Everyone knows that summer marks the beginning of barbecue season. But for those without big backyards or free nights to roast whole hogs, ‘cue typically means giving steak and burgers quick turns on the grill. Oddly enough, the best tool for home-cooks looking to polish their smoked-meat game is actually a regular indoor oven—even though the result, blue ribbon-approved pulled pork sandwiches, are still best eaten outdoors with juice and sauce dripping down your forearms onto the concrete pavement.
Besides tons of flavor and good bang for your buck, slow-cooked meat offers a very low failure rate. The built-in fat content that ripples through the muscle melts as it renders, essentially basting the meat on its own accord, says Jeff Lutonsky, the Oklahoma transplant who’s pitmaster at Brooklyn’s Mable’s Smokehouse.
As a result, he says, “pulled pork is really hard to mess up.”
By that logic, all slow-cooked pork butt is pretty damn good, especially in sandwich form. But we think we’ve found a particularly sure-fire formula. Whether or not you decide to break out the coals and wood chips, always make sure to turn the heat real low—you can tell your friends and family the wait’ll be well worth it.
1. The Meat
Start making the best-ever pulled pork sandwich by buying the best quality Boston butt, also referred to as pork shoulder. This is a fatty cut that aches to be cooked low and slow, and if you get the meat from a heritage pig like Duroc or Berkshire, you’ll find that each bite is unimaginably flavorful—almost sweet, says Lutonsky. A whole butt can weigh in at 10 pounds, which yields enough pork for around 30 sandwiches. Pulled pork improves after a day in the fridge, so if that changes your mind about leftovers, make the whole thing. But you can always ask your butcher to cut a smaller portion. Allow a little extra poundage if your shoulder is bone-in (always a good choice, if available). The bone, says Lutonsky, “will act as a heat conductor and help achieve a more consistent internal temperature throughout the cut of meat.”
2. Brining or Curing
These are two methods some chefs use to inject seasoning into the chunks of meat prior to cooking. Since the marbled pork cuts you’ll be using already develop so much flavor on their own, Lutonsky doesn’t bother with brining. But barbecue’s all about experimentation and piecing together your own perfect recipe, so if it’s thorough saltiness you’re after, cure by rubbing copious amounts of kosher salt and sugar all over the pork the night before you plan to cook. Discard the liquid that gathers at the bottom of the container, and then proceed with the rest of the steps.
3. The Rub
A rub is a spice mix applied to the exterior of the raw pork (including the fat on top). The rub, which you can buy or make, will contribute whatever flavor you’d like to give the pulled pork. “Incorporating smoked paprika, smoked chili powders (think chipotle peppers) in your rub adds a great hint of smoke,” says Lutonsky—an especially handy shortcut if you’re making pulled pork in the oven, not the smoker. Here’s a mix I like, which makes enough for a couple rounds of barbecuing: 1⁄4 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons paprika, 2 teaspoons smoked paprika, 3⁄4 teaspoon onion powder,1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, 2 tablespoons kosher salt, 2 teaspoons chili powder,1⁄2 teaspoon cloves, and 1⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon.
4. Baking, Grilling, and Smoking
If you don’t own a smoker, look no further than your oven for the absolute easiest solution. Set the temperature to 250 or 300°F. Put the pork, fat side up, on a foil-lined roasting pan. Cover with more foil, then put the pan in the oven. Leave it for around five hours, until the pork just melts under the slightest pressure of a fork. If you want, you can baste the pork hourly with the oil that collects at the bottom of the pan, or with a mop (see the next step). But ignoring the meat altogether is a truly solid approach. Then uncover the meat, crank the the heat to 350°F, and let it sit for a final hour and a half—a technique that yields both meltingly rich meat and a good bark, a name for the sought-after crust that develops at the top of the meat’s fat cap when exposed to the sugars of the rub.
If you don’t have a smoker but you do have a grill, you can make your pork outside. Create an indirect heat source for the meat by pushing all the lit coals to one side of the grill’s bowl and plopping the meat on the other side. Put soaked wood chips inside, then cover the grill and cook for six hours or so, following the same guidelines as below for mopping. You’ll have to replenish both coal and wood chips through the epic cook time. “No smoke, no flavor,” says Lutonksy.
5. The Mop
A mop is a liquid that’s brushed on throughout the cooking process. Use barbecue sauce straight from the jar, or thin the sauce with white wine and vinegar. But the mop has a higher purpose than taste: “Continually ‘mopping’ the butts creates a nice thick crust that can be incorporated into the pork,” says Lutonsky. “The more basting with BBQ sauce, the more bark you will get.” However, since barbecue sauce has sugar in it, all that mopping can make top of the pork butt to burn. If the color becomes too brown, cover the meat with foil.
6. Slow Cooking
A lot of home cooks sing the praises of a slow cooker when it comes to preparing pork butt, and indeed this is a decent option. The pros are that you’ll be able to braise that hunk of meat so low and so slow that it’ll fall apart before your very eyes, all the while leaving you free from babysitting your sandwich filling all day. To begin, put the rubbed pork in the slow cooker and add a tiny bit of moisture—beer, wine, or even Coke—to the bottom. Cook on low all day until the pork collapses under the pressure of your fork. There are cons, however: The texture may be slightly mushy, and even it the meat is uniformly moist, it won’t develop the bark or crackly brown edges.
First, before you even consider pulling, let the pork rest for 30 minutes. “Just like a steak or a roast, resting time allows the juices to be drawn back into the meat rather than spilling all over the plate,” says Lutonsky. Use two forks to pull chunks apart, or get messy and use your hands. Of course, you’ll have to wait until the pork has cooled enough to handle it. If you’ve successfully rendered the top of your meat into bark, chop that into strips, pull that off and set aside, then chop it and and mix the pieces into your shredded meat.
Even if you’ve had the meat cooking for hours, you might encounter portions that look a little like white meat and are harder to shred—especially if your cut comes from lower on the leg. In that case, you can whip out a knife to ease the work, but try to cut along the grain rather than chopping the meat at arbitrary angles. You can pull the meat before friends come over. Just cover the pan and return it to the oven for at least 20 minutes to warm things up again.
The meat has been basting all day in the oven, and if you’ve used a rub and a mop, each bite already packs a ton of flavor and moisture. With that in mind, you don’t need to overload it with sauce. Think of the pour as as a restrained finish rather than a gloppy addition. For six pounds of meat, you’ll want less than a cup of sauce—“just enough to lightly coat without overpowering the flavor of the meat,” says Lutonsky. Choose your favorite store-bought sauce, or brew your own with a combination of tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, and flavorful extras like chiles, coffee, or bourbon. In many pulled pork traditions, sauce should taste vinegary rather than sweet. “An easy way to get that is to just add apple cider vinegar to your favorite BBQ sauce until you achieve the consistency that you prefer,” he says.
9. The Rolls
To keep the sandwich simple and classic, Lutonsky chooses a hamburger bun, which he butters and toasts in a pan. “That crispy layer makes a solid foundation to hold a messy sandwich, and the butter adds a great, rich layer of flavor,” he says. Pile the meat onto that surface and add a little more barbecue sauce if you’d like. That’s the simplest version—and a highly respectable one at that.
But the softness of meat and roll do beg for a crunchy accent. You’ll find the needed texture in coleslaw, sliced onions, pickled jalapenos, or just regular pickles. If you’re feeling ambitious, make or buy a few topping options, then let friends assemble their own sandwiches with condiments applied exactly to their tastes. “Opinions about what should go on” a pulled pork sandwich, says the pitmaster, “run as varied as people that eat barbecue.”