Do it Right: BBQ Pulled Pork in the Crock Pot
I come from a long line of tinkerers in the kitchen. Or at least, I’m a direct descendant of the tinkerer extraordinaire. So I don’t take too seriously the category “Do it Right” that I put a lot of my recipe posts in. This just happens to be my way. If you follow the steps to yummy completion, it may end up being your “right way,” too.
As the weather turns frosty, and oppressive drifts of snow keep me from grilling outside, we lift the lid off the crock pot for a bit of wintertime improvisation. Though these pulled pork sliders go great in the summer, spring or fall, too.
This recipe grew out of my Dad’s approach to New Year’s, starting out like his traditional all-December-31st pork and sauerkraut in the slow cooker, and making a detour about eight hours in to bring it home with shredding forks, my favorite barbecue sauce, and a bun. No kraut included.
But if you do it right the recipe diverges right from the beginning, with generous marinading in dry-rub barbecue spices, and a squeeze or two of (gasp!) liquid smoke before it hits the slow cooker.
I did mention I was blocked from my beloved grill by snow, didn’t I?
Here’s how we begin.
1. Meat Meets Marinade
I think in my first years as a bachelor, and in my early years of marriage, I was most worried about my cooking not having flavor. So I probably crop-dusted anything I cooked way too much, but on the bright side, experimented with enough rubs and dashes of seasoning before, during and after cooking that I hit on what I like best. And in general, dial back to where there’s a balance between the natural flavor of the food, brought out by cooking, and the zing some select spices can lend.
But I’m always a fanatic about taking that step. Even if it’s a quick dash as the grill warms up, in the case of burgers, or a diligent few hours with steaks, it’s a formula that works for me, and so I don’t skip it.
With all-day crock-pot pork roast, the spices are going to sit on the thing, well, all day, so I don’t necessarily get all hot and hurried enough to sit it in the fridge overnight, marinading. No, I usually make sure I’m up and at it by about 8 or 8:30 that morning. If the pork roast has to defrost a bit — I prefer getting it the day before and not freezing it — I’ll actually season it during its stings in the microwave on the defrost setting. Sounds crazy and iffy, but I swear, it seems to work.
Oh, and whether you’re using pork loin, or pork roast, or pork shoulder or butt, I usually serve up about 2 to 3 lbs. of it.
2. Seriously, Sear It
You don’t need to brown or sear your meat before it soaks all day in the slow cooker, but in my sequestered winter kitchen I’m trying to recapture a bit of the char and smoke of the grill outside.
I start by letting the skillet heat up. I brush the seasoned meat lightly with olive oil, or spray the pan with cooking spray and then brown all sides of the meet, turning it with tongs.
Things can get smoky inside really quickly, so I’m usually cranking on the range van or cranking open the windows, which can be a treat on a zero-degree December day.
But the overall effect is priming the house for a day of rich cooking aromas. Ahoy!
3. Start on High, Add Smoke
As the meat is browning, I’ve already started the crock pot on high to run at least for the first hour. There’s about an inch or two of water in the pot to keep things steamy.
Just after I add the pork to the pot, I give it some generous drops of Liquid Smoke to recreate that barbecue essence. And I add some minced garlic and onions to the pot, sprinkling over the meat.
I let the whole thing work for an hour, then turn the temp to low (not removing the lid). Then let it keep on cooking for a few more hours.
4. Just Add Beer
After lunch, I like to add beer to the mix.
I usually don’t waste any expensive drinking beer on it. Or introduce any complex flavors. Just an American style lager to add some oomph to the moisture in the slow cooker.
I keep the temp on low and let it work another 3 to 4 hours.
5. Time to Shred!
About an hour or so before dinner, it’s time to lift the lid and check for doneness.
By now, a heavy, spicy aroma has permeated the house. And the steam coming off the pork roast is savory. Just a touch from a shredding fork or the special “bear claws” I’ve been setting to the task the past few years is usually enough to get it falling apart and exposing white, juicy meat beneath the charred outside.
Before digging in for keeps, I coat the pork roast in whatever barbecue sauce I’m using, enough so that it starts to permeate the shredded chunks. I prefer Sweet Baby Ray’s with a touch of honey, but the spicier, smokier alternative is Jack’s Stack from Kansas City. Really can’t go wrong.
I don’t shred it too finely or uniformly. I like to have big bites mixed with finely shredded bits that just about melt in your mouth.
6. Add a Pat of Butter
I throw on a bit more sauce on the top, then add a pat or two of butter or margarine. I find that this smooths out the flavor, toning down the spices a touch and carmelizing slightly as it oozes down to the bottom of the crock pot.
Just a half hour or and the butter has distributed throughout the sauce and the juicy pork. I give everything a stir before it’s time to spoon onto the sandwiches.
7. Dinner is Served
There’s no right or wrong way, really, to enjoy this sumptuous dish. You’ll find a few forkfuls rewarding as you get to shredding and saucing. But it’s pulled pork, so it’s likely going on a bun.
I prefer slider size. They tend to hold together better in that smaller portion, and they’re the right size for a few quick bites per sandwich.
I either go with bakery fresh slider buns, or grab the King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls. I don’t really add barbecue sauce to mine, preferring the taste right out of the pot, but I sometimes throw some cheese on the bottom of the bun, which melts deliciously after the pork is spooned on, or I top it off with jalapeno pepper rings or banana peppers for a crunch and kick.
We usually serve our pulled pork sliders with a pot of molten cheesy corn bake. If you’ve never partaken of this — Jack’s Stack serves a hot, steamy version enlivened by burnt ends — it blows any other pairing away, including potato salad or cole slaw or whatever fried potatoes you have in mind. I’ll share the recipe another time. Learn it. Love it. Draw comfort from it.