Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Pulled Pork Recipes and the Winner Was a Perfect 10

published Jul 9, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

I come from the South, where pulled pork is a standard go-to for all kinds of gatherings: potlucks, picnics, Memorial Day and 4th of July festivities, tailgating celebrations, and even baby or wedding showers. Stuffed into soft hamburger buns, pulled pork is always a crowd-pleaser. Most home cooks opt for non-grilled options, leaning on their slow cookers, Instant Pots, or ovens to take the pork to succulent, shred-able perfection, while grill enthusiasts insist on real-deal smoked pork ‘cue. 

I was eager to accept this assignment (1) to see if the different cooking methods would deliver equally delicious pork and (2) because pork is, by far, the favorite meat in my household. I knew that my teenage boys and husband would be eager to help me taste test, and — as pork fanatics — I would value their critiques. Could an oven-cooked roast yield pulled pork to rival one smoked on the grill? Does great pulled pork need a great spice rub, and does the meat need to be seared on the front end? 

All of these questions would be answered through my testing. As to what I was looking for, I focused on two main things: flavor and texture. I wanted the pork to taste definitively porky (meaty, rich, slightly sweet) with a moist, tender texture. Convenience and ease of prep are always nice, but those were secondary concerns for this test.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Meet Our Four Pulled Pork Contenders

Allrecipes’ Slow Cooker Texas Pulled Pork uses a vinegar-spiked sauce you stir together in the crock, requires no other prep (no browning of the meat or coating it with a spice rub), and leans on the ultimate set-it-and-forget-it, convenient cooking appliance to get the job done.

Tastes Better from Scratch’s Pulled Pork also goes for ease by using the Instant Pot to cook the meat quickly so that you get pulled pork on your plate in about two hours. It asks you to rub the meat ahead of time with a spice rub, and when it comes time to cook, it also suggests that you sear the meat. Oh, and the braising liquid is none other than Coke!  

The Pioneer Woman’s Pulled Pork uses a generous amount of spice rub that you put on the pork the night before. When it’s time to cook, you arrange the pork on a bed of halved onions in a roasting pan and cook in the oven for seven hours. The meat drippings cook with bottled barbecue sauce at the end and get stirred into the meat.

The Neelys’ Pulled Pork Sandwiches is the only recipe in the bunch that’s cooked on a grill. It uses wood chips to add smoky flavor to the meat, and it calls for a spice rub on the pork as well as a ketchup-based homemade barbecue sauce that incorporates some of the spice rub for zing.

How I Tested the Pulled Pork Recipes

I chose pork shoulder/butt roasts with similar marbling and comparable fat caps and opted for conventional pork (organic meat can sometimes be much leaner). For three of the recipes, I used boneless pork roasts as instructed; for the Pioneer Woman recipe, I used a bone-in roast because that’s what she used when she made the recipe on her show. I was able to plan the testing so that I did it all in one day, with the recipes timed to complete at around the same time so my family and I could taste the dishes side by side. 

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

1. The One for Grill Enthusiasts: The Neelys

I truly wanted to love this recipe — and have a way to make that happen. The spice-rubbed pork butt cooks for many hours (it took 8 hours for me) at a low temperature on the grill, with wood chips added periodically for smoky essence. But the recipe tells you that the pork is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. True, it’s technically cooked through at that point and will give you tasty, juicy slices. But it’s not tender enough to shred, and that sort of defeats the point of pulled pork. (The simple fix is to just cook it to an internal temperature of 195°F to 205°F.)

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

2. The Easiest Option: Allrecipes

If simplicity, easy cleanup, and hands-free cooking are important to you, this recipe will be right up your alley. There’s very little prep involved: You don’t need to mix up a spice rub for the meat, you don’t need to brown the meat, and you don’t need to mix together a sauce in a separate bowl. The pork does cook to a tender, pull-able texture after just six hours on high, but I found the flavor of the meat to be a bit watered-down, the flavor of the sauce to be unbalanced, and the meat to be a little dry. I do think the meat would be great as an ingredient to incorporate into other dishes (casseroles, for example), but not necessarily as the star of the plate.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

3. The Speedy One: Tastes Better from Scratch

When you want pulled pork, and you want it now — well, you won’t exactly be able to enjoy it instantly, but you can have it in about two hours. There’s a spice rub that you can leave on the pork overnight, but you don’t have to. It can go straight into the Instant Pot with a can of Coca-Cola, the interesting choice of braising liquid (but not all that surprising to this Southerner). This recipe yields delicious, well-spiced, tender results in a fraction of the time that it usually takes to make pulled pork.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

 4. The One I’m Going to Make Again and Again: The Pioneer Woman

Just watch the accompanying video (you can fast-forward to about the two-thirds mark) to get a sense of why this recipe is so great. After an overnight rest with a spice rub and a seven-hour stint in a 300°F oven, a large pork shoulder roast comes out irresistibly tender, with moist, unctuous, mouth-watering shreds that fall off the bone. The pork cooks atop a bed of halved onions, which end up just as buttery-soft and get shredded into the meat at the end — a lovely addition. It’s ridiculously easy to make and cooks unattended for a good bit of the day, giving you plenty of time to work up an appetite and pull together some sides.