How To Make The Best, Most Smoky Pulled Pork
Smoking a pork butt (or pork shoulder) to make delicious pulled pork is a Southern delicacy – an old-fashioned, down-home food.
And while any declaration of love for a certain barbecue style means war (at least, among dedicated BBQ fanatics and meat geeks like us), pulled pork might be one of our favorite styles of barbecue. There’s something about the ultra-tender, juicy shreds of pork with fat dripping off, slathered in barbecue sauce, piled high on a bun and paired with an ice-cold beer, that shouts summer and relaxation.
If we’re being fair, we have to note that pulled pork is the original American barbecue. While beef brisket is the cut of choice throughout most of the US, pork has been the preferred meat in the Carolinas – and Eastern Tennessee – since the 17th or 18th century. In those states, it might even be considered its own way of life; North Carolina prides itself on making the most-tender pulled pork in the entire country.
While the most traditional method of cooking Carolina BBQ involves smoking a whole hog over open coals for nearly 24 hours, there’s a variety of ways to make delicious pulled pork that involve an entire pig, the king of which is the pork butt.
So let's get into it.
Why The Pork Butt Is Such A Dang Good Cut Of Meat For Smoking
Pulled pork is most commonly made from pork butt, which is also known as Boston butt, Boston shoulder, pork shoulder. In some places, it might be called shoulder roast or country roast, among other names.
If you’re confused about whether this delectable cut comes from the hog’s rear or his shoulder, you’re not alone; it’s actually the upper part of the hog’s front shoulder, and you can find it at the store both with and without the shoulder bone. It was apparently thus-named back during America’s colonial days, when butchers across New England and the city of Boston would pack pork shoulders and hams - then considered lesser cuts of the hog (erroneously, we might add) into barrels with brine for shipping. Barrels were commonly at the time called butts, and the cut soon became known as the Boston butt. Pork butt seems to have caught on later and has since become the preferred name in other parts of the country.
So What's So Great About It?
I'm glad you asked.
Pork butt is a popular cut for a few reasons, not least of all that it’s cheap and historically easily sourced.
Retail Pork Butt Prices by the Pound as Reported by USDA for 9/12/2018
CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY PA, RI, VT
$1.29 to $1.99
AL, FL, GA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV
$0.88 to $1.49
IA, IL, IN, KY, MIN, MN, ND, NE, OH, SD, WI
$0.99 to $1.99
AR, CO, KS, LA, MO, NM, OK, TX
$0.99 to $1.99
AZ, CA, NV, UT
$0.99 to $2.49
ID, MT, OR, WA, WY
$0.99 to $2.49
Pork butt is the perfiect combination of the ideal cut and affordable price-point which makes it the ideal choice for gatherings or BBQs.
It’s also tough, and full of fat and collagen, which make it unpalatable for finer meals but perfect for smoking; cook it low-and-slow for long enough (all day) and the fat and connective tissue eventually begin to melt and soften, making the meat tender and moist and infusing it with delicious fatty flavor. Done properly, the result is a smoky, soft, fall-off-the-bone and melt-in-your mouth-tender hunk of meat ripe for sandwiches.
Combine that tenderness with how cheap pork butt is, and how much food you can get off a single butt (usually 6-8 pounds), and you have a prime contender for barbecuing. These characteristics also make pork butt one of the most common cuts of pork for virtually anything, form carnitas to bulgogi.
No matter how adventurous you may be feeling when you fire up that grill or smoker, don’t try to make pulled pork with a leaner part of the hog, such as the pork loin. Without any of the fat and collagen that make a pork butt tender and soft when cooked low, the pork loin will be dry and bland. Use pork butt or at least something similar, and you won’t be disappointed.
So, How Do You Cook The Perfect Smoked Pulled Pork?
It Starts With The Perfect Hunk of Meat: Picking your butt...
If you really intend to create the smokiest, softest, most-flavorful hunks of porcine goodness ever slathered in Carolina vinegar sauce, you’ll need to start by selecting the highest quality piece of meat available. As every meat geek knows, where you source your meat and who you source it from matters.
Pork Shoulder Butcher Demo: Understanding the Cut
If possible, skip the grocery store and head to your trusty local butcher, and ask for the finest pork butt (or shoulder roast) they have. Ideally, it’ll have a nice big layer of fat on top, and come bone-in.
Many people don’t like to smoke with a bone still in, but it’s extremely helpful for keeping the meat moist and tender as it cooks slowly over long hours; without it, we find the meat often dries out faster and just isn’t as flavorful.
Everybody has their own preferences, but it’s worth spending the money for high-quality, pasture-raised pork from a reputable farm and butcher.
