How to make tender pulled pork in an Instant Pot whether you want to slow cook or pressure cook

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How to make tender pulled pork in an Instant Pot whether you want to slow cook or pressure cook
Slow cook the pork for super tender meat or pressure cook for a much quicker meal. bhofack2/Getty Images
Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky
  • Pulled pork is flavorful and batchable - it's also easy to make in an Instant Pot.
  • Use pork shoulder or butt for the best results, and sear it beforehand for a richer flavor.
  • Pressure cook pulled pork for an hour or slow cook for up to 16 hours for incredibly tender meat.

Proper pulled pork demands respect. It's comforting and feeds a crowd. People travel miles to eat it when it's prepared by the masters. And, as intimidating as it may seem, it's actually quite doable to make at home.

Though it's not a traditional approach, the Instant Pot can make this process even simpler.

We spoke with two experts on Southern cooking, the Atlanta-based Janet A. Zimmerman, author of "Instant Pot Obsession" (from which her recipe is shared), and Chapel Hill-based Sheri Castle, author of "Instantly Southern" (from which her recipe is shared) and host of the new PBS show The Key Ingredient.

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Zimmerman's method uses the pressure cooker function while Castle's uses the slow cooker function.

What cut of pork to use

"I think the most important factor is choosing the right cut of meat and cutting it correctly," says Zimmerman.

If you're a purist or haven't made pulled pork before, go with pork shoulder for best results. Castle also suggests pork butt, which despite the name, comes from the same area of the pig as the pork shoulder cut. Her method uses the slow cook function for extra tenderness.

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Some recipes call for pork loin, a leaner cut. It's usually a better candidate for a slow cooking method over a pressure cooking method because the meat can run dry. Zimmerman cautions against using pork loin for this reason.

Quick tip: Even beyond the cut, not all pork is created equal. Zimmerman says, "Sometimes pork is sold 'enhanced' which means injected with a saline solution (sort of brined in advance for extra flavor)." While it's not Zimmerman's first choice, it'll work in a pinch. If you go this route, don't salt it beforehand and know that it will release more liquid during the cooking process.

Pressure cooking vs. slow cooking

Slow cooking the meat means it never has the chance to toughen up and will be extra silky and tender. Pressure cooking is faster, though you may lose a little bit of the tenderness. If you're going for the pressure cook method, be sure to get a pork shoulder or pork butt, as opposed to a pork loin.

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Method 1: Janet A. Zimmerman's pressure cooking method

How to make tender pulled pork in an Instant Pot whether you want to slow cook or pressure cook
Use Zimmerman's ginger soy sauce or top with your own. LauriPatterson/Getty Images

If you prefer a quicker method, this is the one for you. Zimmerman's method will be on your table in less than an hour.

Ingredients

  • 2.5 pounds boneless pork shoulder
  • 1.5 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ½ cup chicken or beef stock

For the ginger soy sauce

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  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons grated peeled ginger
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

  1. Cut the pork shoulder into chunks or strips and salt them. These should be about 2 to 3 inches thick. If you have the time, wait and let the salted pork sit for an hour to help boost the meaty flavor. If you'd like to add additional seasonings, wait to add them until right before you pressure cook.
  2. Sear in a skillet. Zimmerman says, "You don't need to do every side of every piece of pork; you just want some deeply browned pieces for the flavor from the Maillard reaction." In a pinch, you can do this in the Instant Pot on the sauté function, but Zimmerman prefers a skillet for deeper browning. Sear as much of the pork as you have time for - more Maillard reaction will mean deeper flavor. You'll know it's properly seared when it's browned, though it should not be cooked all the way through.
  3. Remove the meat and deglaze the pan with chicken stock. Let the stock reduce by ⅓ (7-10 minutes), then transfer the meat and stock to the Instant Pot. If desired, add in a few drops of Liquid Smoke at this point to mimic the smoke flavor of meat done on the barbecue. Mix the ingredients for Zimmerman's sauce here and throw it in, or use your own blend.
  4. Pressure cook for 25 minutes with a natural pressure release, or 35 minutes with quick release. "I've used both release methods and don't find any real difference between the two," says Zimmerman. "You're looking for the meat to be falling off the bone(s), if there are bones, and the meat to shred easily."
  5. Let the meat cool, then shred by hand or with a big fork. "I find it easiest to do by hand; it's easier to make sure you remove all the remaining chunks of fat and gristle," says Zimmerman.
  6. Return the meat to the Instant Pot and add sauce to taste. Bring to a simmer just to heat the sauce through.

