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Pulled pork is one of those dishes which gets people really excited* and I totally understand why. It’s salty, sweet, tender and can be served a whole lot of different ways, and making enough for a crowd takes almost the same time as making enough for two.
Today I want to show you my simple version of pulled pork adapted for combi steam oven cooking, with an easy spice rub straight from the American South. It might not have the traditional wood-smoked notes of ‘real’ barbecue pulled pork, but the upside is it requires barely any of the effort of barbecue, and much less time. If you’re already a fan of slow cooker pulled pork you’ll love this even more, because it follows similar preparation but takes about half the time to cook (plus it gets a much better crust on it than any slow cooker version I’ve tried). Put it together in a few minutes, then leave alone in the oven until dinner time, at which point you can expect everyone in your house to fall over themselves in the rush to the table.
Seasonings for pulled pork
I do not claim to be any kind of expert or purist when it comes to traditional American style barbecue. But I have been on a pilgrimage of sorts through some of North Carolina’s finest barbecue joints (and one in Dallas, which was memorable only for the breathtaking cab fare we paid getting to the place from a miles-away hotel). I’ve also watched more than one documentary on the topic. My husband is a barbecue fiend, you see. I’m pretty happy to go along with him for the ride, and if there’s one thing I’ve realised, it’s that the ‘right’ way to cook barbecue is as subjective as the right way to make a pizza. People have very strong opinions about seasoning (salt, spices, wet or dry rubs), smoke (what kind of wood to use?), whether meat should be dressed after cooking, and what with, and how to serve the finished product. It’s a delicious minefield.
Thankfully, at home, no one’s judging how we do it, so we go with a punchy dry rub before cooking, which gives the meat gorgeous flavour and a lovely burnished crust on the outside. Sometimes we also dress the cooked meat with a vinegar sauce. It's easy to make and pretty great if you’re keen to give it a try. Only dress the meat you’re eating that day, though, because the vinegar will alter the texture of any leftovers, making them mushy.
How long should I cook pulled pork in my steam oven?
Remember I said steam oven pulled pork takes about half the time of slow cooker pulled pork? It’s true. In a slow cooker I cook the meat for anywhere up to eight hours, but in my steam oven it’s four, tops. I know that’s not actually fast, but it doesn’t require a whole day’s planning ahead like the slow cooker pulled pork would. You can throw this in after lunch and still have dinner on the table at a kid-friendly time (very important in my house!).
Exactly how long you should cook the meat for will depend on a couple of things. First, it’s about the meat itself. Some will naturally be quicker to tenderise and cook down into softly shredding submission – it just depends on the animal that meat came from.
The other thing which can affect cooking time is just how much humidity (steam) versus dry heat is in your oven when you’re using the combination steam setting. Steam vapour cooks food faster than dry heat, which is great for speedier cooking, but if you overdo the steam level or the time, slow cooked meats come out stringy and dry rather than soft and melting. There’s a bit of a sweet spot – too little time and the meat won’t shred easily, too much and it will shred into fine, slightly chewy bits rather than chunky, soft ones. The good news is that the sweet spot lasts for a good half hour (maybe even longer), so you don’t have to catch it in a perfect five-minute window to achieve pulled pork success! Basically, if you poke a fork into the meat and it easily comes away in soft, moist-looking pieces, you’re good to go. In my steam oven, for the quantity of meat below, this takes anywhere from three to four hours. Yours may be different, but it probably won’t be more than half an hour or so either side of that.
What to serve with steam oven pulled pork
To be very honest, I’m happy serving my pulled pork just piled onto a plate next to a heaping mound of lightly-dressed coleslaw. Everyone else in my house prefers it in soft bread rolls, though, so that’s usually what we offer. If we aren’t using a vinegar dressing as mentioned above, we often put a bottle or jar of barbecue sauce on the table with the meat. Generally this one, because it’s not too hard to find in Australia, but I’ve heard great things about this and this if you’re in the States.
