This is tender, juicy, delicious, and versatile pulled pork prepared in a slow cooker — not barbecue. If you compare this to hickory-smoked, pit-cooked, whole-hog barbecue, you might be disappointed. But if you harness the ingenious method of braising pork in a slow cooker and add one extra step to ensure comparable flavor, you can come home to pounds of delicious pulled pork. Sauce it (or not) and then pile onto buns, drape over nachos, roll into burritos, spoon over rice, stir into recipes, or simply eat straight-up. You will be overjoyed.
Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork: Watch the Video
Why This Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork Is the Best
This pulled pork benefits from a delicious spice rub full of traditional ingredients you find in any good pulled pork. But rubs can rinse away in braising liquid, and with the longer cook time in a slow cooker, this is particularly an issue. To help the rub stick, the pork is briefly roasted in a screaming-hot oven before transferring it to the slow cooker. Now you've got rub that's going to stay firm, and layers of flavor only searing can provide.
A Shoulder Is a Butt
Tougher cuts of well-marbled and fatty meat – such as pork shoulder – are ideal for braising. Calling a shoulder a butt is not an anatomical anomaly. A pork shoulder is sometimes called a butt not because it brings up the rear of a pig, but because pork shoulders were once shipped in wooden kegs called butts. Whereas leaner cuts would grow tough and dry out, braised pork shoulder becomes incredibly tender and tasty.
The Slow Cooker as a Tool for Braising
Because slow cookers are designed to cook food at a consistent temperature for hours on end, they are an ideal vessel for perfect braising. To braise means to gently cook food in a little bit of flavorful liquid in a covered pot. Unlike pots set in or on a stove, you can safely leave a slow cooker unattended. You can even leave your house. Keep the cooker set to low; the high setting will boil the meat instead of braise it, so it's only a quicker trip to an undesirable outcome.
Pork shoulder self-bastes and stays moist, and is nearly impossible to overcook. After the meat is done, the fat can be skimmed off the braising liquid. For even better results, refrigerate the pork in the braising liquid overnight. The flavors meld and improve, and the fat collects on top for easy removal. This technique reaps the benefit of the fat during cooking, but reduces calories and mitigates greasiness before serving.
There's Done, and There's Ready
It's not enough to reach only a safe serving temperature when it comes to braising. Tougher cuts must be deliberately overcooked until the collagen breaks down. Pork shoulder isn't ready to serve until it is tender enough to cut with a spoon and pull apart easily with a fork or tongs.
Get Saucy or Not
The delicious defatted cooking liquid keeps the pulled pork moist, but you can replace or augment it with a finishing sauce. Barbecue sauce is a reliable and compatible choice, but don't let it limit your vision and creativity in using the meat. Pulled pork can go in many directions, so experiment with the dozens of ready-to-use finishing sauces and condiments.
How To Make Pulled Pork in the Slow Cooker
What You Need
2 tablespoons kosher salt, preferably smoked
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons dry mustard
2 teaspoons garlic powder (no salt)
2 teaspoons onion powder (no salt)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1 pork shoulder or pork butt (7 to 8 pounds with bone, 6 to 7 pounds if boneless)
2 medium onions, quartered
1 1/2 cups cane-sweetened cola (not diet)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
6-quart or larger slow cooker
- Heat the oven: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 500°F. (Use convection if you have it.) Fit a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.
- Make the rub: Place the salt, brown sugar, paprika, black pepper, chili powder, smoked paprika, dry mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, cornstarch, cayenne, and celery seed in a small bowl and mix to combine.
- Roast the pork: Pat the pork dry with paper towels. Evenly coat the meat with rub. Reserve the remaining rub. Place the meat on the wire rack fat-side up if possible. Roast until the meat is sizzling with a bit of char on the edges, about 10 minutes, but don't let the spices burn and turn acrid.
- Prep the slow cooker: Meanwhile, place the onions in a 6-quart or larger slow cooker. Sprinkle with the reserved rub. Pour in the cola, vinegar, and Worcestershire.
- Add the meat: Carefully transfer the meat to the slow cooker. (Try stabbing a fork into each end to use as handles.) Cover and cook on LOW until the meat is soft enough to pull apart with a spoon, 14 to 16 hours.
- Shred the meat: Transfer the meat to a large bowl and let stand until cool enough to handle. Pull the meat apart into large chunks or shred with a fork, discarding any bone, connective tissue, and large clumps of fat.
- Strain the liquid: Pour the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium bowl and discard the solids. If you are serving immediately, spoon off as much fat as possible from the surface. For best results, refrigerate until the fat solidifies and collects on top, then scrape off and discard the fat (keep the meat covered and refrigerated during this time).
Moisten the meat: Toss the meat with enough defatted cooking liquid to moisten. Serve the meat warm, or let cool, cover, and refrigerate to use in other recipes.
- Make ahead: The spice rub can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container at room temperature for a few months.
- Storage: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 3 months.