Method 2: Sheri Castle's slow cooking method

How to make tender pulled pork in an Instant Pot whether you want to slow cook or pressure cook
When done, the pork will shred easily with a fork. MarinaZg/Getty Images

If you have a while, try the slow cooking method. You may find it's even more tender than you expected.

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds boneless pork shoulder
  • 2 medium yellow onions, sliced
  • 1.5 cups dark beer or chicken stock
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar, preferably unfiltered
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

For the spice rub

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  • 2 tablespoons kosher or smoked salt
  • 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons mustard powder
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon celery seeds

  1. Mix the spice rub and apply to the pork. Pat the pork dry, and lightly, evenly coat the pork with as much of the spice rub as it takes to fully coat it. Set the remainder aside for later use.
  2. Sear it well on all sides, using high heat. This can be done in a cast iron skillet on the stove or in the Instant Pot on the sauté setting. Castle will sometimes cut the shoulder into smaller pieces beforehand and sear them in batches so it's easier to handle in the Instant Pot. Either way, you want browning but not for it to be cooked all the way through.
  3. Mix ingredients into the Instant Pot. Place the onions at the bottom of the pot, and sprinkle in the reserved rub. Pour in the beer, vinegar, and Worcestershire.
  4. Carefully place the meat in the pot, fat-side up. Castle stabs a fork into each end, which she uses as handles to transfer the pork. Remove the forks after you're done.
  5. Cover and slow cook on low for 14 to 16 hours, or until the meat is soft enough to pull apart.
  6. Transfer to a bowl and let sit until it's cool enough to handle. Discard any bone, gristle, or large fat clumps.
  7. Strain the cooking liquid and discard the solids. Spoon off as much fat as possible.
  8. Toss the meat with enough defatted liquid to moisten it. Serve warm or let cool and refrigerate or freeze.

How to serve - and sauce - pulled pork

How to make tender pulled pork in an Instant Pot whether you want to slow cook or pressure cook
Get inspired by Mexican carnitas and make pulled pork tacos. bhofack2/Getty Images

"Pulled pork is many splendored," says Castle. From sandwiches to nachos to soups, pulled pork can add to a whole range of recipes.

Though purists will insist that Instant Pot pulled pork isn't authentic to any regional style (and they're right!), feel free to take flavor inspirations from various pork preparations around the world.

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  • Carnitas: Originally from the state of Michoacán, Mexico, carnitas are generally served with cilantro, diced onion, and salsa over tortillas. Spices like oregano, cumin, and chili powder are often used to cook the pork.
  • South Carolina-style: This is composed of two sub-styles. The first is Pee Dee, which is pulled pork doused in a spicy vinegar-based sauce, and served with white bread, coleslaw, and beans. The other is Midlands, which is served with a mustard-based sauce and a side of hash or rice.
  • Kansas City-style: Often served with french fries, Kansas City barbecue is known for its sweeter sauces, which often include some combination of brown sugar, molasses, or ketchup.

Reheating and storing pulled pork

One of the great things about pulled pork is that it can be made ahead of time and repurposed for other meals.

USDA guidelines recommend eating pulled pork leftovers in three to four days. If you don't anticipate eating it within that time frame, consider freezing it in meal-sized batches. It will last well for three months in the freezer.

Insider's takeaway

There's no need to be intimidated by pulled pork, especially if you know your way around an Instant Pot. Whether you prefer slow cooking or pressure cooking, you'll end up with juicy, flavorful pork either way. Look for pork shoulder or pork butt, sear the meat before you start, and have a plan for using the meat.

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