How to Make Pulled Pork in the Oven
I know. This is dangerous territory for a Yankee Mouse to tread. Let me say right now: I make no claims to being a barbecue expert. But, I knew I wanted to make pulled pork. I also knew that our grill wasn’t set up, and we don’t have a smoker yet (yet!). I figured, “OK, it’s a pork shoulder. I’ll braise it.” And that’s where it all started.
In the end, this was a very happy experiment that turned into one downright heavenly piece of pig.
This pulled pork started with something I saw on the Food Network. Cola and condensed milk, eh? Interesting. And the results certainly looked delicious.
I thought about it for a few days before I broke down and bought the pork shoulder. Then I consulted a handful of my favorite cookbooks and cruised around the interwebs searching for info on pulled pork.
I took what I learned and, true to form, made the rest up and hoped for the best. (Hey, sooner or later, everyone plays mad scientist in the kitchen.)
As it turns out, it was more than a decent gamble. The meat was moist, tender, and just a little bit sweet. (I know, with all that sugar, you’d think it would be cloying and sticky, but it wasn’t.)
I infused a couple cups of the braising liquid with some vinegar, tomato paste, and chili flakes for a thin, piquant sauce. The combination was utterly delicious.
All about pulled pork
There are a million ways to make pulled pork out there. (Please chime in!)
Let’s start with the meat.
The most common cut used is pork shoulder, sometimes called Boston butt or picnic shoulder. Check out my Garlic & Herb Roasted Pork Shoulder for more info on the cut. For this dish, the pork shoulder is cooked until it’s so tender that you can literally pull it apart with your hands.
Pork shoulder is great because it’s usually really cheap. And there’s a reason for that. Or several, rather.
It’s tough as hell. It has a lot of connective tissue. It’s fatty. It’s huge to the point of being a little unwieldy.
But cook it long enough, and you can coax it into a meltingly tender, mouthwatering hunk of hog.
On to the sauce.
Pulled pork varies from region to region in the U.S. In Tennessee, it’s enveloped in a tomato-based barbecue sauce. Go east, and folks in North Carolina drench theirs in a tangier, vinegar-based sauce.
I did the latter, again, kind of on a whim. I’ve included my rough recipe. But by all means, this would be equally delicious tossed with your favorite barbecue sauce.
A note on ingredients for pulled pork
This recipe calls for 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk—which is milk that’s been cooked down, then enriched with 40 to 45 percent sugar. It’s thick and syrupy, and is a common ingredient in candy and baking.
Don’t confuse it with evaporated milk, which is canned milk with 60 percent of the water removed. Evaporated milk doesn’t have additional sugar.
For the cola, I used a bottle of regular Coke. Don’t swap in any kind of diet cola. The fake sugar will be utterly disgusting when it reduces.
Don’t do this every day (a.k.a. official disclaimer)
I’ll beat you to the punch: I can’t imagine this is good for you.
Nothing with “2 liters of Coke” as an ingredient could possibly be classified as healthy. But since I doubt you’ll be eating this every day, I’m not that worried.
Oven-Braised Pulled Pork
1 bone-in pork shoulder, about 7 lbs.
1 large onion, peeled and diced
kosher salt for browning the pork
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk (*not* evaporated milk)
2 liters cola (I used a bottle of Coke)
1 tsp. Aleppo chili flakes (or other chili flakes)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. garlic powder
Tomato Vinegar Sauce
2-3 cups sauce from the pork
~1 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. Aleppo chili flakes
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 Tbls. tomato paste
Serves about 8
Sear the pork shoulder
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Grab your pork shoulder. Leave the skin on. Leave the bone in. Sprinkle it on all sides with a little kosher salt.
Drizzle a little olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. I used my trusty Big Red Pot (a.k.a. a 9-quart enameled cast-iron dutch oven). Set it on the stove over high heat for a minute. When the oil is hot enough to shimmer, add the pork shoulder.
Sear it like this for a few minutes over high heat, until it develops a nice brown crust on the bottom.
Then flip it over and sear the other side.
When both sides are nicely browned, remove the pork from the pan for a minute. I use my grandmother’s poker (technical term, I know) to do this. It’s one of the best, meanest-looking kitchen implements I have, and it’s the ideal thing for lifting a heavy roast.
Assemble the braise
Add the chopped onion to the pot. Give it a stir and cook for a few minutes on medium-high heat to lightly brown it.
Then pour in the cola. The whole bottle. It feels totally ridiculous and wrong, I know, but just go on and dump the whole bottle in. I had a full-blown giggle fit by the time I was done. (And also, I was thinking that ginger ale would be a really good substitute.)
Next, pour in the condensed milk.
Stir it around to combine the milk with the cola. (Admittedly, this isn’t the best looking stuff at this point. Never fear. The pork will be wonderful.)
Toss in the chili flakes and garlic powder. Stir to combine.
And finally, put the beast back in the pot, skin side up.
Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid. Slide it carefully into your preheated oven. Bake for 3 1/2 to 4 hours at 350 degrees.
Let the braised pork cool
When you pull the pot out of the oven after about 4 hours, your pork will look about like this (still not very appealing, I know):
Give it a test to be sure that it’s done. Grab a fork, and pull at the edge of the meat. It should separate easily. (If it feels like you couldn’t shred it with your bare hands, cover it back up and bake it for another 15 minutes, then test again.)
When the pork is done, carefully transfer it from the pot a large platter or bowl.
Set it aside on the counter until its cool enough to handle.
Make the sauce for the pulled pork
Now, what you do from here depends on what kind of sauce you want on your pulled pork. If you’re using your favorite barbecue sauce, skip to the pork shredding, below.
If you want to try my sauce based on the braising liquid, here’s how to do that. Once you make the basic sauce, you can tweak it to suit your particular taste. (Toss in more vinegar, garlic, chili flakes, etc.)
Strain the sauce carefully. (It’ll still be really hot.)
Discard those solids.
You’ll wind up with a ton of juice.
Put 2-3 cups of the juice in a medium pot. Add the rice wine vinegar, garlic powder, chili flake, kosher salt, and tomato paste. Whisk to combine well.
Bring the sauce to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning if you like.
Mine looked about like this.
Shred the cooked pork
When your pork is cool enough to handle, it’s time to pull it apart. Remove the skin and the fat that’s left beneath it. (Resign yourself now: You’re going to get your hands sticky.)
Your pork will look about like this.
With two forks, start to pull the meat off the bone.
Remove and discard any large chunks of fat or gristle you find.
When you’re done, you’ll wind up with a pile of meat like this:
And a pile of garbage like this. Toss all this stuff. It’s more than given up all its flavor.
Pull the large chunks apart further with your hands, so that you have a bowl of shredded pork.
(At this point, your kitchen should smell amazing. If you have a dog, he’ll probably be giving you the crazy eye.)
Put the shredded pork in a bowl. Ladle your sauce over the meat. Toss it with tongs to distribute the sauce. It’s even better the next day.
I served my pulled pork in hot dog buns, with a little chipped cilantro.