Perfect Pulled Pork Recipe
With smoke woven through shards of moist meat, potent bits of strongly seasoned crust mixed in, and a gentle splash of barbecue sauce, pulled pork is perfect for feeding large crowds, especially because it is cheap.
Pulled pork is a great place for the beginner to start experimenting with smoke cooking. It is made from big clod of meat that is a lot more forgiving than something like ribs. And you can do it right on practically any grill with a lid.
In North Carolina there is a controversy, to put it mildly, over what part of the hog to use for pork sandwiches. In the eastern part of the state, most joints cook the whole hog, chop the meat, and mix it all together. They feel that the unique textures and flavors of the different muscles makes the meat more interesting. They love going to “pig pickins”, meals where a hog is cooked, boned, chopped,doused with a spicy hot vinegarry sauce, and displayed in its skin on a buffet so folks can pick the meat they want with tongs.
Inland and in the foothills of North Carolina, the preference is for shoulder meat and a sauce with a little tomato paste or ketchup mixed in. Frankly, I’m with them. Pork shoulder is the cut that is best for texture and flavor, and it has the added benefit of being inexpensive, often under $2 per pound.
Pork shoulder is a hunk of meat that is laced with flavorful fat and connective tissue. That’s the story of the origin of Southern barbecue. A cheap cut of meat that the slave owners didn’t want, that, as the slaves discovered, when cooked low and slow, when the fat and collagens melt, the muscle fibers are made tender, moist, and succulent. Like buttah. And the process, which can take 8 to 12 hours or more, is the quintessence of Southern smoke roasting. Lazy, slow, easy, fragrant. You set up a lawn chair, sip a cup of coffee as you put the meat on in the morning, as the sun gets high, you switch to cool refreshing beer, mid-day a mint julep refreshes the palate, and as it approaches doneness, with the sun waning, you switch to straight Bourbon.
A full shoulder can weigh 8 to 20 pounds and has two halves, the “picnic ham” and the “Boston butt”. The picnic ham, runs from the shoulder socket through to the elbow. A picnic ham is not a true ham. Hams come from the rear legs only. The picnic usually weighs from 4 to 12 pounds.
The top half of the shoulder, from the the dorsal of the animal near the spine through the shoulder blade, has too many names: Boston butt, pork butt, butt, shoulder butt, shoulder roast, country roast, and the shoulder blade roast. Calling it a butt may seem ironic because it comes from the front of the hog. No ifs ands or butts, it makes the best sandwich meat on the hog.
Look for Berkshire. Berkshire hogs are a breed that became scarce when the pork promoters moved to leaner pork to promote it as “the other white meat”. Berkshires (and Duroc and other “heritage” breeds) tend to have darker, fattier, and more flavorful meat. The best pulled pork I ever had was a Berkshire served without sauce by Barry Sorkin of Smoque BBQ in Chicago. It looked like turkey dark meat and was incredibly tender and flavorful. It is not on their menu yet because it is expensive, but one can hope.
Why is it called a butt? Some say that because, when trimmed, the butt is barrel shaped, and barrels were often called butts by English wine merchants. Others say that they are called butts because they were shipped in barrels. A reader has suggested that a butt is a name for a joint in woodworking, and the shoulder is a joint area. One can only speculate why it is called the Boston butt, but my friends in New York have offered some unkind suggestions.
Butts can weigh from 4 to 14 pounds and they usually have shoulder blade bones in them although some butchers remove the bones and sell “boneless butts”. There is some evidence that the bone adds flavor, so I buy bone-in butts. Butts are often are tied with string because they fall apart easily. It is not unusual to find partial butts in the 4 to 5 pound range. These small cuts are especially nice because they cook more quickly and there is a lot of the crispy, crusty surface, called bark, or Mrs. Brown by aficionados.
How much do you need? There is significant shrinkage and waste in the form of bone and globs of fat you discard when pulling. Count on about 30% loss, and if there is less, then you’ll have leftovers. How much per person? That depends on the gender, age, time of day, what else is being served, and amount of alcohol present. If you are serving chicken, hot dogs, brats, and burgers as well as pulled pork, you will need less. If you are only serving pulled pork you need more. I usually plan on 1/2 pound per person on average (remember there is shrinkage, up to 20%), and look forward to leftovers. I freeze leftovers in two person portions in zipper bags and they have rescued many a Tuesday night when we don’t feel like cooking from scratch.
