The perfect pulled pork sandwich doesn't have too much sauce.
It allows the pork and smoke and rub to shine through.
Perfect Pulled Pork Recipe
Mrs. Meathead: Where are you going?
Meathead: To watch the smoker.
Mrs. Meathead: Mind if I come along?
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 the most versatile and foolproof low and slow smoked food, perfect for feeding large crowds. And 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 other meats. And you can do it well on practically any grill with a lid.
In North Carolina there is 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", feasts 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.
Please don't ruin a lean, tender, pork loin by trying to make pulled pork. Loin meat has little of the fat and connective tissue necessary to make great pulled pork. If you have a loin, use this approach.
A full shoulder can weigh 8 to 20 pounds and has two halves, the "Boston butt" and the "picnic ham".
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, Boston 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. 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".
The picnic ham, which is not really a ham, runs from the shoulder socket through to the elbow. True hams come from the rear legs only. The picnic ham usually weighs from 4 to 12 pounds.
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.
I buy bone-in butts because the bone helps hold it together. Boneless 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 meat 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. Click here for an article on how much to cook for a party. Click here for an article about how to adjust cooking time if you are cooking more than one, if at all, if you are cooking several butts at once.
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 with flavor enhancers such as phosphates and MSG in order to get a tiny edge, 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. Read my article on marinating. 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. Read my article on brining. Use a good rub, and let the smoke flavor it and the internal fat and collagen moisturize it. Keep it simple.
Beware the stall, but skip the foil
When the meat hits 150 to 160°F, moisture moves to the surface and starts evaporating and cooling the meat like sweat on a marathon runner. As a result, the meat temp will not rise for as long as 5 hours. It stalls at 150 to 160°F. And it significantly lengthens the cook and drives people nuts. But this process helps dry the exterior and form bark.
Competition cooks wrap their meat very tightly in a couple of layers of foil and toss in about 1/4 cup of liquid such as apple juice. Then it goes back in the cooker. This stops the evaporation and powers the meat through the stall, retains moisture, and tenderizes a tiny bit. But it can really mess up your bark and remove a lot of rub. And it is really not necessary for this cut of meat. There is a lot of fat and connective tissue and even though it will take longer without the crutch, it will still be very tender and juicy.
I never bother with the crutch when cooking at home. Beginners should skip this step. The benefits are minimal and it just makes the whole process more complicated. You'll still have killer meat. Focus on temperature control and fire management. Try wrapping in foil after you've done 2 or 3 butts. Click here to learn more about The Texas Crutch. Click here to learn more about The Stall.
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 you are setting yourself up for disappointment. All the pros use digital thermometers and this is far more important than injecting or foiling. Click here to read my buyer's guide to thermometers.
Pulled Pork Recipe
Yield. 5 pounds of bone-in pork butt, enough for 12 to 14 generous sandwiches after shrinkage, and trimming. Leftovers freeze nicely.
Preparation time. 15 minutes to trim and rub the meat.
Cooking time. Allow 8 to 12 hours at 225°F. This is flesh, not widgets, and one hog is different than another and your cooker has its own peciuliarities that can significantly impact cooking time. The determining factor in cooking time for all meats is the thickness of the meat, so smaller butts will cook faster if they are skinnier. Surprisingly, if you are cooking a whole shoulder with the butt and the picnic combined, it will not take much longer since the added weight is not in thickness it is in length. After you do one or two you will learn how your cooker handles this cut. Read my article on what determines cooking time. Allow plenty of advance time and if necessary, use a beer cooler as a faux Cambro to hold the meat.
The meat is at its maximum tenderness and juiciness when it hits 195 to 203°F (203°F is my target, but actual time and temp varies on the individual animal). If it is not ready on time, don't panic. You can crank up the heat if you are running behind. Butt can handle it. Butts are very forgiving so temp control is not crucial. The bark might get a bit dry, there might be a little more shrinkage than usual, it might be slightly more chewy, but it will still delicious. If you kick the temp up to about 275°F, you can cut cooking time to about 8 hours.
If it is time to serve and it is still not at the ideal temp, just slice the meat. Don't pull it because it won't shred easily. Slices of smoked pork butt are wonderful.
Pulling time. 30 minutes if you do it with your fingers (ouch!), 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
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.
1) Trim most of the of fat from the exterior of the meat but not all of it. Leave no more than 1/8". Some folks like to leave it all on hoping it will melt and baste the meat, but I want the seasonings on the meat, not on the fat, and I want the meat to get a crunchy flavorful, seasoned bark. Most of the butts I cook are 4 to 6 pounds, pretty well trimmed, and tied with butcher's twine to keep them from falling apart. If yours is not already tied, hogtie it something like the picture near the top. Don't worry if it isn't fancy, you're going to throw it out, just rope it so it doesn't fall apart.
