I am from the South (Georgia to be exact) and in the South, we take our barbecue very seriously. Each region within the South has their own take on barbecue and family feuds have begun on the simple premise of whose barbecue is better. In North Carolina alone there are two main varieties of barbecue: the Eastern Carolina vinegar based barbecue and the more ketchup based barbecue in the Western parts of the state. I grew up on the ketchup based barbecue popular in Southern Georgia and could never really grow to like the Eastern Carolina style of barbecue I encountered when I lived in North Carolina. The one thing all Southern barbecue has in common, however, is the slow roasting technique. To get that tender, fall off the bone barbecue, the meat must cook for a long time over a low heat. I have done this an endless amount of times in a smoker, in the oven and even on the stove in a Dutch oven. However, it never occurred to me to use my crock pot to make any kind of barbecue…until now.
When a fellow foodie friend of mine mentioned he had made slow cooked pork in his crock pot, I was struck. Why hadn’t I ever thought of that before? The crock pot was invented for slow cooking and barbecue was the epitome of slow cooking. It was easy enough to figure out the cooking time for a six pound pork shoulder, but I had a harder time deciding how exactly to cook it. I was used to making a homemade ketchup based barbecue sauce and allowing the pork to cook in it for hours. But while I was talking to a friend back home in Georgia, she told me to use a simple spice rub on the pork shoulder, let it sit overnight and then cook the pork in the crock pot. She even assured me there would be no need for barbecue sauce if I cooked the pork as she suggested. Uhmmm, what???? No need for barbecue sauce on BARBECUE? I almost hung the phone up because of such blasphemy. But my curiosity got the best of me and I jotted down the spices she rattled off for the rub.
On Saturday, I headed out to the Falls Church farmers market with the idea for the pulled pork in the back of my head. Since it was such a lovely day out, there were quite a few people were milling about the market. Unlike my first visit, during one of the coldest days in January, I wasn’t in a rush to get back to the warmth of the car. So I was able to meander around and visit just about every stand. Sunnyside Farms had some lovely baby spinach heaped in big silver tubs and a mound of russet potatoes, both of which I needed for my lunch and dinner options for the week. As I was picking up my now weekly container of Greek style yogurt from Blue Ridge Dairy, the vendor began talking about the market during the Spring and Summer seasons. He mentioned that the Spring and Summer vendors start showing up around the first of April, pushing the market from one end of the parking lot to the other. He also mentioned that a few of the prepared foods vendors left the market during the Spring and Summer, to be replaced by more produce vendors. Although not as big as Dupont Circle’s farmers market, I thought the Falls Church farmers market was a nice sized market, especially considering the time of year. To hear that the market grew even larger during the growing season only made me want April to come faster. Feeling experimental, I picked up a container of Blue Ridge Dairy’s famous applewood smoked mozzarella for a flatbread pizza I had in mind.
I had previously bought a lovely pork butt from Valentine's Country Bakery and Meats, so it was only natural for me to get the pork shoulder from them as well. I randomly picked an ice chest to open and right on the top was an almost 6 pound pork shoulder roast, patiently waiting for me to pick it up. I also grabbed a slab of their bacon, curious to see if fresh bacon tasted any different than the natural stuff I buy from Whole Foods. I finished up the rest of my weekly grocery shopping with some fruit and nut granola bars from Atwater’s, some fresh tagliatelle and pesto from Cavana Pasta, a gallon of milk from J. Wens Farms & Dairy and some crimini mushrooms from Mother Earth Organics. And the cherry on top? I completed my entire week’s grocery shopping at the farmers market and spent less than $80.
Before I went to bed on Saturday (and right after I moved my clocks up an hour – thanks Spring for stealing that lovely hour away), I threw together the spice rub, slathered it over the pork shoulder and placed it in a large Ziploc bag. I placed the now clay red pork shoulder in the refrigerator still a bit wary of my friend’s claims. Doubts aside, on Sunday morning, I dutifully placed the pork in my crock pot and set it on low. My doubts came back in full force when I checked on the pork after an hour. The shoulder appeared to be cooking too fast and the meat wasn’t even in the same time zone as tender. Great, I’ve ruined a beautiful cut of meat on an experiment, I thought to myself as I poked the meat in desperation. I rotated the meat around a little and placed the lid back on the crock pot. I repeated this process (panicked thoughts and all) about an hour later, still finding the shoulder to be a bit tough.
But by hour four, the meat started to soften and a nice looking sauce started forming at the bottom of the crock pot from a combination of the spices and the small amount of water and fat from the pork. By hour six the meat was so tender, it started falling apart on its own. I didn’t even have to really shred the pork at all. I stirred the shredded meat around in the lovely sauce and realized my friend had been absolutely right: there was absolutely no need for barbecue sauce in this dish. The spices were permanently imbedded in each shred of the pork, rendering the need for another sauce irrelevant. When I called to tell my friend how well the pork turned out, I asked her where she got the recipe for the spice rub. At first she tried to claim it was a family recipe, but considering the fact that I have had her mother’s cooking (and it’s scary to say the least), I wasn’t buying it. She finally confessed she’d gotten it from Cook’s Illustrated, which considering we were Southern girls, seems almost wrong.
Crock Pot Pulled Pork
1-6 to 8 lb. pork shoulder
1/4 cup water (optional – depends on how much sauce you want to form)
For the spice rub (from Cook’s Illustrated):
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (or up to 2 tsp if you like it spicy)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
4 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon white sugar
2 tablespoons salt
Mix together the spice rub in a large Ziploc bag, shaking it to combine the spices thoroughly. Add the pork shoulder and vigorously shake the bag until the pork is fully covered in the spice rub. Place the bag with the pork shoulder in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours (the longer the pork is allowed to marinate, the stronger the flavor will be).
On cooking day, remove the pork shoulder from the Ziploc bag and place it in the crock pot. Add the ¼ cup of water, if desired, and place the pot on low. Cover the pot with the lid and allow to cook for an hour. Turn the pork shoulder over after an hour and continue to cook for another hour. Turn the pork shoulder over one more time and let it continue to cook for another four hours. After six hours, check to see if the pork is starting to tenderize. If it is, shred the pork using a fork (or tongs) and stir the shredded meat around in the sauce created during the slow roasting. Cook for another 30 minutes to an hour (depending on your crock pot). You can serve the pulled pork by itself or with a barbecue sauce (but honestly, it's not necessary).
The Falls Church Farmers Market is open year round with Winter (January 3 through April 25) hours running from 9 am to noon. The farmers market is located in the city hall parking lot at 300 Park Avenue.