You Gotta Do the Prep Work
There’s a seemingly-endless variety of pulled pork recipes to choose from, some of which call for seasoning or brining the butt a day in advance, and others which recommend simply throwing some salt or pepper on top and quickly throwing on the smoker. And by “some salt and pepper,” we mean quite a bit; all pulled pork needs to be liberally seasoned before smoking, at least with ample amounts of salt. Tons of pepper and whatever other seasonings strike your fancy are also welcome.
Most traditional pulled pork recipes involve pulling the meat out of the fridge an hour before it hits the heat and letting it sit on the counter until ready to cook. This idea of letting meat "reach room temperature" on the counter seems a bit much – a little too much risk of contamination with little reward to be gained. Again, different recipes call for different prep methods.
To Trim or Not To Trim? That Is The Question.
Some meat geeks like to leave all the fat on the bottom of the pork butt, while others like to trim it down as close as possible. Either one is fine; some people just like the extra flavor and soft texture that properly rendered fat offers. Keep in mind, however, that the fat does not cook into the meat; it drippings will work their way in for extra flavor however.
Use A Smoker – Or Any Grill, Really
If you’ve got a dedicated smoker, fire that thing up, grab some wood (or wood chips) and get ready to go. If you don’t however, that gas or charcoal grill out on the back patio will work just fine – with the right technique. When using a gas or charcoal grill, you’ll want to set it up for indirect heat, also known as 2-zone grilling.
2-zone grilling involves lighting only one side of your gas grill or making the charcoal/wood fire small enough to directly cover only half the grill. The other side of the grill should be heated only by the indirect heat coming from the opposite side, helping you keep the temperature nice and low and control it more evenly.
If you’re using a grill, you’ll want to grab some wood chunks, and drip pan then set yourself up for some smoking action.
225°f is Where It’s At
225°F is widely considered the Holy Grail of smoking temperatures, providing the perfect level of controlled, low heat to slowly soften and melt the connective tissue without drying out the lean meat. Of course, as with all things barbecue, there’s still a lot of debate: many meat geeks will argue that 250°F is better, if only because it speeds up the process. I always recommend 225°F for all novices. Also, invest in a good thermometer for reading the internal temperature of your grill. The factory temperature gauges on grills are rarely reliable.
Keeping your smoker or grill at an exact temperature can prove troublesome for newbies; but don’t let it scare you off, in no time at all you’ll dial in how much fuel and oxygen your grill or smoker requires. From there, it’s just a matter of figuring out how often you need to add in more fuel (briquettes). As long as the meat stays between 225°F and 250°F, you’ll be fine. If temperature spikes do happen (as they do), try to keep the meat under 275-300°F; a few short spikes won’t ruin a pork butt.
The Preverbal Stall: Why Does It Take So Long To Smoke Pulled Pork?
All pulled pork enthusiasts know about The Stall – the several hour period during the middle of the smoke where no matter what you do, the pork’s internal temperature won’t climb above 150°F. This occurs when smoking at 225°F to 250°F degrees and is caused by the moisture in the meat evaporating at the same rate – or faster – than the temperature is rising. In other words, the pork is actually sweating – cooling itself off as you’re trying to cook it.
The stall can last several hours - sometimes as many as four - depending on the size of your pork butt. It could also only last a few minutes. And while it’s certainly frustrating and tiresome, it’s perfectly normal. It’s also an essential part of getting perfect pulled pork; The Stall is what allows the Bark – the crispy crust on the top of the meat - to form.
If you ask us, the Bark is the best part of a pulled pork. It’s crispy and salty, a little spicy…and just jam-packed with smoky flavor. Every crunchy bite is a treat and pulling apart the bark of a pork butt with your hands to reveal all that gooey, juicy pulled pork is incredibly satisfying. You can break up the bark and mix it in with all that shredded pork…or just rip off big, salty chunks and chow down with your fingers.
The Bark comes as a result of the Maillard Reaction – the chemical process responsible for much of the delicious flavor with associate with “browned” or caramelized foods – whether it’s a steak or sautéed onions.
It sounds scientific, but it’s simple: the Maillard Reaction is what happens when the proteins and sugars in a food break down and mix over high heat. Proteins release amino acids as they break down, while sugars reduce when exposed to heat. When these too mix at just the right temperature – usually between 150°F and 165°F minimum – they form hundreds of new chemical compounds.
Luckily for us, these chemical compounds, happen to be extremely tasty and aromatic. They also give browned food that actual “browned” and crispy look and texture.
The Maillard Reaction can occur on almost any food; the brown crust of a piece of bread and the caramelized brown look of cooked onions are both perfect examples. But since it relies on protein and sugars, it’s most apparent on meats. If you want to get a really good browning on a piece of bread, for example, add some protein (like eggs). To brown onions or meat more, add sugar.
