Pulled pork sandwiches are sublime—if you construct them properly and cook the pork to tender perfection. Luckily, we have the perfect pulled pork sandwich recipe to see you through all seasons.
With summer well underway, pulled pork sandwiches are back as the go-to item for every backyard barbecue, potluck, tailgate, or even lunch on the go. Despite being a filling, savory comfort food, we’ll be seeing a lot of pulled pork sandwiches throughout the summer and well into football season (that is, until it gets too cold to tailgate).
Personally…I am not a big fan of pork—but I do love a pulled pork sandwich! I think it’s just perfect. Slow-cooked pulled pork has a naturally sweet and savory flavor profile, and with the right spices, seasonings, sauces, and toppings, those flavors get even better. There is also a lot you can do with textures and consistencies to make a pulled pork sandwich extra-enjoyable to eat through the last bite.
So if you’re considering making pulled pork sandwiches for your next get-together this summer, follow these tips from the top bun to the bottom bun and everything in between, and your sandwiches will come out perfect every single time.
Since pulled pork sandwiches tend to be very flavorful with the meat, sauce, and toppings, you want a bread that will absorb some of that flavor. I definitely recommend a hamburger bun (or mini buns if you’re doing sliders). You want a softer bread to capitalize on how tender the meat is, and buns that are strong enough to hold a heavy sandwich without ripping or falling apart. Kings Hawaiian rolls in particular are great for pulled pork sandwiches because they are a little bit sweeter than the average hamburger bun, and that sweetness will highlight the complementary flavors in your sandwich.
A lot of people recommend toasting the bun slightly—which would usually make any sandwich better—but I think a harder bread with the tender meat may create too much of a textural clash. There are plenty of other opportunities for you to build some crunch into your sandwich (i.e., coleslaw!); I don’t think the bread is the place for that.
It’s a pulled pork sandwich after all, so where would we be without the perfect pulled pork?
I’m sure you’ve all heard that the longer you cook pork, the better it turns out. In fact, there is an “American Dad” episode where one of the characters leaves pork in the slow cooker for 12 days just because he heard it would taste better if it cooks longer (spoiler alert: everyone got sick). While that might (definitely) be a bit much IRL, there is some truth to this saying! Cooking the meat longer makes it much more tender and easy to shred (it pulls right off, hence “pulled pork”), and the more time you have to let your seasonings and spice sink in, the more flavorful your sandwich will be from the inside out.
We have a few fab recipes for pulled pork: our Easy Slow Cooker Pulled Pork recipe yields a more classic flavor; our Spicy Pulled Pork recipe is great if you’re in the mood for a little extra kick; and our Beer-Braised Pulled Pork recipe is the both of best worlds, plus beer.
Let’s go into why these recipes are particularly great. First, as I said earlier, pork naturally has both sweet and savory flavors to it. Our classic pulled pork recipe calls for cumin and garlic (among other spices) to heighten the savory flavors, and it also calls for cinnamon and brown sugar to heighten the sweetness of the meat. By using similar flavor profiles to enhance what’s already in the pork, you will be getting the most flavor possible out of the meat.
As far as the spicy recipe goes, you’d be adding in some acid to offset the natural flavors in the pork. Orange juice and jalapenos are acidic foods that pair well with the flavor of pork, and the peppers will work to add an extra spicy profile to the sandwich. It’s all about marrying flavors and letting them sit with each other for full effect.
The beer-braised pulled pork is a little bit like a combination of both of the above: it contains cinnamon, garlic, cider vinegar, habanero, and of course, beer—don’t use anything too hoppy or it will make the pork taste bitter. A nutty brown ale enhances the sweetness and mellows some of the spice while adding a deep, complex flavor to the slow-cooked meat.
A tip on shredding the meat: While a couple of forks perform the job well, a stand mixer makes even quicker work of it.