The coleslaw I make is nothing fancy, so I’m not going to give you a proper recipe. If you want to replicate it though, roughly equal quantities of white and red cabbage, carrot and fine matchsticks of apple will be about right. Feel free to add scallions, onions or whatever else takes your fancy, and dress it with a little mayonnaise loosened with a spoonful or two of cider vinegar.
Other sides I’ve seen and enjoyed with pulled pork over the years are biscuits (or scones, for us Antipodeans) and gravy, hush puppies, cornbread, pickles, collard greens or green beans, mac and cheese and good old French fries. So you take your pick, just remember that glorious pork is going to be the star of the show.
Happy steam oven cooking, see you here again soon.
Recipe: Combi Steam Oven Pulled Pork
Serves about 8, depending on appetites and accompaniments
August 7, 2018 EDITED TO ADD: After I first published this, some readers reported back that their meat came out a little stringy and dry. I really want to emphasise that it IS possible to overcook slow cooked meat when you're using steam, so start checking for doneness around the 3 hour mark. I have now retested the recipe as well, and decreased the humidity level I originally recommended, along with the temperature (from 50% down to 30%, and 140C/285F to 120C/250F respectively). The timing remains much the same but the lower temp and humidity makes it more foolproof to get right. The updated details have been edited into the recipe below.
You can increase or decrease the amount of meat: although I’ve specified 2kg (4.4lbs), anything from 1.5-3kg (3.3-6.6lbs) will take a similar time to cook. As for the amount of rub you should use, the quantities here will do the amount of meat specified, but I often triple or quadruple the mixture and store the rest in a jar for next time. It’ll keep for at least a couple of months in a dark spot in the pantry.
Want some extra smokiness? I have tried this with a tiny dash of liquid smoke before – I find it a bit overpowering but I know some people (including my husband) love it. I’ll leave it to you, but try not to go overboard as the aroma doesn’t evaporate away very much in the steam oven.
I like to mix the cooked and pulled meat with some of the cooking liquid that accumulates in the bottom of the pot (fat and all – that rendered fat carries the most amazing flavour). If you want to add a vinegar sauce don't go too heavy on the cooking liquid. The two of those things together have potential for making your meat very salty.
If you’re wondering, the bun you see in the image is a brioche roll. Non-traditional but very delicious. If I were US-based I’d be looking for potato rolls, which I adore but I’ve never seen available here.
1 x 2kg (4.4lb) boneless pork shoulder, skin off but as much of the fat left on as possible (if you can only get skin on, and it sounds too hard to cut it off, leave it and just remove at the end of cooking, when it will come away easily)
1 tbs brown sugar
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp dry mustard powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp fine salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1. Put the pork into a large deep casserole pot (I use a Le Creuset, and I’m linking this colour even though mine is pale blue, because I have colour envy!). Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a small bowl and rub all over the pork. Really get into the crevasses to make sure the rub covers the entire outside.
2. Put the pot in your steam oven (no lid required) and set to 120°C/250°F, combination steam setting. If your oven has variable steam settings, choose 30% (if not, doesn’t matter! Just choose combi steam and let the oven figure out the humidity).
3. Cook until the meat is fork-tender and shreds easily, anywhere from three to four hours. A couple of times during cooking, baste the meat with the juices which collect in the bottom of the pot.
4. Cover and leave the cooked meat to rest for 20 to 30 minutes before shredding with a couple of forks or your hands. Dress with a generous amount of the cooking liquid (or a lesser amount plus the vinegar sauce mentioned above) and serve as you please. Any leftovers are almost as good the next day, heated up using the reheat function in your steam oven.
If you’re after more delicious combi steam slow cooked meat recipes, this index page has plenty. Try the combi steam roast dinner, the cheat’s combi steam chili con carne (another pulled meat delight), or Asian-style sticky beef ribs.
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