Sugar-free barbeque pulled pork

Posted on June 4th, 2013

As I mentioned last week I’m currently devouring Michael Pollan’s Cooked, A Natural History of Transformation with a fork, spoon, knife, splade and shovel. The opening chapter (in fact, the first quarter of the book) is devoted to the art of making barbequed pulled pork. Or “barbeque” as it’s called down South (of the States).

Image via The Guardian

Image via The Guardian. I served mine at night and had bad lighting…but will be photographing soon.

Anyone familiar with the art of making “barbeque” knows a fair whack of sugar is used at some point in the process (there are different processes for different regions of the US) and that it generally involves smoking the meat. Both factors, of course, are simply beyond the scope of what I do.

Therein, a challenge was laid out for me: to create a version of barbequed pulled pork that incorporated my cooking vibe and flow. I spent a morning playing with the idea, reading up on the different methods of cooking pulled pork.

And concocted a mock version that can be plonked effortlessly in a slow cooker (press go and leave for the day), doesn’t require sugar to get the cured effect, has a barbeque flavor without requiring the smoke and is sustainable and economical. Phew! You’ll be pleased to know it worked, too! Here’s what I did:

  • I rubbed the pork in fennel and salt. The traditional way is to rub the meat in a cure of equal parts sugar and salt and leave it to cure in the fridge for a few hours before cooking. This draws off moisture, then sinks the flavour and moisture back in again. I touched on this phenomenon here. After the pork is cooked and “pulled”, a mountain of (sweet) barbeque sauce is added. I, instead, decided to flavour things with barbeque from the outset (with various spices derived from my barbeque sauce recipe in my I Quit Sugar book) and used ground fennel and salt to cure things, the fennel providing the sweetness. A rather clever solution, I thought!!
  • I used “smoked” sweet paprika. This took the place of the smokey barbeque effect. It’s quite easy to buy this stuff – it’s smoked in oak. I bought a Herbie’s one from the supermarket.
  • I cooked things up in a little apple cider vinegar and mustard. This added some extra “southern effect” and acidity to cut through the pork fat. Again, clever, no?
  • I seared the meat. I don’t always do this. But in this case, the browning added a caramelisation to build on the barbeque effect.

Slowcooked Barbeque Pulled Pork with Beetroot + Daikon Relish

I made this meal to take to my mate Kerry’s place the other night. She’s moving house and I figured she’d like to be cooked for. We used up two serves and I portioned out the remaining 5-6 serves into containers and froze…I’ll report back on how I reinvented these into new meals down the track.

The beetroot accompaniment emerged by accident. The only other food I had in the house was a beetroot and a daikon (don’t you have one at the back of your fridge?!). Kerry, for her part, was keen for me to use up the limited stuff in her fridge. I found half an apple and some bottled pickled onions at the back of hers…and voila, a “relish”.

The Pork

Serves 6-8

  • 1-1.5kg piece of pork neck or pork shoulder (preferably bone in)*
  • 3 teaspoons smoked sweet paprika (plain sweet paprika is fine, too)
  • 3 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon each ground cumin and all spice (or cinnamon)
  • 2 teaspoons ground chilli
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup red wine or stock
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ tin whole peeled tomatoes (chopped), with some of the liquid
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons rice malt syrup

Grind the fennel and peppercorns with a mortar and peste (or blender). Add the salt and other spices (not the bay leaves) and mix. Then rub the lot over the meat, rubbing well into the fatty bits. Really get your fingers into the meat, massaging it all over. Leave covered on the bench or in the fridge for at least 2 hours (for a stronger flavour I reckon you could leave it overnight).


Rub a little oil into the meat then sear in a hot frying pan until brown all over. Whack in the slow cooker and add the rest of the ingredients. Cook on low for 8 hours or high for 5 hours. Take out the pork and place in a dish and use a fork to “pull the meat” apart into shreds. Put the shreds back in the slow cooker for another 20 minutes, with the sauce (uncovered on high) and heat through.

Serve with burritos, yoghurt, beetroot and daikon relish, greens, cauliflower cream.

Note: Another method would be to rub in salt only and cook in 3/4 cup of stock only. Then toss the shredded meat through 1 cup of my sugar-free homemade barbeque sauce (from my I Quit Sugar book).

