sauces. However, if you want to ramp up the flavour during cooking, food editor Cassie recommends adding garlic powder, mustard powder, cayenne pepper or cumin to your dry rub. We also have a jerk pulled pork recipe, should you fancy the tropical taste of the Caribbean.

Water, baby…

Pulled pork in foilJennifer Joyce positions her prepared pork shoulder onto a wire rack, which is then placed in the baking tin. Before putting it in the oven, she pours water in the bottom of the tin, then wraps the whole thing tightly in foil to allow a steamy micro-atmosphere to form, safeguarding against dreaded dry meat syndrome.

Low and slow

The cookery team recommend cooking your meat for two hours per kilogram on a super-low heat, around 140C, or gas mark 2-3. Barney says it’s ready to be taken out when it can be easily pulled apart using a fork.

Super shredder

If you’ve followed our recipes and tips to a tee, the pulling stage should be a doddle, but take a tip from the team and separate your cooked meat using two forks, pushing the meat from the centre outwards. Discard any fatty bits and be careful not to over-shred it, so leave some nice big chunks of meat intact to cater for personal preference.

Feeling saucy

Jerk pulled porkIf you’ve followed Jennifer’s water bath technique, you should be left with some lovely cooking liquor from the water evaporating and meldling with the porky cooking juices. Drain this from the pan and leave it to cool, then skim off the excess fat and mix it with a piquant, US-style sweet barbecue sauce. We love this chipotle molasses sauce.

Bread ahead

Assistant food editor Miriam says pulled pork is best served with sweet bread. Our homemade brioche buns can take up to three hours to fully prepare, fully rise and bake, but as an enriched, slightly sweet, super moist bun, they can’t be beaten. US-style cornbread would work as an alternative to a burger-style serving, and its dense, porous texture is great for soaking up meat juices.

The crunch bunch

All that pillowy pork and bread needs to be levelled out with something with bite – enter coleslaw, everyone’s favourite shredded salad. We have more slaw'spiration than you can shake a box grater at, but here are some of our favourite versions…

Coleslaw with yogurt tahini dressing
Red cabbage & fennel slaw
Cheese & chive coleslaw
Celeriac coleslaw

A touch of authenticity

BBQ pulled porkWe mentioned earlier that fire pit cooking is off the agenda for most of us Brits – we’re lucky to get the barbecue up and running at all some summers. But if you lucky enough to utilise the garden grill, you can use the flames to finish off pulled pork. Follow this clever James Martin recipe and prepare the dish in advance by slow cooking a rinded piece of pork shoulder for several hours in the oven. Once your barbecue is ready for cooking, place the slow-cooked hunk onto the grill for fifteen minutes on each side, giving it a deliciously smoky, charred finish. Be careful not to let any of the meat slip between the grills and plummet fatefully into the white-hot coals.

Pull the other one...

Chicken, lamb and beef can all be ‘pulled’ too. Cassie’s pulled pomegranate lamb definitely isn’t authentically American, but it’s treated in much the same way in terms of the cooking process, although she switches the sweet, smoky flavours of pulled pork for North African aromatics and a juicy fruit glaze. The best cut of beef for pulling is brisket – this deep, dark firecracker beef brisket is ideal for bonfire season as it’s treacley sauce tastes delicious over perfect baked potatoes. Pulled chicken is quicker to cook, but there’s a higher risk of it drying out, so always use the brown thigh meat as it has the highest fat content.

Try it yourself...

BBQ pulled pork
Maple-mustard pulled pork
BBQ pulled pork sandwich
Jerk pulled pork with banana salsa
Pulled pork with Mexican almond mole sauce

Are you a fan of pulled pork? We’d love to hear your experiences of cooking and eating it…

Comments, questions and tips

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swerver67
15th Apr, 2016
I have done this for at least 10 years so knowing of it being so popular now does not surprise me. Always have it with Chilli Apple Sauce in soft finger rolls and you won't disappoint anyone you serve it to. BUT don't take the skin off - oil it and rub lots of salt in and put into a really hot oven on a rack to crisp. After 30 mins turn the oven down to mark 2 or equivalent and cover whole pan with foil. After about 4 hours remove the foil and turn the oven back up to max for about 30 mins..Take the joint out and let it rest (after removing the crackling) covered with the same piece of foil.Then just enjoy in rolls with the sauce on, salad, coleslaw and wedges. Very good at Summer parties.
SusieQ100
25th Feb, 2016
Could you make this in a slow cooker??
swerver67
15th Apr, 2016
I can't see why not and I think it night take quite a while but all you can do is try.
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