Pulled pork is a quintessential barbecue food. It’s not that difficult to make, pork butts are easy to find at your local grocery store, and you can make it taste any way you want. Do you want sweet pulled pork? Go for it. Want to do more of a Texas-style savory pulled pork with salt and pepper? Have at it. You can even do more of a Tex-Mex-inspired pulled pork.
However, making good pulled pork doesn’t end when your pork butt comes off the smoker. The rub and the smoke is just the beginning. You can elevate your BBQ by picking high-quality pulled pork sandwich toppings. These can range from simple options like a quality BBQ sauce, onions, or coleslaw, or you can get adventurous by adding jalapenos, kimchi, different types of cheese, or even pineapple.
It all depends on what flavor profile you’re trying to go for with your pulled pork. So let’s dive in to answer the question of what to put on pulled pork sandwiches!
Table of Contents
What Flavors Do We Want In Our Pulled Pork Sandwich Toppings?
Usually pulled pork sandwiches are pretty standard: smoked pulled pork, barbecue sauce, maybe coleslaw and pickles, and maybe some onion on a bun. So perhaps you haven’t given it much thought about what toppings are good on pulled pork, and that’s okay.
To start, we need to understand what a pork butt is and what kind of flavors it brings to the sandwich. The pork butt comes from the pig’s shoulder and has plenty of marbling that will render throughout the smoking process, resulting in tender and juicy meat. Pulled pork is on the richer side due to that rendered fat. Also, like most pork cuts, there isn’t a whole lot of prominent flavor, meaning pulled pork is almost a blank canvas.
It’s pretty common to see pork butts rubbed with a sweeter BBQ dry rub then combined with a sweet sauce after pulling. However, if you’re in North Carolina, you’ll find some different options, including a vinegar sauce.
In fact, it’s in my opinion that pulled pork pairs quite well with toppings that have some vinegar or tangy aspect. It helps cut through the richness of the meat. So that can be a vinegar-based sauce or simply a barbecue sauce that has apple cider vinegar as one of the ingredients. You can also use a tangy coleslaw, pickles, onions, or even kimchi to achieve the affect.
However, some people love to go with the sweet factor, so you can absolutely lean into that with a sweet sauce. You can also go with a football tailgate idea by topping your pulled pork sandwich with onion rings and nacho cheese.
The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the best pulled pork toppings!
1. BBQ Sauce
Truth be told, you’ve got to start with barbecue sauce when it comes to pulled pork sandwich toppings. While a lot of places will toss their pulled pork in a sauce before serving, that doesn’t have to be the case. Or perhaps you simply like a ton of sauce on your pulled pork. Either way, you should always consider what BBQ sauce you’re putting on your pulled pork sandwich.
If you’ve ever wandered down the sauce aisle at your local supermarket, the options can seem endless. However, you do want to go back and think about what sort of experience you want to have when thinking about your toppings for pulled pork sandwiches. Do you want a sweet experience? There are plenty of options out there.
However, I’m a fan of a balanced barbecue sauce. I want sweet and I want tangy. I look for sauces (or make my own) that have both a sweet tomato base and apple cider vinegar. I love sweet pulled pork, but I want something that provides a bit of balance as well. I also like sauces that have some garlic in them. Garlic just goes well with about every cut of meat that you can smoke in my opinion.
If you’re looking for some homemade BBQ sauces, we’ve got a couple of options for you here at Angry BBQ. For a tangier option, check out Michael Haas’s homemade BBQ sauce (it actually uses two types of vinegar!) If you’re a fan of whiskey barbecue sauce, check out this homemade Jack Daniel’s BBQ sauce from Michael’s friend Brad Korber.
Also, be willing to experiment with the type of barbecue sauce you use. You can try a mustard-based sauce that is more prevalent in South Carolina. The tanginess from the vinegar will help with the richness of the pulled pork. For a combination of sweet and tangy, you could even try using honey mustard either as part of your sauce or simply as a standalone topping for non-sauced pulled pork. Yeah, it’s not an actual barbecue sauce, but it’s still a sauce. You could even experiment with trying horseradish sauce on your pulled pork to add a spicy kick.
Coleslaw is one of the most iconic pulled pork toppings. Full disclaimer before we go further, I am actually not a fan of coleslaw (however, my wife is.) But my personal opinion doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people love coleslaw.
It provides a crunchy texture that compliments the tender pulled pork well, and depending on what version of coleslaw you prefer, it can be sweet, tangy, or even a mixture of both.
Now not all coleslaw is the same. Jannah Haas has two types of coleslaw that she breaks down: a mayonnaise base and a vinegar base (but even the mayo base has vinegar in it.) Arguably, the mayo version is the most well-known while the vinegar-based option is a little less prevalent.
There is a third, more regional version of coleslaw that you might be familiar with if you’ve spent time in North Carolina: red coleslaw. This is a staple of Western North Carolina BBQ, commonly called Lexington-style barbecue (and occasionally Piedmont-style barbecue.) It combines a vinegar and tomato base and eschews mayo. This packs plenty of tanginess to balance out the richness of your pulled pork.
If you want to take your pulled pork in a different direction, say Asian fusion, you might want to look for kimchi to replace your typical coleslaw. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that is a staple of Korean BBQ. While it frequently uses Napa cabbage, it’s quite different from typical coleslaw in that it is fermented. It can be sour, salty, tangy, and even spicy. If you’re looking for a unique pulled pork sandwich topping, kimchi is one way to literally and figuratively spice up your pulled pork.
