These Pulled Pork Sandwiches are the king for serving a crowd or make ahead meals, complete with optional creamy crunchy coleslaw and crispy onion rings!
This Pulled Pork Sandwich recipe is fall apart tender, tangy, sweet and smoky with the perfect kick, smothered in the best homemade barbecue sauce– and so easy in the slow cooker, instant pot or oven! Top them off with creamy, crunchy, light coleslaw and crispy fried onion rings and you’re in for the best BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches EVER. This recipe is simple to make, easily customizable and a brilliant standby for meal prep, large gatherings or freezer meals. Serve them up with strawberry broccoli salad, potato salad or Italian pasta salad for everyone’s favorite summer meal!
Calling all sandwich lovers! If you’re a fan of fully loaded sandwiches, you’ll love: Reuben Sandwiches, Monte Cristo Sandwiches, French Dip Sandwiches, Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches, Italian Beef Sandwiches, Beef Brisket Sandwiches, Cuban Sandwiches, Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, and of course, this incredible pulled pork sandwich recipe!
HOW TO MAKE PulLed Pork Sandwich VIDEo
Pulled pork rub
The rub is earthy, smoky, salty with a ginger, garlic zing. It manages to be flavorful but not overpowering, so you can still smother the pulled pork sandwiches with barbecue sauce. You will need:
Braising the pork in a few inches of seasoned liquid helps to transform the tough pork shoulder into a tender, succulent, fall-apart masterpiece. The moist environment gently cooks the pork while the liquid continuously infuses the pork with moisture and flavor. Here’s what you’ll need:
BARBECUE SAUCE INGREDIENTS
My homemade BBQ Sauce recipe is an intoxicating blend of sweet, tangy, spicy, smoky and ready in less than 20 minutes – 15 of those minutes are hands-off simmering! So, while it’s easier and more convenient to squeeze a bunch of store-bought barbecue sauce all over the pulled pork, I promise the homemade sauce will make your pulled pork sandwich recipe 1000X better!
This homemade BBQ Sauce recipe comes together very quickly with just a handful of ingredients. You will need (measurements included in the printable recipe card):
Recipe INGREDIENT SUBSTITUTIONS
HOW TO MAKE pulled pork Sandwiches with BBQ Sauce
BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches are the epitome of a minimal prep and maximum flavor recipe! Once you’ve gathered the ingredients, it’s a simple season, sear and cook until fall-apart tender. While the pork is cooking, whip up an easy batch of barbecue sauce, and if you’re feeling more ambitious, whip up some coleslaw and onion rings too! Here’s how:
- Step 1: Braising liquid. Combine the Coke, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, orange zest and green chilies in a lightly greased slow cooker; set aside. You want to prep these ingredients first so you can transfer the pork directly to the crockpot after searing.
- Step 2: Spice rub the pork. Whisk all the seasonings together in a small bowl. Lightly drizzle the pork with vegetable oil, then rub it on the top and sides of the pork, then coat all over with seasonings, pressing to adhere. Flip the pork over, drizzle oil over the top and finish rubbing in the spices.
- Step 3: Sear the pork. Wait until the vegetable oil is smoking hot before you add the pork. I find two forks the easiest to rotate the pork to sear it on all sides.
- Step 4: Cook the pork until fall apart tender. Cover and cook on HIGH for 4 to 6 hours or on LOW for 8 to 12 hours OR until the pork easily shreds with a fork. Make sure to check the pork at the early part of the cooking window and continue to cook if needed.
- Step 5: Shred and braise. You can either shred the pork directly in the crockpot or it’s a little easier to remove any excess fat by shredding it on a cutting board. Return the shredded pork to the slow cooker and allow to cook for 20 minutes on LOW to soak up the juices.
- Step 6: Add barbecue sauce. Add the pork to a colander over a large bowl and strain all but about ½ cup broth from the pork. Return the pork to the slow cooker/pot and stir in the desired amount of barbecue sauce.
The Best Toppings for Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Pulled pork sandwiches are scrumptious on their own, but even better loaded with toppings! In this recipe, I’ve added my favorite toppings of coleslaw and fried onion rings. This homemade coleslaw recipe combines traditional coleslaw ingredients with sour cream, Dijon, lemon juice, celery seed and dried dill for dynamic layers of texture and flavor!
