Pulled pork sandwiches – yes you can

If there is anything that would stop me from becoming a vegetarian (okay, there are many things) one of them would be the pulled pork sandwich. And carnitas. And those little grilled pork skewers you get with rice noodles and salad at a Vietnamese restaurant. The carnitas and the pork skewers always seem to taste better in the restaurant but I think you can easily approximate barbecued pulled pork at home. A real grill master would certainly beg to differ and it’s true: true barbecue is grilled over hardwood and the smoke imparts flavor. I (lamely, I gather) grill mine on my gas grill.  The great thing about making it yourself though, is how easy it is. Although the actual pulling of the pork initially may seem a little arduous, the work is actually minimal considering that when you are done you will be able to feed 15 people.  It really pays.

Pulled pork sandwiches feel celebratory to me – I think this is because they are so extremely delicious. This year, for Martin’s birthday picnic on the ski slopes, I made pulled pork sandwiches with west North Carolina Barbecue sauce which as the author informs us, is the red, ketchup-y kind as opposed to the vinegary spicy type which is from east North Carolina. I put it all together the day before and we warmed it up on the portable grill of a friend, tailgate style in the parking area.

Yes, yes – a real grill master gets up at 4 am to start the fires and get the pork on but you don’t have to do that. I got the 5 lb Boston butt out of the refrigerator at 12 pm, let it come up to temperature for half an hour on the counter, rubbed it with kosher salt and pepper and put it on the gas grill. Because it’s gas, I never have to worry about tending the fire or running out of fuel. I just let it alone for about 3 hours, and it’s done. Or at least the pork was cooked. The sauce took another 5 minutes of prep and 10 minutes of being left alone on the stove. The time consuming part, should you choose to do so, is hand-pulling the pork. Now, you could just slice it (so lame) and you could just chop it (not for me – it’s just not good enough).  That would indeed be very quick.

When I have to do something time consuming and repetitive (notice I didn’t say laborious) I get into the rhythm of it. Music helps. For instance, I put the Shins mix (or the Talking Heads or something Bollywood or Schubert – whatever) on Pandora and get to work. Anything repetitive in the kitchen and I put on some music and focus. Five pounds of meat takes me about about half an hour of pulling.

What they don’t tell you in the cookbooks, is how to pull pork. They just write: pull the pork into shreds. Which tells you nothing. It is easy to pull a chicken breast and there is nothing to avoid – little gristle, no fat. Pork shoulder is completely different. I kind of wonder if they don’t tell you because they don’t want to put people off. The truth is: Pulling pork is not for the squeamish. You should though – pull pork. If you are too squeamish about things you will miss out on some of the best stuff in life – like these pulled pork sandwiches.

There are motherlodes of pork fat running through the shoulder of a pig (a.k.a. Boston butt) and you have to pull around them.  They are slick and gelatinous. I find that a 6″ chef’s knife can scrape away the worst of it. Your knife and your hands will be slick with grease. Definitely wear an apron. If you slice or chop the meat – these gelatinous and unappetizing pieces end up in your sandwich and you don’t get the textural pleasure that is unique to pulled pork. Although I bet that the real grill master is not as fastidious as I am about getting most of the fat out. Actually, it is very satisfying to pull the pork yourself once you get over the “ick factor”. Just crank up the music and go. If you’re going to eat meat – you’re going to have to get used to fat and tendons and other parts of an animal’s body – that’s all there is to it.

We served the pork on toasted Kaiser rolls and I made black bottom cupcakes. The picky kids got hotdogs. Our friends brought the beer and hot chocolate. We warmed the pork in a cast iron skillet on the grill with a big squeeze bottle of sauce on the side.

Pulled Pork Sandwiches with West Carolina Barbecue Sauce – Weber’s Big Book of Grilling 2001

Serves 15

This book was such a surprise to me, recommended by a friend.  Normally I would never try a book by a manufacturer.  I guess I thought it would read like a technician’s manual. Weber’s Big Book of Grilling is a very different thing than the books that come with the KitchenAid mixer or the Cuisinart.  They have nothing to recommend them; they barely scratch the surface of what the machines are capable of, and are never, ever inspiring. This book is different. I bet I have tried and loved more recipes from this book than any other on my shelves.

The Sauce

  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 c minced yellow onion
  • 2 c ketchup
  • 2/3 c packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 c yellow mustard
  • 1/2 c cider vineger
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp Tabasco
  • 5 lb boneless pork shoulder, also known as Boston Butt rolled and tied (your butcher can do this, mine was already tied when I bought it)
  • 1-2 tbsp kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the grill on high heat. Take the pork out of the refrigerator 1/2 an hour before you want to grill. Rub the pork all over with kosher salt and black pepper. Set the grill to indirect medium. On my grill this means you leave the two outer burners on, set to medium and turn off the one in the middle – for indirect heat.  Place the roast fat side up, on the grill. I have a digital thermometer to insert into the meat that beeps when the temperature of the roast gets to 185 F. A five pound roast takes 3 hours more or less. If you have a regular meat thermometer, use that and check every 20 minutes or so after 2 hours.

While the roast is on the grill, make the sauce. In a medium sized saucepan over medium high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, occasionally stirring, until translucent. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

When the pork is done, let it stand at room temperature covered in foil for at least 20 minutes. The outside will be burnished red and crisp and incredibly tasty – salty like a potato chip and crunchy and chewy all at once.  You will need a large bowl for the pork, a bowl or plate for the scraps and a cutting board. The hard part – at least the first time – was the distinction between the meat and the fat. It’s not immediately clear.

Since I have never had the pleasure of eating at a true barbecue joint, I have no idea if what I decided to do was authentic. What I do know is that it was completely delicious. You have to use your fingers and know that your hands will become incredibly greasy. I pulled large pieces of meat off the roast.  They were edged with the slick fat that coated my knife and my fingers. That clear fat I pulled off as best I could. Then I took my knife and scraped off any really fatty looking parts clinging to the meat. What I realized after I’d pulled the pork for awhile is that the reddish crisp outer layer of the roast must also be pulled, the fat clinging to the back must be scraped away. If you throw away the crisp part, you get rid of the most wonderful part of this sandwich. It is just the right kind of chewy, with small succulent pieces of pork clinging to the back. Just pull it apart, scrape off the fat and add it to the bowl.

When you have pulled apart the entire roast, toss the meat with a couple of ladles of the warm sauce, just to moisten. Serve the remaining sauce on the side with toasted Kaiser rolls, spread with butter if you like. I like my sandwich pretty saucy and the recipe allows for that.

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