2) Rinse and thoroughly dry the meat. Oil the meat with vegetable oil, coating all surfaces. This will help the rub adhere and also help dissolve the oil soluble flavors in the rub and carry it into the meat. Some folks like to slather it with yellow mustard first. I have tried it this way and I do not think it does anything noticeable. Besides, mustard does not contain oil, so oil soluble flavors in the rub don't dissolve. Cover your butt (ahem) generously with Meathead's Memphis Dust. You can start cooking right away, but if you let it sit for at least an hour, the salt and spices will penetrate a litle. You can let it sit overnight if you wish, but then the rub starts pulling liquid out. Not much, but a few ounces.
3) Insert a digital probe like the Maverick ET-732 or 733 and position the tip right in the center. Make sure it is not touching the bone or within 1/2" of the bone. Fire up the cooker to about 225°F and set it up for 2-zone or indirect smoke cooking (cooker setups are described in the technique section of this site). Put the meat on, right on the grate, not in a pan, add about 4 ounces of wood chips, pellets, or chunks to the coals, and go drink a coffee. Go make your sauce, slaw, and beans. Go watch the game. Then cut the lawn. Wash the windows. Smoke a cigar. Make love to your spouse. Unfold the lawn chair and read a book with a beer. You've got plenty of time. Just check your cooker every hour or so to make sure the fuel is sufficient and you are holding at 225 to 250°F. If it goes up to 300°F, don't worry. Butt is forgiving. But try to keep it down under 250°F. Add additional doses of wood, 4 ounces at a time, every 30 minutes for the first two hours for a total of 16 ounces. No need to add more. After a while the meat just won't absorb it.
4) Is it ready? When it hits about 170°F, collagens, which are part the connective tissues, begin to melt and turn to gelatin. That's magic baby. The meat gets much more tender when this happens. And juicy. When it hits 195°F, it may be ready, and it may not be ready. But it's time to check. The exterior should be dark brown. Some rubs and cookers will make the meat look black like a meteorite, but it is not burnt and it doesn't taste burnt. There may be glistening bits of melted fat. On a gas cooker it may look shiny pink. If there is a bone, use a glove or paper towel to protect your fingers and wiggle the bone. If it turns easily and comes out of the meat, the collagens have melted and you are done. If there is no bone, use the "stick a fork in it method". Insert a fork and try to rotate it 90 degrees. If it turns with only a little torque, you're done. If it's not done, close the lid and go drink a mint julep for 30 minutes. If the internal temp hits 195°F but the meat is still not tender, push on up to 203°F, my new favorite target. At this number the meat seems to soften significantly. If it is still not soft, you've just got a tough butt. Wrap tough butts in aluminum foil and let them go for another hour, but don't take them above 205°F or else the muscle fibers will start giving up moisture and toughen. If you can't control the temp on your cooker, wrap the meat in heavy duty foil and move it indoors into a 200°F oven. Do not add sauce while it is on the cooker. That comes after you pull it.
The fast method. After 2 hours of smoking at about 225°F with lots of smoke, put the meat on a roasting rack in a roasting pan and pour a cup of water or apple juice into the pan. Cover the meat with foil and fasten the foil tightly to the edges of the pan so the meat is in a nice enclosed environment. Roast in the indoor oven at 350°F for another 2 to 3 hours or until the temp hits 203°F and it passes the fork test, above.
5) When it is finally ready, go ahead, take a taste. You should notice a thick flavorful crust, and right below the telltale "smoke ring" (at right), the bright pink color caused by smoke mixing with combustion gases and moisture. Let it rest for 30 to 60 minutes in a faux cambro, in an oven at about 170°F, or wrap in foil. If you are more than an hour from mealtime, you can leave the meat on the cooker with the heat off or put it in the indoor oven and hold it there by dialing the temp down to about 170°F. If you are more than 2 hours from mealtime, wrap it in foil to keep it from drying out and hold it at 170°F. If you are taking the meat to a party, use a faux cambro, which is nothing more than a tight plastic beer cooler in which you can hold the meat. Leave the probe in the meat, wrap the hunk tightly in foil, wrap the foil with more towels, and put it the whole thing in the cooler. Fill up the cooler with more towels, blankets, or newspaper to keep the meat insulated. Hang the thermometer cord over the lid of the cooler, and close it tightly. Plug the cord into the readout and make sure it never drops below 145°F. Just know that this technique will soften the bark and change the texture of the meat very slightly.
6) About 30 minutes before sitting down for dinner, put the meat into a large pan to catch drippings. If your butt came bone-in, the blade should slide right out if it was cooked properly.
Here's the blade bone removed from the butt after cooking. You can see the shank part at the top protruding from the butt on the left below. This is the arm bone that connects to the picnic ham at the elbow. If the meat is properly cooked this bone should pull out easily with two fingers and have almost no meat stuck to it.
Pull the clod apart with Bear Paws (shown at right), gloved hands, or forks. Discard big chunks of fat. If you wish you can slice it or chop it like they do in North Carolina, but I think you lose less moisture by pulling it apart by hand since the meat separates into bundles of muscle fibers, hence the name pulled pork. Try not to eat all the flavorful crusty bits when you are doing the pulling, and distribute them evenly throughout. Make sure you save any flavorful drippings and pour them over the meat.
