Pulled Pork Sandwich with Carolina-Style Sauce
While the rest of the U.S. is braving record amounts of snow and ice, we're having a mild winter here in Maine – so the other day I fired up the smoker and made pulled pork for an appreciative crowd. It's an extremely simple preparation: a pork butt (which is actually the front shoulder of the pig, despite what you might have thought) is gently smoked for around 12 hours. The fat pretty much cooks away, the collagen slowly melts away, and what's left is a piece of pork that falls apart when pulled with a couple of forks (hence the name).
There are hundreds of versions of this basic formula, mostly related to regional traditions, each of which seems to have the force of downhome religion, complete with cadres of vociferous and serious defenders. Variations range from the super-pork-purists (no brining, no rub, no sauce while in the smoker, maybe a thin sauce of vinegar and red pepper flakes to be added by the diner) to more elaborate methods which include the aforementioned brines, rubs, and sauces (called "mops" if used while the pork is in the smoker).
Sauces, by the way, are another source of regional pride and potential conflict – the main difference being the question of whether the base is tomato, mustard or just vinegar. Everyone agrees, however, that the main point of the whole exercise is the taste of slow-smoked pork, and if you do anything along the way to obscure that taste you're on the wrong track. (In that vein, if you really want to learn pulled pork, step one is to smoke one with no treatments at all, so you can become personally acquainted with the unadulterated taste.)
I don't come from the land of pulled pork (which is apparently the former land of cotton, more or less) so I don't have prejudices or traditions to defend. This leaves me free to try different methods to see which can wow my friends and family most effectively. This one – no brining, with a rub, no mop, with a mustard-vinegar sauce offered on the side – is my current favorite.
One thing that all factions seem to agree on: the bun must be a cheap, fluffy, store-bought hamburger bun – no seeds, no density, no whole wheat or unbleached flours, no frills. And the complete sandwich includes a knot of plain homemade coleslaw (I recommend my Killer Coleslaw, though you might want to omit the green chilies. Avoid if possible the commercial coleslaws sold in plastic tubs or at deli counters, which all seem to have an undertone of chemical preservatives).
If you are looking to control your glucose levels or lose weight this treat has to approached cautiously. One sandwich, with 4 ounces of pork, a quarter cup of coleslaw and a tablespoon of the Carolina-style barbecue sauce is 418 calories, 27 grams of carbohydrates, 18 grams of fat and 9 Weight Watchers points. (The numbers can be cut to 357 calories, 16 grams of fat, 16 grams of carbohydrates, and 8 Weight Watchers points by omitting the top half of the bun.) This is not a disaster in the McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese class (734 calories, 45 grams of fat, 40 grams carbohydrates, 18 Weight Watchers points) but with pulled pork on hand portion control and attention to the other items in your meal plan for the day is essential if goals are to be kept in sight.
Pulled Pork Sandwich with Carolina-Style Sauce
About 16 sandwiches
You need to allow at least two days for this – or three, if you're not willing to get up at 4:00 am on smoking day.
- 1 pork butt, bone-in, about 6 pounds, with skin (see note, below)
- 16 hamburger buns
For the rub (see note)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons black pepper -- freshly cracked
- 1 tablespoons cayenne pepper
- 4 tablespoons paprika
For the Carolina-style sauce (makes about 2 cups):
- 1 cup yellow mustard
- 1/2 cup granulated no-calorie sweetener, such as Splenda
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 3/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 T chili powder
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, cracked
- 1 teaspoon white pepper, cracked
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 tablespoon hickory flavored "liquid smoke"
1. Mix all the ingredients of the rub.
2. Score the pork butt skin in a 1/2" diamond pattern. Cut deeply into the fat under the skin but try not to penetrate to the meat below. Apply the rub to all exposed surfaces. Place on a plate and refrigerate overnight.
3. Take the pork out of the refrigerator several hours before you intend to put it in the smoke, to allow it to warm up.
4. Set up smoker for indirect smoking (I use the "water method" - see Grilling Basics for setup) and fire it up. I use about 2/3 regular charcoal, such as Kingsford, and 1/3 hickory chunks that have been soaked a couple of hours. Oak or fruitwood is also good. To my taste mesquite is not the right smokewood for pulled pork. Set the pork on the rack with the skin side up. If any rub is left behind on the plate, slather it on the skin.
5. Smoke the pork for about 12 hours -- with the smoker temperature between 210º and 240º -- until the internal temperature of the pork is 190º. There are some who say that the smoke effect is minimal after the first 6 or so hours, so if you want you can experiment with finishing it in the oven set at 230º. Personally I think long smoking is the key to real satisfaction. Pork is safe to eat at 160º, but it doesn't fall apart the way we want it too for pulled pork unless it gets to 190º. And then it's only good if it gets there very slowly. Scrabble, euchre, Jim Beam, a Star-Trek marathon on cable are all are good options when you're waiting for the pork to smoke.
6. While the pork is smoking make the sauce: Combine the mustard, sweetener, brown sugar, vinegar, water, chili powder, and the three peppers. Simmer 30 minutes. Add the soy sauce, oil and liquid smoke and simmer for 10 minutes more. Sauce should be fairly thin when cooled -- add water if it''s too thick.
7. When the internal temperature of the pork has been achieved, remove the pork and let it rest, wrapped in foil, for about half an hour. Remove the skin and any fat remaining under it and set it under a broiler until crispy. Drain the skin on paper towels and chop.
8. With two forks, pull the pork into shreds. Traditionally the cracklings (the crisp skin, broiled and chopped in Step 7) are added and tossed with the meat. I serve cracklings on the side so people who need to keep their fat intake under control can choose to forgo it.
Serve immediately or refrigerate overnight. If refrigerated, put the pork in a slow-cooker set on low for about 2 hours. Alternatively, cover it tightly with foil and put it in the oven on about 140º for about 2 hours. The key to reheating is is to keep it tightly covered (to avoid drying) and heat very slowly. The slow cooker is good for a crowd because it keeps it warm and moist while people eat and then come back for more.
Pork butt. The foreshoulder of the pig includes the upper leg and shoulder joint and typically weighs 12-18 lb. It's normally divided into the boston butt (the shoulder joint) and the fresh picnic ham (leg portion). Both are suitable for pulled pork. (Most picnic hams available in the supermarket, however, are cured and so not eligible for pulled pork.) The butt typically weighs around 6 pounds and I find this is adequate for about a dozen people, assuming some are the hungry type who will eat two portions.
Getting the butt with the skin on is generally not possible in a supermarket, which is a good thing because it gives you further incentive to seek out your local organic pig farm where you can order the cuts you want the way you want them. (Factory-farm pork is not only tasteless but morally suspect, in my view. I've made my peace with the idea that animals have to die to become my food but I'm not comfortable with the idea that they have to suffer while they are alive for my sake.) Pulled pork is only as good as the pork that goes into it, so the best choice is pork from a farm that raises the pigs humanely and feeds them the traditional pig diet, heavy on whey and forage. I buy mine from Simon and Jane Frost, who operate Thirty-Acre Farm in Whitefield, Maine. I met them at my local farmers' market, which is a good place to start your search.
Rub. The rub used in this recipe is a traditional formulation that was popularized as "All-South Barbeque Rub" by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby in their excellent book The Thrill of the Grill.