You can also create a topping bar of the below ideas so your eaters can customize their own sandwiches:
- fried onion rings
- caramelized onions
- pickled vegetables
- jalapenos or pickled jalapenos
- onion jam
- horseradish sauce
- hot sauce
INGREDIENTS FOR ONION Rings
The crunchy fried onion strings really elevate this pulled pork sandwich recipe to restaurant delicious. They are so addicting, I could at them all day sans sandwich! Here’s what you’ll need:
- Onions: use yellow onions for the most flavor.
- Buttermilk: I often don’t have buttermilk, so I will use a DIY buttermilk. To make your own buttermilk, Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar to a 3 cup+ measuring cup. Add enough milk to equal cups. Give it a stir then wait 10-15 minutes for it to curdle, then give it another stir before using. If you only have 1% milk, then add a splash of heavy cream before filling the rest of the measuring cup with milk.
- Egg: helps bind the flour and panko to the onions.
- Flour: I use all-purpose flour and have not experimented with gluten free flour but I imagine it would work fine.
- Panko: is a Japanese breadcrumb sold in every grocery store (including Walmart) usually next to the other breadcrumbs. Panko breadcrumbs are larger and dryer than normal breadcrumbs so they absorb less moisture and become much crispier. Please do not substitute panko breadcrumbs with Italian breadcrumbs or you will be missing out on the gorgeous, satisfying CRUNCH. If you need to omit the panko, then substitute with flour instead.
- Salt and pepper: to season those onions! I don’t recommend adding herbs because they can burn when fried.
- Oil: you will need oil with a neutral flavor and high smoking point to fry the onions. Vegetable or canola oil work great.
HOW TO MAKE ONION STRINGS
STEP 1: SOAK ONIONS
- Add onions to a shallow baking dish and pour buttermilk/egg mixture over top. Press the onions down so they’re submerged as much as possible.
- Let them soak at room temperature for 15 minutes to an hour, stirring and pushing down occasionally. Cover and refrigerate if soaking longer.
STEP 2: PREP WORKSTATIONS
- When ready to fry onions, fill a deep frying pan, Dutch oven or deep heavy-duty pot with approximately 2 inches of oil. Heat to 375 degrees F.
- While heating, combine flour, panko, salt and pepper in a large bowl; set aside.
- Line a large baking sheet with paper towels; set aside.
STEP 3: Bread ONIONS
- Using tongs, transfer a handful of onions from the buttermilk to the flour/panko mixture. Toss to combine, shake off any excess flour, then carefully transfer to the hot oil. You can also bread all of the rings at once and transfer to a baking sheet so they’re all ready to fry.
STEP 4: FRY ONIONS
- Test the oil with a small pinch of panko; if it bubbles and fries, then it is hot enough.
- Fry onions until golden brown (just 1-2 minutes), watch closely! Remove fried onions with a spider strainer, heat-proof slotted spoon or tongs to paper towels. Repeat with the remaining onion slices.
- Use smoked paprika in the spice rub and barbecue sauce. The difference between smoked paprika and normal paprika may seem nominal, but it has a big impact on the the overall flavor. Normal paprika uses crushed dried chilies, whereas smoked paprika uses chilies that are first smoked with oak, then dried and crushed. This adds a smoky, woody, outdoorsy flavor that elevates your BBQ Pulled Pork to next level.
- For the best pork, sear first. This extra step is well worth it. It caramelizes the outside of the pork for a depth of flavor and increases its moisture capacity so its’s extra juicy. It also binds the seasonings to the pork. That being said, the original recipe did not sear the pork, and readers still found it delicious – so, your call!
- Use a cast iron skillet. I recommend a large cast iron skillet because it gets piping hot and sears more evenly. When searing, the pork will naturally release from the pan once it’s properly seared. If it’s sticking to the bottom of the pan, it most likely needs more time.
- Use a high smoking point oil. Use vegetable oil, avocado oil or sunflower oil to sear the pork– don’t substitute with olive oil. Olive oil has a lower smoking point and will not only smoke like crazy but can burn leaving behind a bitter taste and harmful chemicals.
- Cook the pork until tender. If your pork isn’t crazy tender, then cook on! It just means the proteins needs more time to break down and tenderize. Even 30 more minutes can make the world of difference between “okay” and melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork. If it’s your first time making this recipe, plan on the full cooking window, but check the pork for doneness at the early part of the cooking window to be safe.
- Don’t skip soaking the pork after shredding. Cooking the shredded pork on low for 20 minutes is crucial to allow the flavorful slow cooker juices to seep into every nook and cranny before adding the barbecue sauce.
- Drain pork using a colander. I place my strainer on top of a large bowl to catch the braising liquid so the fat doesn’t go directly in my sink, then refrigerate the bowl and skim the fat later and ditch the rest of the juices in the sink sans fat.