* The traditional cut for pulled pork is the shoulder, a fatty, secondary slab of meat that is perfect for slow cooking. This is a big piece of meat, however, and it doesn’t fit in standard (4.5L) slow cooker. Ask your butcher to cut you off the bone-in end. Or use neck (often called scotch or “butt” in America). It’s more expensive, but smaller.

Beetroot + Daikon Relish

Serves 4

  • 1 beetroot
  • 1 daikon (Asian turnip…use swede or turnip if you can’t find one, or simply omit)
  • ½ apple
  • ½ cup of pickled onions, sliced finely
  • ½ teaspoon stevia granules

Grate the beetroot, daikon and apple. Place in a small saucepan with the onions and stevia and a little of the vinegar from the onions (or add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar) and “sweat” over a low heat, covered, for about 15 minutes.

How do you use your pulled pork…I’m looking for ideas. Also, how many of you have decided to invest in a slowcooker? Has it been worthwhile? I’d love to know.

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  • Kellie

    Sarah thank you so much for this recipe. I recently got back from a trip to the states and all I’ve wanted to eat since is pulled meat but usually mine takes on Mexican flavours. I’m going to get straight on to making this! Thanks again!


  • Tracey

    I am so excited to try this recipe! I love pulled pork but I was horrified to find out how much sugar was in it! How would you convert this to cooking in a cooking in a cast iron casserole dish/Dutch oven? Thanks!


  • jo O’keefe

    I love pulled pork too, I love it with homemade coleslaw on a fresh roll but a favourite for your left over pork is to put it in an omelette with fresh spring onions and a handful of baby spinach as you serve and top with home made hoisin sauce.

    5 tablespoons low sugar soy
    3 tablespoons peanut butter or less to taste
    1 &1/2 tablespoons of rice malt syrup
    2teaspoons sesame oil
    fresh chilli and garlic, white pepper and 2tspns rice vinegar mixed into a sauce

    best breaky….mmmm

    over 12 months sugar free now, thanks sarah


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    that is a stellar idea!!!


  • Aimee

    Hi Sarah, thanks for this post…the recipe looks delish! I was given a slow-cooker for my birthday a couple of years ago but it’s a small one and most of the recipes I use don’t fit in it so I have actually not used it at all and stuck with using a large pot over my hot plates. Go with what you have I say or if you do buy a slow-cooker make sure it’s big enough for all your recipes xx


  • Jess @ Sparrow + Sea

    I love my slow cooker. I particularly love cooking chicken in it – I shove various cuts of chicken in (legs, thighs, sometimes maryland style), with whatever veggies I have on hand, and add wine, garlic, stock, herbs etc. The other day I did an amazing one with chicken and pumpkin that I accidentally left for way too long, and the pumpkin disintegrated into this delicious sweet puree-sauce. I had also added cinnamon sticks and allspice to it, so it was this delicious warm-winter-spiced vibe. L.O.V.E.

    PS – Sarah, as we speak, I am cooking up my first ever batch of bone broth, following your recipe. After hearing about it from so many different sources, I finally got off my butt, got my bones (and act) together, and it is now simmering on my stove. I am ready to heal my gut!


  • Adam Cordner

    Woot! A Man meal!! Thank you


  • Jasmine

    I can’t wait to try this recipe. Pork neck is a great cut for slow cooking. I braised some pork neck last year in my commercial cookery course – it was so good. I have had my slow cooker for about 7 years. During winter it has a permanent spot on the bench. I use it at least twice a week. I often put half a leg of lamb in – it comes out so tender. Lately our favourite has been a middle eastern-ish lamb stew. I just throw several lamb shoulder chops in with a cup of homemade beef stock, a few dates, sliced onion, a few smashed garlic cloves & a couple of tablespoons of the cooling spice blend (spice blend recipe from Practical Paleo – includes turmeric, cinnamon, cumin & a few other things). I usually put it on slow for 8 hours. If I’m around for the last hour or 2 I’ll throw in half a butternut pumpkin, diced. I serve it with cauliflower rice or quinoa & yoghurt with fresh mint or coriander.


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:



  • Katie

    Do you have a licence to use that image from The Guardian?


  • Jill

    Sounds lovely but I don’t have a slow cooker. Could I use a le crueset in the oven on low heat? Would that work?


    Andy Reply:

    Hi Jill,
    Yes, your le crueset will be ok – you might need to add more liquid to prevent it drying out in the oven – you can also put it on the stove on the lowest possible setting – use a simmer mat if you have one. Again, a bit more liquid might be needed and probably less time, but it’s definitely do-able.


