Most home cooks don’t have the time or equipment to smoke a whole hog for half a day. Which is why our test kitchen’s go-to pulled pork recipe takes place in the oven, requires no overnight brining or marinating, and still delivers the complex flavors of barbecue.
For inspiration, we looked to the flavors of North Carolina barbecue, specifically the Eastern style with vinegar and chile peppers, versus the sweeter ketchup-based sauces of other regions.
Instead of the whole animal, we’re using a single cut. Both the picnic shoulder and Boston butt come from the same region of the pig, the front shoulder. In this case, I prefer the butt, which is slightly less sinewy. It also contains slightly more intramuscular fat, which leads to meltingly tender, moist pulled pork.
A boneless, skinless cut delivers excellent flavor. While, for larger cuts of pork, keeping the bone in can prevent the meat from drying out, for a relatively small pork butt, boneless tastes just as good, with the added benefit of a faster cook time.
Many pulled pork recipes happen in a slow-cooker, but we found that this develops significantly less caramelization than an oven. We don’t sear the pork before roasting it, because the outside of the pork still caramelizes, even if it hasn’t been seared ahead of time, thanks to the dark brown sugar in the rub.
That all said, the secret ingredient here is the yellow onion underneath the meat. While the pork slowly cooks, sliced onions get soft and jammy. When the pork is done, it gets shredded along with the onions, resulting in a sweet, smoky, deeply savory flavor. We finish by adding cider vinegar for tang, more chili powder and black pepper for warmth, and some of that braising liquid for good measure.
Serve this as an entree along with your favorite sides (like braised greens, mac and cheese, and cornbread). Or make pulled pork sandwiches with squishy buns and cabbage slaw. You can also store the pulled pork in the refrigerator for several days. When you reheat, just add a few tablespoons of water to ensure it doesn’t dry out. —Josh Cohen
Test Kitchen Notes
This is one of Food52’s Best Recipes. In this series, our test kitchen sets out to create the ultimate version of your favorite recipes. Let us know on the Hotline if there's one you'd love to see next. —The Editors
- Prep time 1 hour
- Cook time 4 hours
- Serves 6 to 10
chili powder, divided
freshly ground black pepper, divided
3 to 4 pounds
boneless, skinless Boston pork butt (you can substitute pork shoulder if needed)
medium yellow onion, cut into half moons ¼-inch thick
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a small mixing bowl, combine the salt, brown sugar, coriander, and smoked paprika, along with 1 teaspoon of chili powder and 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Rub this spice mix on the outside of the pork.
- Add the onion and water to the bottom of a large Dutch oven. Place the pork atop the onions, making sure that the fat-cap is facing up. Place the lid on the Dutch oven and cook the pork in the oven for 3 ½ to 4 hours.
- When it’s ready, the pork should be very tender and shreddable with a fork. Remove from the oven and let it rest for 30 minutes.
- Transfer the pork to a large mixing bowl. Using a spider or slotted spoon, separate the cooked onions from the braising liquid—but don’t toss the liquid, we’re using it soon. Add the onions to the pork and shred them together using two forks.
- Add ½ cup of the braising liquid to the pork mixture, along with 1 teaspoon of chili powder, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and ¼ cup cider vinegar. Taste and add more salt and/or vinegar as necessary.