Living in New Orleans and then in Alabama I grew up with variations of pulled pork and cabbage. Most of these variations included very sloppy pulled pork swimming in its own fat. Then it was served on a white bread bun and covered in sugary coleslaw.
That was during my 20s. Since then we moved away from the South and I pulled well away from my 20s. So I started making a healthier version of this BBQ classic. It’s healthier but I won’t call it healthy!
I Use Pork Shoulder Roast for My Pulled Pork and Cabbage Bowls
Whether you use a boneless or bone-in pork shoulder roast is up to you and your wallet. For this version I used a boneless one because it’s all they had at my local supermarket at the time. Either will work.
I would not use any other cut, such as ham or loin as they will not “pull”.
Start With A Dry Brine
Dry brines have gotten very popular now so I feel somewhat vindicated that I started doing this years ago. I would take my inspiration from bacon curing techniques, but without the curing salt.
My brine for pork roasts starts with two parts of sugar to one part salt. Pork and sugar love one another. After this I will add tablespoons of other spices. I like to use ground cayenne, ground paprika, ground mustard, ground ginger, and ground black pepper. I like the heat, tang, and depth these ingredients add to the mix. If you plan to oven roast your pork instead of using a smoker and want a smoke flavor then try smoked paprika.
With a dry brine, you combine salt, sugar, and a variety of other spices,. Then you rub the meat with it, and let it sit in the fridge for a day or two. You turn it a few times while it’s there so the brine gets all over the meat.
Without getting too technical, the salt first pulls moisture out of the meat. That moisture combines with the seasoning then moves back into the meat. This process ebbs and flows until the meat and the salty brine created outside of the meat reach a relative equilibrium. If I lost you, let’s just say it works like a turbocharged marinade because the brine is extremely salty.
This process would overseason things like chicken breasts but large roasts, such as a pork shoulder roast have enough in them that they can take in a good amount of salt.
Cooking the Pork Shoulder Roast
The deities of the BBQ world ask you to smoke these things for 12-18 hours, low and slow, getting past “the stall” and other such BBQ traps. It took me awhile to come to terms with this but I don’t have the patience to do this by the book. My reality is I need this to go into the smoker or oven in the morning and be ready by dinnertime. There will be long faces if this does not hit dinner plates before 7 p.m.
So I devised a simple and nearly foolproof method for making this happen. I put my roast in a 220-degree smoker (I use a simple electric smoker) for about 6 hours (you could use the oven at the same temperature). Then I put it into a crock pot for 2-3 hours to finish the cooking. The smoker gives the meat lots of flavor and color but won’t cook it to a point where you can pull it, at least not in 6 hours. I put it into the crockpot on high for the first hour then drop the temp to medium the rest of the way, which could be 1-2 hours more.
You know that it’s done because when you try to remove it from the crock pot and place it in a baking dish it will fall apart. Once it’s in the dish, all you have to do is gently pull it apart with a couple of forks.
Proper Seasoning Finishes Your Pulled Pork and Cabbage
At this point you’ve probably been tasting some of the succulent pork and thinking about hiding it somewhere so you can keep it for yourself. Before you do this, however, take it to the next level and season it again.
I like to take a couple of spoonfuls of drippings in the bottom of the crock pot and add it back to the meat. Then I like to add black pepper and salt to my taste. Finally I will add a few splashes of my favorite BBQ sauce or even a little vinegar. I would choose something more on the vinegar side because that will really compliment all the other flavors you’ve built. Your diners can then choose the sauce they want to smother the meat.
What About the Cabbage?
At this point you can do anything you want with the meat, but I like to finely shred a head of cabbage, then drip some BBQ sauce on it and microwave it for about 60-90 seconds. This will soften it and warm it up. Drop some meat on top and add sauce and any other garnishes you want. I like sliced jalapenos or even a little sauerkraut.
This dish has been a staple in my family now for years and makes great leftover lunches, especially for people working from home. For leftovers, add the shredded cabbage to a bowl, then a pile of meat, then some sauce and microwave about 2-3 minutes. You won’t be disappointed!
Pulled Pork and Cabbage Bowls
- Slow Cooker / Crock Pot
Dry Brine Marinade
- ½ cup Brown sugar
- ¼ cup salt
- 1 tbsp Paprika I use sweet paprika, not smoked, for this because I'm smoking the pork. You could use smoked if you are not smoking the pork.
- 1 tbsp Ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp Ground cayenne pepper
- 1 tbsp Ground dry mustard
- 1 tbsp Ground dry ginger
- 4-5 lb Pork shoulder roast I used boneless but you could use bone-in as well. Don't use one that has been pre-marinated, which are older cuts of meat.
- 1 head Green Cabbage
- 1-2 tbsp Your favorite barbeque sauce
- Salt and pepper to taste
The Day Before You Cook This
- For dry brine marinade, combine and blend all ingredients in jar. You can save half of the dry brine for another day! If you plan to oven roast the pork instead of smoke it, then use smoked paprika instead of regular.
- Remove pork roast from packaging, rinse in cold water and dry with paper towels. Place in gallon plastic zipper bag and coat with half of the dry brine mixture. You should get the roast nearly completely covered but you don't have to be too worried about it.
- Place roast in bag on a plate or large bowl (in case it leaks) and refrigerate overnight. Turn the roast over every few hours and before you go to bed as the salt will cause the meat to release moisture and will create a wet brine that will marinate the meat.
The Day of Cooking
- Remove roast from fridge, remove from bag and gently pat dry. You don't want to remove any brine stuck to the meat. You just want to remove large pockets of moisture. Set it out to warm up and air dry for a bid.
- Preheat smoker or oven to 220°
- Once smoker or oven is up to temperature, place roast in center and cook, uncovered, for 6 hours.
- After 6 hours, remove roast from oven and place in crock pot on high for 1 hour. Then turn temperature down to low for another 2 hours. After it cooks this long it should come apart easily if you try to move it. If not, go another hour.
- Remove pork from slow cooker and place in large pan or bowl. Shred the meat with two forks. VERY IMPORTANT: Season the meat at this stage with a couple of tbsp of drippings in the slow cooker along with salt, and pepper. You also can use barbeque sauce or vinegar, but not too much.
- Shred cabbage and place at the bottom of a bowl. Top with pulled pork and any other condiments like barbeque sauce, sliced jalapenos, etc. At this point I throw the whole bowl into the microwave for a minute or two so the cabbage softens a bit. If you are having leftovers with this, add all the ingredients to a bowl and microwave on high for 2-3 minutes.