- Use homemade barbecue sauce! This is the number one tip for the best BBQ pulled pork sandwiches!
- Splatter screen. If you have a splatter screen, you might want to place it over the barbecue sauce in between stirring.
- Thinly slice onions. Thinly sliced onions ensure the ideal proportions of onions to coating. To shortcut this process, use a mandolin slicer if you have one.
- Stir onions. Once you add the onions to the hot oil, give them a stir to break up any of the onions that may be sticking together.
- Watch closely. The onions don’t take long at all to fry up – just a minute or two per batch, so make sure to watch closely. To check for doneness, use your slotted spoon and lift a few out of the pot because it can be hard to see their true color in the oil.
- Don’t over-fry. The onions should be golden and not dark golden when you remove them from the oil.
Pulled Pork sandwich Variations
You can easily adapt the pulled pork sandwiches by mixing up the homemade barbecue sauce. Like a sweet sauce? Add more sugar. Like a tangier sauce? Add more vinegar. Like a spicy BBQ Sauce? Add more chipotle. Here’s how:
- Make it sweeter: add more brown sugar. I suggest you simmer the sauce for 10 minutes, taste and add additional sugar at this time if desired (and not right off the bat); continue to simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
- Make it tangier: add additional apple cider vinegar at the end of simmering.
- Make it smokier: add additional liquid smoke, ½ teaspoon at a time.
- Make it spicier: add additional chipotle chili powder for smoky heat or cayenne pepper for penetrating heat.
- Make the seasonings your own. Like more garlic? Use more garlic. Like more mustard? Use more mustard. You can adjust all of the seasonings to suit your tastes and even add additional seasonings such as oregano or parsley.
- Make it thicker: simmer the sauce for upwards of 15 minutes until it reaches your desired consistency, however, it is already gorgeously thick after 15 minutes so I don’t think you’ll find this necessary.
- Make it gluten-free: double check your ingredients to ensure they are gluten free.
- Homemade Maple BBQ Sauce: substitute half of the brown sugar for pure maple syrup – not the breakfast imitation kind!
- Homemade Honey BBQ Sauce: substitute the brown sugar for honey.
Tools Used in This Recipe
BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches
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FOR THE PORK
- 4-6 pounds boneless pork shoulder roast (Boston Butt roast)
- 1 12 oz. can Cherry Coke (1 ½ cups)
- 2 4 oz. cans mild diced green chilies
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons liquid smoke
- zest of 1 orange
- 1 TBS EACH garlic powder, chili powder, salt
- 2 tsps EACH onion powder, smoked paprika
- 1 tsp EACH pepper, ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- vegetable oil
- 2 cups homemade BBQ sauce (or store-bought), more or less as needed
FOR THE SANDWICHES
- 1 recipe homemade coleslaw
- 12 -15 hamburger size buns
- Whisk all the seasonings together in a small bowl (garlic powder through cayenne pepper). Lightly coat pork with vegetable oil, then rub seasonings all over the pork.
- Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil over high heat in a large cast iron skillet. Using tongs or 2 forks, sear pork on all sides until lightly browned. Place pork in prepared slow cooker.
- Cover and cook on LOW for 8-12 hours or on HIGH for 4-6 hours, UNTIL the pork is very tender. (Check pork at early end of cooking window and add more time as needed). Use this time to prep toppings such as coleslaw and onion strings.
- Remove pork to a cutting board and shred – don’t discard slow cooker juices. Return shredded pork to the slow cooker and cook for 20 minutes on LOW to soak up the juices.
- Strain all but about ½ cup broth from the pork. Stir in the desired amount of barbecue sauce until evenly coated, adding more or less as desired. Taste and add hot sauce/salt/pepper/brown sugar to taste.
- Prepare Coleslaw according to recipe directions. Don't make the coleslaw too sweet if your barbecue sauce is on the sweeter side. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, best if 1-2 hours after combining. If making ahead, keep dressing and vegetables separate and then combine a little before serving.
FRIED ONION STRINGS
- Whisk buttermilk and egg together. Add onions to a shallow baking dish and pour buttermilk/egg mixture over top. Press the onions down so they're submerged as much as possible. Let them soak at room temperature for 15 minutes up to an hour, stirring and pushing down occasionally. Cover and refrigerate if soaking longer.
- When ready to fry onions, fill a heavy duty fry pot (this is the exact one I use) or large Dutch oven with approximately 2 inches of oil. Heat to 375 degrees F.