4. Red Onions
Sticking with a bit of a veggie theme here, but red onions are a great option for a bit of crunch and tanginess/pop without having to do much work at all. They’re great for eating raw, so you can simply slice them and toss on top of the sandwich. If you want to invest a little more time for some more tanginess, you can even pickle red onions. If you use them within a week of pickling, you’ll still get some of that crisp texture to go with that enhanced tanginess.
Speaking of pickled food, why not go with the O.G. pickled food, the pickle? It’s a staple of BBQ sandwiches, and it can provide that needed tanginess to balance the richness of the pulled pork. You can use bread and butter pickles or dill pickles depending on your preference.
If you’re looking for a bit more a spicy kick in your pulled pork toppings, jalapenos can be the way to go. When Michael makes his Aaron Franklin-inspired pulled pork, he answers the question of what to put on a pulled pork sandwich with jalapenos.
Raw jalapenos can provide a kick while giving your pulled pork sandwich some added crunch in the texture department. You can even pickle jalapenos to add that vinegar tanginess to the heat of the jalapeno.
Want to get even more creative? Why not batter and fry up some jalapenos? This adds some fun texture while adding more personality to your sandwich.
7. Onion Rings
Speaking of fried foods, why not combine the joy of onions and fried foods by layering on some onion rings onto your pulled pork sandwich? This might seem ridiculous to some and it may not result in a traditional pulled pork sandwich, but you get some great crunch and flavor added. If you’re big into tailgating for football games or any sporting events (or love to host game day events at home,) this is right up your alley.
8. Nacho Cheese
Wait, what? Hear me out. Let’s roll with the game day theme and cover that onion ring-topped pulled pork sandwich with some melty, gooey, warm nacho cheese. It’s going to be a mess but it’s going to be perfect in the parking lot before heading into the game or during halftime at home.
Sure, this adds to the richness of the pulled pork sandwich. You can always balance it out with a vinegar-forward BBQ sauce, or you could simply lean into making this a super-rich pulled pork sandwich. It might work well as a slider, too.
9. Other Cheeses
If the thought of super-processed nacho cheese kind of discourages you, it’s not the only cheese you can use as a pulled pork sandwich topping. A nice sharp cheddar cheese can be a good counterpunch to the richness and sweetness of pulled pork. You can go with more of a gooey, smooth option in Monterey jack. If you’re looking for a bit more of a kick, pepper jack can bring some spice to your sandwich or pork sliders.
10. Pimento Cheese
If you live in the south, visit the south with any regularity, or watch the Masters golf tournament that takes place in Augusta, Georgia, then you may have heard of pimento cheese. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this regional dish, a pimento (or pimiento) is a small pepper that turns red when ripe and has a good amount of sweetness with next to no heat. It’s compared to red bell peppers but has a stronger flavor.
Pimento cheese is a spread made from chopped pimentos, shredded cheddar cheese, and mayo. You can also find spicy versions with jalapenos added as well. Either way, pimento cheese is a creamy, cheesy spread that is a great topping for pulled pork sandwiches.
Yes, even fruit can exist on a pulled pork sandwich. While you could put a slice of raw pineapple on your pulled pork, there are even better ways to utilize it. You could use pineapple juice to create a more tropical-style barbecue sauce. You could also grill pineapple slices.
Yes, you can grill pineapple. The heat helps caramelize the sugars naturally present in pineapple, adding a depth of flavor and enhancing the sweetness. You can grill it as it is, but you can add even more flavors by letting it marinate in a bag with honey, brown sugar, or some other sweetener, some salt, butter, and even a hot sauce for an extra kick before putting it on the grill. Just be sure to clean your grill grates thoroughly afterward.
Final Thoughts On Pulled Pork Toppings
If you’ve ever looked at a pulled pork sandwich and wondered to yourself about what to put on it to make one of the best pulled pork sandwiches, you aren’t alone. Thankfully, pulled pork is a great base for all sorts of flavors. You can keep it simple with your favorite barbecue sauce, maybe add some coleslaw or red onion, and enjoy it that way.
You can also take pulled pork in all sorts of directions. If you want more of an Asian fusion-style sandwich, grab yourself some kimchi. If you want a tropical, maybe Hawaiian-inspired dish, grill up some pineapple slices and use that for pulled pork toppings.
Just keep in mind that you want to make sure you’re thinking about balance in your flavors. Adding tanginess, whether through a BBQ sauce with vinegar or onions or something pickled, can help balance out the richness and sweetness.
However, you can always eschew the balanced thinking for game day and lean heavily into over-the-top flavors with onion rings and nacho cheese. Regardless of what you do, this list should give you a solid start!
What are your favorite toppings for pulled pork sandwiches? Let us know in the comments!
Question: What Are Some Good Side Dishes For Pulled Pork Sandwiches?
Answer: There are a lot of options when it comes to pairing a side dish with your sandwich. You can go simple and traditional with french fries or potato salad. Really, any BBQ side dish classics using potatoes works well here. Heck, just grab a bag of your favorite potato chips for something really simple.
If you’re making this during the summer, corn on the cob works quite well, too. Pro tip: leave the outer husk on, soak your corn for half an hour, then brush the corn itself with butter, salt, and pepper, then grill it. Best corn on the cob ever.
Question: Should I Use A Pork Butt Or Pork Shoulder When Making Pulled Pork Sandwiches?
Answer: Pork butts are the best cut for making pulled pork sandwiches in our opinion. They are fairly uniform in size and shape which makes the cooking process go more smoothly. Pork butts also have more marbling than pork shoulder which results in a more tender end product. Check out our comparison breakdown of pork butt vs pork shoulder for more details.