So how do you avoid The Stall?
The first method is the easiest: you don’t. You simply let it runs its course, smoking your meat the old-fashioned way. When you’ve made it through, you’ll have a beautifully-crusted piece of pork just ready to be pulled apart by hand.
If you simply haven’t got time for that and the family is getting hungry, then it’s time to initiate the rescue operation: The Texas Crutch. The Texas Crutch involves either wrapping the meat in aluminum foil to help it retain more heat, or firing the heat up to 300°F to blast through The Stall and get the meat’s internal temp rising again.
You won’t get the same level of thick, crunchy, chewy crust with the Texas Crutch as you would if you waited out The Stall. Time is an essential element of browning food; the longer the Maillard Reaction can occur, the deeper brown the food will turn. By riding out the Stall, you give the meat more time to create a thick crust over the outside of the food. If you turn up the heat and blast through it, the Bark has more time to form.
Moving on, let's talk about completion.
How to know when the pork shoulder is done.
hint: get a trusted THERMOMETER
After you’ve made it through The Stall using the method of your choice, your meat will return to a slow-but-steady rise in temperature. Hopefully, you’re using a good meat thermometer, and are ready to pull your pork butt off as soon as it’s done: when it reaches a hot and juicy 205°F. Some folks actually like to take it off the heat 195°F, but the extra 10 degrees gives just a little more time for the collagen and fat to melt and break down. The result is a super soft, juicy, fall-off-the-bone piece of meat just ready for shredding.
Pulling and Done Temperatures for Pork
138 - 140°F
135 - 137°F
195 - 205°F
200 - 210°F
3 - 5 min
Avoid overcooking your cut by calculating the "carryover cook""which accounts for the latent heat on the outside of the meat which continues to cook the cut once removed from the heat source.
With that said, each piece of pork is a little different, and you may find yours needs some extra time to get to that level of tenderness. Over time, you’ll likely find your own preferred perfect temperatures, and know exactly how you like it.
When it’s done, the outside of the pork will have formed a thick, crispy, dark-brown, almost-black crust. That’s not a sign of burning - but the sign of a perfectly-done pork butt. Underneath the crust, you should have a perfect smoke ring – the pink layer where the smoke absorbed into the meat. The smoke ring is one of the signature icons among smoking enthusiasts -– the stuff BBQ lovers geek out about – however, its all show and adds no "real" flavor.
At this point, pull the meat off the smoker and let it rest about 30 min before mealtime.
Now, it’s time to pull.
If done properly, the bone will slide right of the meat. Give it a tug and twist, it should come right out. You can then pull the meat apart into those shred-like chunks, using claws, a couple of forks, or the old-fashioned way – with your hands.
pulled pork RECIPES
OUR 3 FAVORITE PICKS
Rubs, salts, sugars, molasses – it seems like nobody can agree on the best recipe to use for pulled pork. Here’s some of our favorites.
THE CLASSIC (FOR BBQ GEEKS WHO DON’T LIKE TO MESS AROUND)
This is the easiest and most basic pulled pork recipe, perfect for just about any occasion. It’s a lot simpler than many others, making it the perfect choice of smoked meat for sandwiches, slathering with sauces, etc.
- 3 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon dry mustard
- 3 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 1 (5 to 7 pound) pork butt
Several bags of Hickory or Oak wood chunks. Your pick.
- Mix the dry ingredients together in a small bowl and rub the resulting blend all over the pork butt, massaging and patting it into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to overnight.
- Start your grill or smoker, bringing temperature up to 225°F. Add hickory or oak.
- Place pork butt on smoker/grill, insert meat thermometer.
- Smoke for 8-12 hours, monitoring temperature via thermometer. If the pork stalls at 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit, turn heat up to 300°F for one hour until temperature starts to climb.
- When pork has reached internal temperature of 205°F, remove from heat. Cover with foil and let rest for 30 min.
- Pull pork with forks, claws or gloved hands.
- Serve on buns with BBQ sauce of choice.
Super Easy, (Slightly) Faster Oven-Cooked Pull Pork Recipe
This recipe is much like the one above but is modified for cooking the pork in your oven, as opposed to on the grill or in a smoker. The oven is easy and speeds up the process, as it makes things easier to control than on a grill or smoker. Sure, you technically won’t be “smoking” the meat, and won’t get that same delicious hickory or oak flavor, but this is a great option when you haven’t got the setup out back or just don’t have the time for a full smoke.
- 5-8-pound Pork Butt, bone in.