Cooking for a crowd? Click here for an article about how to adjust cooking time, if at all, if you are cooking several butts at once.
Pork shoulder is very forgiving and can take a wide range of heats without serious damage, so it is the perfect place to start if you want experiment with Southern style low and slow smoked meat. But butt it is utterly unpredictable. Sometimes it can be done in 1.5 hours per pound, and sometimes it takes 2 hours per pound. This is flesh, not widgets, and one hog is different than another. But there are some rules of thumb that will help you master it.
And then there is the most scary part of the cook: The Stall. The temp will rise steadily to about 150°F and slow down for a looooonnnng while as moisture moves to the surface and evaporates. It might hold between 150 and 160°F for up to 5 hours. Don’t panic and don’t crank the heat. Be patient. Click here for more about the stall, why it happens, and how to beat it.
Because of the stall, it is hard to predict exactly how long it will take to cook. So plan on 2 hours per pound at 225°F, and if it finishes early, wrap it in foil and pop it in the kitchen oven at about 170°F or in a faux Cambro, which is not much more than a beer cooler (click the link).
And one more thing: You absolutely positively cannot rely on bi-metal dial thermometers. If you are not monitoring your cooker with a good digital oven thermometer, and if you are not monitoring the meat with a good digital leave-in thermometer so you don’t have to pop the lid to check the temp, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Click here to read my buyer’s guide to thermometers.
Pulled Pork Recipe
Yield. 5 pounds of bone-in pork butt, enough for 12-14 generous sandwiches after shrinkage, and trimming. Leftovers freeze nicely.
Preparation time. 10 minutes to trim and rub the meat.
Cooking time. Allow 10 hours or 2 hours per pound at 225°F. If you kick the temp up to 280°F, you can cut cooking time to about 1.5 hours per pound but the meat will probably be just a tiny bit less tender and juicy. Butts are very forgiving so temp control is not crucial. If you have a butt with picnic combo, the cooking time will not be much different because the diameter of the meat is about the same as the butt, and it is the thickness of the meat that controls cooking time, not the total weight. Allow plenty of advance time and if necessary, use a beer cooler as a faux Cambro to hold the meat.
Pulling time. 30 minutes if you do it with your fingers, 10 minutes with Bear Paws.
about 16 ounces of wood by weight
1 grill or smoker with lots of fuel
1 digital meat thermometer with a probe and a cable
1 digital oven or grill thermometer
1 alarm clock
1 lawn chair
1 good book
6 pack of beer
1 pair of shades
plenty of food themed tunes
sun tan lotion
1 pork butt, about 5 pounds
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1/3 cup Meathead’s Memphis Dust
2 cups wood for smoke
10 kaiser rolls or hamburger buns
1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce
About the wood. The idea here is to measure how much you use so next time you can add or subtract a measured amount until it is exactly the way you like it. You can use cups or handsful. Just be consistent. and go easy on the wood. Too much smoke is far worse than too little. Read my article on the Zen of Wood, please.
Skip the marinade, injections, and brines. Some folks like to inject butt with an internal marinade. Typically they will do something like mix about 4 tablespoons of their rub with 1 cup of warm apple juice and pump it deep into the meat. Some even use chicken stock. I don’t bother. I think this cut is moist enough on its own and injecting can mask the flavor of the pork. When I am judging, and the meat tastes more like apple juice than pork, I mark it down. Most competition cooks inject, but if you cook it properly, you don’t need to inject. Marinating will not penetrate a big hunk very far, so don’t bother. I love brining pork chops, but to penetrate such a large thick hunk of flesh, you would need to brine the meat for more than a day and even then the penetration would be shallow and uneven. Use a good rub, and let the smoke flavor it and the internal fat and collagen moisturize it. Keep it simple.Tagged: BBQ, Pig Roasting, Pork Bap