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  • Alyson

    I have two slow-cookers: a 4 litre and a 6.5 litre and they are both put to excellent use with three teenagers. On a weekend there’ll be a pot roast in the 6 litre and cauliflower gratin in the 4, steam some beans and I hardly have to lift a finger for the feast that follows. I highly recommend them!


  • A

    oh my gosh I was just searching for pulled pork recipes without sugar (mexican monday for the long weekend coming up) AND opened your email and this came up *happy dance* THANK YOU <3 soooo happy about this can't wait to try your method Sarah….dig ya work babe !!!


  • Amy

    How funny – I made my first pulled pork last weekend! Well, I didn’t do much other than slow cook it in the oven with some old homemade apple cider I had, as it was already delicious and I just scoffed it with a green tomato and radish salsa and probiotic green tomato salsa verde (both from nourished kitchen), plus a moroccan tomato and preserved lemon salad. I know mixing it up on the cuisine-front, and lacking in patience to properly spice it, but it was all delicious.

    However next time I will work on more Mex-inspired spices like you have, and/or try the recipe for no added sugar BBQ sauce (it uses pineapple) that I found (on ‘theluckypenny blog’). Looking forward to it – thanks Sarah!

    PS And happily while the oven was on I threw in a slow-cooked roo stroganoff, which worked amazingly, and started off some roo biltong. So whilst I don’t have a slow cooker, I’m making the most of my oven :-)


  • Andy

    LOOOVE my slow cooker. In fact, I love them so much I have two. I’ll have one on the go with a bone broth, and the other cooking a casserole/stew. I also use them like an oven to do roasts – I’ll put potatoes/root veg in the bottom and the roast on top (rubbed with whatever salt and spice mix grabs me) and it’s fabulous. :)


  • Bindy

    Hi, did you take the skin off before you seared and cooked it? thks


  • Amy

    If it’s helpful I used the following guideline: at 105-110oC you need to give it 1.5-2 hours per 0.5kg.

    I had a 2.5kg shoulder, and cooked it for 8 hours and it seemed to work really well. You need to put it in something with a lid (or cover it however you can) though, with some liquid like stock or a bit of apple cider vinegar, to keep it moist and stop it drying out.



  • Catriona

    Thank you for this recipe – it was absolutely delicious! I used pork ribs (because they were on special that day!) and did it all in the one saucepan – oven-proof of course. Browned the meat on the stove-top and then slow-cooked in the oven on low (150dgs) for about 3 hours.

    A good tip: I have found recently that I turn the oven off one hour prior to ideal serving time, just leaving the lid on and the oven door closed. This further softens/relaxes the meat fibres, leaving us with delicious, delectable and delightfully gelatinous goodness!

    We have recently moved to Canberra from Newcastle. The food markets here are amazing, with plenty of butchers having economical cuts of meat – and their good bones. I ensure we have a slow cooked meal at least once a week, taking note of Sarah’s advice for the health benefits provided through the cooking of meat bones. Every spoonful feels like it is full of goodness!

    Thanks again for highlighting these more economical cuts of meat, Sarah. Tonight we’re having your cinnamon beef cheeks!


  • Jos

    OMG – the rabbit is sooooo tender – it has worked a treat – big thumbs up for pulled hopalong here!


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  • Ariane

    this sounds beautiful! i bought a slow cooker today to try this pork recipy and will definatly try yours too!


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  • Jessica

    I don’t have a slow cooker but want to use my pressure cooker. How long do you think it would take in a pressure cooker 60mins ??


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  • Brad Lorraine Kleinschmidt

    omg, sounds delish!!! sounds like it would go amazingly with some pork belly too!


  • Brad Lorraine Kleinschmidt

    it should be about the same cooking times if you use a low temp oven.


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  • Sue

    Hi I’m making pulled pork for the first time. Just wanted to know, do you use pork shoulder with the thick layer of rind/ fat or do you cut it off and do a separate crackling or something. The photo above shows a cut with no rind /fat but the ones I’ve seen all have it. Just want to clarify so I get the best result. Hope to hear from you soon, eager to make this :)


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  • Kate Graham

    I bought a 1.5kg piece of pork shoulder from the farmers market. It has a layer of skin and fat. I was just wondering if I need to remove this before cooking. Looking forward to tasting this dish.