The best male cook I know is, bar none, the finest barbecue chef in Kentucky. (I know these are probably fightin’ words, but I stand by what I say.) Give him a few slabs of ribs, a beef brisket, or a pork shoulder, and in about 12 smoky, albeit labor-intensive hours, we’re eating fall-off-the-bone-tender barbecued meat. The secret is his patience and willingness to coax the meat into a moist, succulent state. I love him for this skill and have his late father Henry to thank for the many smoker-side cooking lessons. I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again, any lesson in a life skill, such as barbecuing (or how to iron a shirt), is a gift that keeps on giving.
Knowing this background you can then understand why a slow-cooker pork barbecue recipe was met with a bit of resistance. The best male cook I know couldn’t imagine eating pork shoulder that hadn’t spent the latter part of its adult life simmering above hot coals. Despite his protests I persisted with my recipe. The resulting meat was tender, but admittedly not full of smoky flavor. It’s desirable, none the less, for feeding a crowd, or a hungry family, when you’re not able to hang out by the grill or in the dead of winter when it’s just too darn cold to tend the smoke-box. And, trust me, it beats in flavor, cost, and texture the tubs of pork barbecue you buy at the supermarket. So, if for no reason other than these, tuck this recipe in your recipe box.
Just like a true, wood-fired smoking process, low and slow is still the rule. For best results, start either early in the morning or let the pork slow-cook overnight. In my (oblong) slow-cooker, set on low, the pork takes about 11 hours to reach a fork-tender state. The first time you try this recipe I suggest checking the tenderness of the meat after about 10 hours to gauge how quickly, or slowly, your slow cooker cooks the pork. If needed, cover the pork and continue to cook for up to 2 more hours.
The jury’s out on how to eat pulled pork: We’re a sauce-it-when-we-eat-it family. Some like to mix sauce into the whole batch of pork before serving. Some like to sauce the whole batch, and then add more sauce on the top. Because of this, I try to offer a few options on when to sauce the meat.
Summer’s on its way. When you can’t take the time to tend a fire, but want tender, homemade pork barbecue, give your slow-cooker a try. Nothing holds a candle to home-smoked meat, but this works in a pinch, a large pinch of meat piled high on a bun that is.
Kentucky-style Slow-Cooker Pork Barbecue
Makes about 12 servings
Here I use Kentucky’s own soft drink – Ale-8 One®. This spicy soda, unique to Kentucky and bottled in Winchester since 1926, is available in supermarkets and convenience stores around the state of Kentucky. If you don’t have access to Ale-8 One®, or the tasty Ale-8 One® barbecue sauce, substitute any ginger ale, and barbecue sauce, of your choice.
1 large sweet onion
One 4- to 4-1/2 pound pork shoulder or Boston butt
1 cup Ale-8 One ®
2 tablespoons Basic Barbecue Dry Rub, see below
2 cups Ale-8-One ® barbecue sauce
Peel and thinly slice the onion. Place half of the onion slices in the bottom of a slow-cooker. Lay the pork shoulder on top of the onion slices. Pour the Ale-8 One over the pork and then sprinkle the pork with the dry rub and the rest of the sliced onion. Cover and cook on low for 11 hours. After 11 hours the meat should be fork-tender, meaning when you poke a fork in the meat and twist the fork, the meat is not tight and tough but falls apart. If it’s not fork-tender, turn the piece of pork over, cover and cook for 1 to 2 more hours. When it is fork-tender, drain and discard the juice. Shred and chop the meat discarding any remaining fat. Keep the meat warm and serve plain, with warm sauce on the side, or place the meat back in the slow-cooker and mix in the barbecue sauce and reheat before serving.
Basic Barbecue Dry Rub
Makes about 1/4 cup dry rub
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight jar or container.