By far, barbecue sauce is the best choice for a pulled pork sandwich, and you can never have too much because you really want to pack on that flavor. Seriously, spread it on both buns, pour it over the meat before you close the buns, and even dip your sandwich in some sauce on the side! Its sweetness and slight kick pairs well with the sweetness in the pork that we’ve been talking about.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a barbecue sauce at your local supermarket. There are tons of sauces out there, and some are even made specifically for pulled pork. If you’re having a hard time choosing, Sweet Baby Ray’s has always been a favorite when my family gets together for a barbecue.
Sweet Baby Ray's Barbecue Sauce, 2 for $9.96 on Amazon
Or if you’re in the mood to get really fancy and make your own barbecue sauce from scratch, try our Basic Barbecue Sauce recipe. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of ways to make barbecue sauce, and you may find that little additions and subtractions here and there go a long way for your perfect sandwich. For example, I would definitely add a little bit of mustard to our basic recipe for a slight kick among the sweeter flavors, but tweak it depending on the base flavors of your pork recipe too.
And fear not, if you don’t like barbecue sauce there are a couple of other options that should work just as well. Horseradish is surprisingly good on a pulled pork sandwich, or a little bit of mayo could go a long way. Also, since barbecue sauce is usually based around some combination of ketchup, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce, you could use any one of those alone on your sandwich, and your flavors will still blend really well.
So far, you’ve built a sandwich that is soft and tender in texture, and sweet and savory in flavor. As far as toppings go, you will then want to avoid anything we’ve already done. You need some crunch to offset the tender meat and soft bun, and some acid, heat, or salt (or all of the above) to offset the sweet and savory meat and sauce. This isn’t to say you won’t be able to taste the pork anymore; your sandwich toppings are there to complement the flavors and textures you already have while also building another flavor and texture profile for you to enjoy in one comprehensive bite with the meat and sauce.
Your best bet is a slaw, which is just chopped raw vegetables, usually in a vinegar-based dressing for pickling. They are simple to whip up and you can make one out of anything; there are literally dozens of slaw recipes on our site alone.
The three I’d recommend above all others for pulled pork sandwiches in particular are our Tangy Cabbage Slaw, Fennel Apple Slaw, or Spicy Lime and Jalapeno slaw. The tangy cabbage slaw is basically your classic coleslaw, and that is a no-brainer for a pulled pork sandwich. The fennel apple slaw is a lucky find, as everyone knows pork goes great with apples (and fennel too)! And finally, especially if you’re making your sandwich with the spicy pulled pork recipe, the lime and jalapeno slaw adds a great splash of citrus and a perfect amount of heat.
All three recipes are crunchy and acidic and would balance the flavors in the pork and sauce remarkably. Not to mention the fresh, slight crunch is super refreshing against the warm, tender pork. You could try pickled red onions too.
Side dishes are just as important as the main event! When I’m planning a barbecue, my rule tends to be that if you can get it at a deli, it’s a perfect side dish for pulled pork. If you’ve already got coleslaw on your sandwich, potato or macaroni salad would be a great side. Additionally, you could never go wrong with some chips. Barbecue-flavored chips would be overkill, as you already have so much barbecue flavor in your sandwich (unless you skipped the sauce, that is). I’d go with a classic plain potato chip or even salt and vinegar, to complement the vinegar in your slaw. If you’re running to the store, Wise and Lays make the best classic chips, and Cape Cod brand salt and vinegar is my personal favorite.
But I get it if you don’t want to buy something at the store. Go hard or go home, right? Luckily, we have plenty of other great recipes to try: Potato Salad with Peas and Mint, a Classic Macaroni Salad just like mom (or the deli) used to make, and tons of recipes for various homemade chips (my personal favorite is our Homemade Sweet Potato Chip recipe).
So we’ve officially broken down how to make the perfect pulled pork sandwich. I’ve taught you everything I know, so happy cooking and even happier eating!
Tell us how you like to make your ultimate pulled pork sandwich in the comments!