How To Make the Best Pulled Pork in the Slow Cooker

How To Make the Best Pulled Pork in the Slow Cooker

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Sheri Castle
May 3, 2018
(Image credit: Christine Han)

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.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

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.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

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

Makes about 4 pounds of pulled pork; serves 16

What You Need

Ingredients

  • 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 seeds

  • 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

  • Equipment
  • Wire rack

  • Baking sheet

  • Aluminum foil

  • Mixing bowls

  • Paper towels

  • 6-quart or larger slow cooker

  • Forks

  • Fine-mesh strainer

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 500°F. (Use convection if you have it.) Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, then fit a wire rack inside it.

  2. Make the spice rub. Place the salt, brown sugar, paprika, black pepper, chili powder, smoked paprika, dry mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, cornstarch, cayenne, and celery seeds in a small bowl and stir to combine.

  3. Brown the pork. Pat the pork dry with paper towels. Evenly coat the pork with 1/2 of the rub, then place it on the wire rack fat-side up if possible. Roast until the pork is sizzling with a bit of char on the edges, about 10 minutes, but don't let the spices burn and turn acrid.

  4. Prep the slow cooker. Meanwhile, place the onions in a 6-quart or larger slow cooker. Sprinkle with the remaining rub. Pour in the cola, vinegar, and Worcestershire.

  5. Slow cook the pork. Transfer the pork to the slow cooker. Cover and cook on the LOW setting until the pork is soft enough to pull apart with a spoon, 14 to 16 hours.

  6. Shred the meat. Transfer the pork 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.

  7. Strain the liquid. Fit a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Pour the cooking liquid through the strainer 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).

  8. 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.

Recipe Notes

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 freeze for up to 3 months.

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