FOR THE BRINE
- 4 Cups Water
- 4 Cups Apple Cider (2 cups Apple Cider Vinegar)
- 1/2 Cup Kosher Salt
- 1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
- 3 Heaping Tablespoons Dry Rub
- 1 Pinch Red Pepper Flakes
FOR THE DRY RUB
- 1 Tablespoon Onion Powder
- 1 Heaping Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
- 1 Tablespoon Garlic Powder
- 1 Tablespoon Chili Powder
- 1 1/2 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
- 1 Tablespoon Pepper
- 2 Teaspoons Cayenne Powder
- 2 Teaspoons Dry Mustard
- 1 Tablespoon Cumin
- 1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
Mix all of the ingredients together in a ziploc bag.
- In a large bowl or pot, mix the water, apple cider, salt, sugar, 3 tablespoons dry rub, and pepper flakes.
- Add the pork to the brine and place in the fridge for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.
- Mix all the dry ingredients together into a ziplock bag and shake or stir in a bowl.
Cooking That Thing
- Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Remove the pork from the brine and place in the largest pan you have.
- Rub the dry run all over the pork, patting it firmly to work it into the meat.
- Place the pork in the oven with a meat thermometer – fat up or down, doesn’t matter.
- Bake for 8 hours or until that sucker registers 205°F.
- Remove from oven, cover in foil and let it rest for 1-2 hours. But no more than 2.
- Trim that hunk of fat off the pork butt, twist that bone and pull it out, and shred using forks or claws. Serve just the way you like it.
Texas-Style Pulled Pork Recipe
Pulled pork isn’t nearly as big in the Lone Star State as it is in the South, but we find this recipe a worthy one worth trying. It uses a slightly modified dry rub, with a bit more Texas heat from the chili powder, as well as a brine with fresh herbs. To give it some extra Texas heat, smoke it over Mesquite wood, which is how they make their brisket down in Hill Country. It’s also cooked more over direct heat than other styles, referencing its original Southern Roots.
- 4 large yellow or white onions sliced
- 1 cup sliced garlic
- Enough water to cover the pork
- 3 cups kosher salt
- 8 oz. fresh rosemary
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 cup paprika
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2/3 cup salt
- 2/3 cup dark chili powder
- 2/3 cup cumin
- 2/3 cup freshly ground coriander
- 1 cup freshly ground black pepper
- 2/3 cup dry mustard
Real simple. Mix all the ingredients for the dry rub together. Get your smoker or grill going at 225 and add some mesquite wood chips/logs until a nice, heavy smoke is going. Liberally season that bad boy with the dry rub, and then cook that baby low-and-slow for 12 hours, or until the meat reaches that soft and inviting 205°F temperature. Shred and serve on buns with your favorite BBQ sauce.
The Best Ways To Serve Pulled Pork
Ask 10 different people the right way to serve pulled pork, and you will get 10 different answers.
In North Carolina, you’ll serve it on buns, slathered in either Eastern-style sauce (a vinegar-based pepper sauce, free of the usual tomatoes) or Lexington-style sauce (similar, based on vinegar but also tomato sauce, like the classic BBQ sauce found in Texas or Kansas City).
In South Carolina, you’ll see people slathering it with a yellow, mustard-based vinegar sauce called Carolina Gold, which is equal parts sweet and tangy.
In other parts of the country, like Texas, you’ll find it being slathered with whatever sauce each diner prefers. Each region also has its preferred sides – of which there are many.
It’s tough to take sides on barbecue, and this is really opening a can of worms, but . . . here are our top 3 styles of serving pulled pork, straight out of their respective regions local playbook.
Our 3 Favorite Ways
Eastern Carolina Style
As mentioned, in the eastern half of the Carolina’s, pulled pork sandwiches are traditionally served on buns with the region’s traditional vinegar-based sauce. You then complement the meal with coleslaw and cornbread. Lexington-style BBQ is traditionally served with a “red slaw” consisting of cabbage, vinegar and ketchup, as opposed to mayo, as well as a serving of fries – and that Southern standby, hushpuppies.
Go West for a helping of Lexington-style BBQ, and the sides start to get a bit interesting. Here, pork can be served on buns, or it can be chopped finely (not pulled, per se) and then piled high next to a serving “red slaw” made with cabbage, vinegar and ketchup (as opposed to mayo), and then finished by a generous helping of hushpuppies. Or, you can swap out the hushpuppies for a dinner roll.
Texas-style (sort of)
Texas BBQ fans, hold up there. We know there are dozens of different Texas BBQ styles out there, so bear with us. But the general rule in Texas is that sauce doesn’t matter as much as the flavor of the meat, so for a Texas-style pulled pork, you’ll want to serve your sauce on the side, accompanied by a bowl of beans, pickles and raw onions. You’ll also very frequently find it accompanied by a traditional, slightly-sweet German potato salad. It’s delicious.