Perform a Smoky Miracle: Pulled Pork Perfection
Pulled pork is one of the glories of American barbecue, a tender tangle of shredded meat that’s infused with fragrant wood smoke, deftly but restrainedly seasoned and sauced, and piled on soft white buns.
And it couldn’t be easier.
You don’t have to be a competition-level barbecuer (or even a son of the South) to perform this smoky, porky miracle. You do need the ability to indirect grill—this means a wood- or charcoal-burning grill or smoker with a tight-fitting lid—patience, and perhaps a cold beer or two. (What you don’t need is a Crock-Pot or other countertop slow cooker. Though they have their uses, many crimes have been committed against authentic pulled pork in these vessels.)
Perfect pulled pork starts with pork shoulder, preferably the high-on-the-hog portion commonly called pork butt or Boston butt. (The bottom section is called a picnic ham, even though it is not technically a ham.) This richly-flavored, well-marbled hunk of protein includes several discrete muscles as well as collagen and connective tissue.
Good pulled pork has been made from supermarket finds, sometimes costing as little as $1.99 per pound. But if possible, look for locally-grown meat—ideally, from a heritage breed like Duroc, Berkshire, or Red Wattle—that was raised humanely. Though you can buy pork butts that weigh as little as 3 pounds, larger ones make more efficient use of your time and fuel and have a better ratio of succulent meat to crusty bark. Plus, leftovers are a wonderful thing—great for nachos, tacos, burritos, cubanos (Cuban sandwiches), omelets, pizza, or as a stuffing for burgers or potato skins.
Now comes the hard part. Wait—there is no hard part. Working over a rimmed baking sheet, simply sprinkle the pork butt very generously on all sides with salt and pepper or your favorite rub: we’re partial to Steven’s All-Purpose Rub or his new Project Smoke Carolina Pit Powder. For crustier bark, wrap the pork butt tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Or smoke it immediately. It will be delicious either way.
Set up your grill or smoker for indirect grilling according to the manufacturer’s directions. Extra points if hickory logs fuel your fire, but hickory chunks or soaked wood chips are fine, too. Fruitwoods also go well with pork. Preheat to about 250 to 275 degrees. (We’ve cooked pork butts at lower temperatures and higher ones, too; they’re very forgiving, almost impossible to mess up.) Place the pork butt on the grill or smoker grate directly over the drip pan. Close the lid and relax. You now have hours to kill—maybe as many as 10 for a 5- to 6-pound butt. Replenish the fuel and adjust the vents as needed to maintain smoking temperatures. You can stop adding wood chips or chunks after the first 4 hours of smoking as the meat will have already absorbed the smoke’s essence and developed that all-important pink smoke ring.
Once the internal temperature of the meat reaches 195 to 200 degrees on an instant-read or remote thermometer—this one from Maverick enables you to monitor the temperature from your smartphone—place the pork butt in an insulated cooler. For easier cleanup and to collect flavorful juices, place foil or a foil drip pan underneath the meat. While the meat’s still uncomfortably hot to the touch, remove the bone and separate the shoulder into chunks using forks, tongs, meat claws, or your hands, preferably protected by insulated rubber gloves. Shred the pork, discarding any unappetizing bits. Season with additional rub, if desired, and moisten with any accumulated juices and North Carolina-style Pig Pucker Sauce or your favorite barbecue sauce. (If your favorite sauce is thick or gloppy, thin it out with apple juice or a bit of vinegar.)
PULLED PORK TIPS
• When cooked to the proper temperature (195 to 200 degrees), the blade bone will come away cleanly from the meat.
• If the pork has to be served before it reaches the recommended temperature or has cooled before being pulled, chop it with a sharp cleaver. It’s often served this way in eastern North Carolina, where whole hogs are favored over pork shoulders. In Memphis, pork may come sliced.
• Pulled pork should not be swimming in sauce. Add a small amount at a time and serve extra sauce on the side.
• Competition barbecuers are well-acquainted with a tender, succulent loin-shaped muscle usually referred to as the “money muscle.” (It makes their turn-in boxes more attractive to judges.) On a crosscut pork shoulder, this muscle is located opposite the blade bone. Some pitmasters remove it when it reaches 180 degrees and slice it as they would a pork tenderloin. Be sure to taste it before you mix it into the remainder of the pulled pork. Or save it for a special sandwich. Hey, cook’s privilege.
• Include tender meat and bits of bark in each sandwich.
• Always use pork shoulder for pulled pork. Pork loin and/or tenderloin are too lean.
• It’s not necessary to inject pork shoulders with apple juice or other liquids. The meat is juicy and flavorful enough on its own.
• Don’t panic if the internal temperature of your pork butt stalls between 150 and 160 degrees. The temperature will eventually rise. You can wrap the pork tightly in foil to speed the cooking process, but know that the bark will soften in the steam.
• Pulled pork is a good candidate for your first overnight cook. Try one of our methods for building a slow-burning fire.
• Some markets sell skin-on pork shoulders. Remove the skin in one piece, trim any excess fat from the pork, season the meat, and replace the skin, tying with butcher’s string. Then, season the skin. At the end of the cook, cut the strings and chop the now-crisp skin into bite-size pieces. Mix with the pulled pork.
• For textural contrast, butter and toast the buns before assembling the sandwiches.
• How much pork will be needed per serving? We usually figure on 4 to 6 ounces of finished meat per sandwich—more if you’re feeding big eaters, less if women and children will be attending and there will be other meats or lots of appetizers and side dishes. A bone-in pork shoulder can lose up to 40 percent of its weight once its been cooked and pulled. Therefore, a 5 pound pork shoulder—80 ounces—will yield 48 ounces of usable meat (80 X .60), or 8 6-ounce sandwiches.