- While heating, combine flour, panko, salt and pepper in a large bowl; set aside. Line a large baking sheet with paper towels; set aside.
- Test the oil with a small pinch of panko; if it bubbles and fries, then it is hot enough. If it turns black right a way, it is too hot. Using tongs, transfer a handful of onions from the buttermilk to the flour/panko mixture. Toss to coat, pressing to adhere, shake off any excess flour, then carefully transfer to the hot oil. (The coating will be thin but will crisp up.)
- Fry onions until lightly golden brown (just 1-2 minutes), watch closely! – they will continue to darken after they're removed from the oil. Remove fried onions with a spider fry strainer or fine mesh sieve to paper towels. Repeat with the remaining onion slices.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Working in batches as needed, line top and bottom buns on a baking sheet, cut side up. Bake until warmed and lightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Don’t over bake or they can become dry – we don’t want croutons!
- When ready to eat, pile toasted buns with pulled pork, coleslaw, fried onion rings and/or any desired toppings. Dig in!
- Cherry Coke: Use regular Cherry Coke, NOT diet! Dr. Pepper is the closest substitute for Cherry Coke. The Coke not only adds flavor (contains flavoring approximates of dark spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice, cardamom, pipal, nutmeg, citrus zest, etc.) and caramelized sugar but is also highly acidic which balances the flavor and most importantly, tenderizes the meat. Cola is such a great tenderizer because it typically has a pH of about 2.7—for comparison, lemon juice has a pH of 2—making it acidic enough to break down the tough proteins without dissolving your meat.
- Liquid smoke: If you aren’t familiar with liquid smoke, it really is liquid smoke! It is a very common ingredient and should be easy to find next to the barbecue sauces in your grocery store. You can use mesquite or hickory, but I prefer mesquite in this recipe.
- Pulled Pork in the Oven: Cover and cook the pork roast at 325 degrees for about 6 hours or until very tender.
- Pulled Pork in the Instant Pot: Cut the pork into large chunks if needed to fit into the instant pot. Cook on high pressure for 70-80 minutes (depending on size). Once time is up, let pressure release naturally for 25 minutes, then manually release any remaining pressure and open.
- *DIY Buttermilk: Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar to a 3 cup+ measuring cup. Add enough milk to equal 2 cups. Give it a stir then wait 10-15 minutes for it to curdle, then give it another stir before using. If you only have 1% milk, then add a splash of heavy cream before filling the rest of the measuring cup with milk.
- BBQ Pulled Pork: Cook the pulled pork all the way through adding the barbecue sauce. Transfer the pork to the refrigerator directly in the ceramic crockpot insert or Dutch oven. The next day, warm the pork in the crockpot on LOW for 1-2 hours or gently warm on the stove. Add a splash or additional barbecue sauce or water if it seems dry after it’s warmed through (it will release juices as it heats up).
- BBQ Sauce: Transfer the cooled barbecue sauce to an air-tight container. Store for up to two weeks in the refrigerator or freeze for up to 3 months.
- Coleslaw: Homemade coleslaw will last about 3 to 4 days in the fridge, but is at peak freshness within the first few hours of combining.
To make ahead further in advance, thinly slice the cabbage, shred the carrots, and slice the green onions. Store in separate airtight containers in the fridge for up to 5 days. The dressing can be whisked together and refrigerated up to 5 days in advance. Combine when ready to use.
- Onion Strings. You can slice the onions a day ahead of time and refrigerate in an airtight bag if you aren’t ready to fry right away. This will cut down on the onion prep significantly. For fried onions, let them cool COMPLETELY before transferring to an airtight container. Store onions at ROOM TEMPERATURE for up to three days.
HOW TO STORE
- Pulled pork: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. The buns can be refrigerated or frozen to prolong their shelf life. The pork can be frozen for up to three months.
- Onion Strings: Let onions cool COMPLETELY before transferring to an airtight container. Store onions at ROOM TEMPERATURE for up to three days.
- Coleslaw: Homemade coleslaw will last about 3 to 4 days in the fridge, but is at peak freshness within the first few hours of combining. The cabbage will soften over time and the dressing will become runnier. The carrots and red cabbage will also alter the color of the dressing the longer it sits.
- To reheat in the microwave: Warm the pork in the microwave for 1 minute then at 20 second intervals until warmed through.
- To reheat on the stove: Rewarm the pork gently over medium-low heat, adding a splash of water if the pork seems a little dry after warmed through.
- To reheat in the slow cooker: Reheat in the slow cooker for 1-2 hours on low.
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