Cuban Pulled Pork, Alyssa Style

As promised, here is how I make pulled pork into something Cuban-American.

Pulled pork might be best known as a staple of southern USian barbecue, part of the “holy trinity” of barbecue staples (the others being brisket and spareribs), but it is far from unique to this cultural area. I grew up with special occasions being marked by caja china roasts, with whole suckling pigs being roasted and served from specialized barbecues. Once the fresh experience was over, there was inevitably a lot left over, even after splitting it between select attendees. One of the easiest ways to store and serve it was as shredded or pulled pork. This version was not as consummately sauced as southern-US pulled pork and usually served differently. Hispanic Americans will serve anything with rice, but Cuban-style pulled pork would often be served in various other ways: as filling for tamales, as a component of Cuban sandwiches, or…yes, with rice. With its distinctive citrus flavor and heady aroma, this is a pork preparation one does not soon forget.

A key ingredient in Cuban-style pulled pork is naranja agria, or bitter orange, juice. This juice is made from a specific citrus cultivar, Citrus x aurantium, also called the “marmalade orange,” “Seville orange,” or other names. Its flavor is distinctively sour compared to orange juice meant for drinking and, as the other names suggest, they are most often reserved for making marmalade and other culinary preparations. Naranja agria juice can be difficult to source outside Hispanic enclaves, but it can be substituted with ordinary orange juice and additional acid. Note that naranja agria has properties similar to grapefruit when it comes to pharmaceutical interactions and many commercial “naranja agria” products are actually blends of orange and grapefruit juice rather than true naranja agria.

A bottle of Badia-brand naranja agria.
This is the good stuff, and by “the good stuff,” I mean I thought it was the good stuff until I checked the ingredients and it turned out to be an orange/grapefruit blend.

This recipe serves far too many. It capably provides the amount of filling needed for my tamal recipe, which is enough to serve at least eight people. Freeze whatever you will not be consuming within three days.

Equipment

You will need a your preferred cutting and measuring tools, a blender or food processor, a slow cooker (preferably an Instant Pot), a large bowl, and two forks. You will also need a small bowl and a tool for mixing inside it, such as a chopstick or small fork. You may also need a large frying pan and your preferred source of bottom-up heat and a saucepan and wooden spoon.

Ingredients

Metric and imperial units used here do not match 1:1 for convenience to the home cook. I used imperial measures while cooking; feel free to vary ratios slightly to suit one’s palate.

  • Fennel bulb, ½
  • Dried oregano, 1.5 tablespoons
  • Salt, 1 tablespoon
  • Ground black pepper, 1.5 teaspoons
  • Ground cumin, 1 tablespoon
  • Naranja agria juice, 594 mL / 20 fl oz. Substitute with 1 cup grapefruit juice, ¾ cup lime juice, and ½ cup orange juice.
  • White vinegar, ¼ cup
  • Extra virgin olive oil, ¼ cup
  • Asafoetida/hing to taste
  • One pork shoulder, approximately 12 pounds or 5.5 kilograms.
  • Cornstarch, 1 tablespoon
  • Water, 3 tablespoons

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: As written, this recipe is gluten-free. Note that asafoetida/hing may or may not contain gluten depending on how it is prepared.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe is primarily a protein preparation and is therefore low-carb.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe makes several digestion-friendly substitutions and should work on a low-FODMAP diet.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan:  A similar flavor profile can potentially be deployed with a meat substitute, but other details will vary extensively.

Preparation

The Night Before

  1. Chop the fennel and blend it with the dried oregano, salt, ground black pepper, ground cumin, naranja agria, and white vinegar.
  2. Marinate the pork shoulder in the result of Step 1 If the pork shoulder is not completely enveloped in marinade in your container, flip it approximately halfway through the marinating time. The recommended marinating time is 12 hours.

Pulled Pork

  1. Heat the asafoetida/hing in olive oil on medium heat. If using an Instant Pot, the Sauté setting is ideal.
  2. Remove the pork shoulder from the marinade and sear on all sides in the result of Step 3. If using an Instant Pot, the Sauté setting is ideal.
  3. Add the marinade to the slow-cooker, which should now contain the asafoetida/hing oil, the pork shoulder, and the marinade, and slow-cook for at least six hours. If the marinade does not completely cover the pork shoulder, flip the pork shoulder halfway through.
  4. Remove the pork shoulder from the marinade and place in a large bowl. Shred the pork shoulder with two forks. There should be few or no large pieces left. Any portion that was outside the marinade will be harder and drier.
  5. If you are using pulled pork as tamal filling or as a component of Cuban sandwiches, it is ready and can be so used now. If you are serving pulled pork directly, consider making the remaining liquid in the slow cooker into a sauce for it using the steps below.
An image of pulled pork in a bowl with two forks
Ready for tamales or sandwiches.

Sauce

  1. Drain the slow cooker into a saucepan on medium-high heat. If using an Instant Pot, switching to the Sauté setting works instead.
  2. Make a slurry of cornstarch and water and add it to the pan or Instant Pot. Stir while boiling until the sauce reaches one’s desired thickness. Depending on the amount of drippings, the desired thickness, and the desired ratio of sauce to meat, it may be necessary to boil for longer or shorter, or to add more cornstarch slurry.
  3. Combine the sauce with the pulled pork and serve.

This version of pulled pork always seems to be a surprise to people, providing a hearty, tangy flavor experience quite distinct from what usually comes to mind for this meat. It is always a hit and I hope it serves you well. Happy cooking!

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Cuban Pulled Pork, Alyssa Style
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