For big parties I will smoke 3 or more butts, pull them, and then put them in a big pan. I add about 1/2 cup of water per 5 pounds, and about 1 tablespoon of butter per pound. I carry it to the party in a cold cooler. When I get to the party I heat it in a slow cooker. Occasionally I will add the sauce before I leave to make sure it is moist and easy to serve. Just don't use so much sauce that you can't taste the meat and the smoke.
Serving pulled pork
There are so many wonderful ways to serve pulled pork. It is marvelous just piled warm and steaming on a plate with no sauce. So many people make the mistake of dumping a bottle of sauce over the meat. Please don't. The taste unadorned and unadulterated, hot from the smoker, is unmatched in the culinary world. It is the quintessence of porkdom. Serve it nekkid. Urge people to taste it nekkid. Then, if they wish, a splash sauce on the top is all.
The classic pulled pork sammich. Mound it high on a nice bun. Top it with a small amount of your favorite sauce. Kansas City Classic sweet red sauce is always popular, but this is where the Carolina vinegar and pepper sauces really shine. They soak in nicely and, if you go easy, really compliment the flavor. Try my Lexington Dip or my East Carolina Kiss & Vinegar. I also love the mustard sauces like my South Carolina Mustard Sauce but my favorite is my herbaceous Grownup Mustard Sauce. I like my pulled pork with chopped raw onion mixed in. My wife likes her onion grilled and on top. Sometimes we chop up raw apple and mix it in, too. Sometimes I slice the roast rather than pull it and douse it with a classic Texas sauce, which is thin and more like a gravy. It lets the meat flavor come through without masking it. I know folks who like to garnish it with sliced tomato, pickle chips, and a raw onion slice.
Mound it on a bun with slaw, South Carolina style. In many places in the South folks often crown a pulled pork sandwich with slaw (use my Creamy Deli Slaw). Barbecue champ and instructor Jack Waiboer of Charleston tops his slaw with dill pickle chips and thin sliced Vidalia onions, and calls it the "Carolina Crusher."
With melted cheese. Mark Stevens in NJ says he takes "A nice bit of pulled pork, a thin slice of onion, a slice of pepper jack cheese, a good glug of Hoboken Eddies Mean Green Roasted Pepper Sauce" and puts it all on buttered white bread. He then places the sandwich in a pie iron, butter side out, and cooks it over a fire until golden brown and the cheese is melted.
Pulled Pork Reuben. Serve it on thick bread with sauerkraut, thousand island dressing, and melted Swiss cheese.
Carnitas. Bill Martin, a friend in Texas, likes to cut smoked butt into 1/2" pieces and fry them in a pan with some of the fat that dripped off. When crisp they make wonderful carnitas tacos, he says.
Rollups. Roll it in a tortilla with chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, jalapeño pepper, shredded cheese.
Serving it the next day and serving leftover pulled pork
I often get asked what's the best way to cook pulled pork on Saturday and serve it on Sunday. My answer is "don't do it". That's called serving leftovers. Fresh meat is best. But it can be done.
These meats are best fresh off the smoker. If you have to serve it at noon on Sunday, the best method is to get up in the middle of the night and start cooking in the wee hours. If you need to take it to a game, then wrap the hot meat in foil and blankets and put it in a beer cooler and you can keep it warm that way for about two hours (read my article on faux Cambros).
If you cook it Saturday to serve Sunday, click here for tips on how to pull it off.
Pulled pork the following day is best reheated in the microwave a small amount at a time. But it will be a bit drier and tougher than the first day, so bring back some life with a splash of water, apple juice, or barbecue sauce. The best method is in the microwave, second best is to heat it slowly in a pot with the lid on.
If you have leftovers that you will not scarf down in a few days, mix the leftovers with a bit of barbecue sauce, and freeze them in measured portions in zipper bags. The sauce prevents freezer burn. Pop one in the microwave and you've got a great emergency meal for two.
Here are some other things to do with leftovers.
I love to make a killer app with pulled pork: jalapeño poppers. Split jalapeño peppers in half, scoop out the seeds and hot ribs with a spoon, and chop off the stems. Mix 1 part leftover pork with sauce and 2 parts fresh chevre or another cream cheese, and fill the peppers. Grill over a medium-low heat until the cheese is soft, and the peppers begin to char.
Try adding pulled pork to nachos.
In South Carolina, leftover pulled pork is often used in making "hash". The recipe varies from place to place, but it is typically a stew of pulled pork, pork liver, onion, and mustard sauce, served over white rice. Sounds plebeian, but I think it's ambrosia.
Another nice dish is pulled pork in Louisiana Dirty Rice. Classic Dirty Rice is white rice mixed with cooked chicken livers and giblets and the "holy trinity", which is sautéd green pepper, onion, and celery. But you can substitute or add pulled pork and amp it up.
Here's something fun: Plop some on top of a baked potato.
Kelly Abbott in San Diego stir fries it a bit til it is crunchy and makes a "bistro salad" with a poached egg.
Joe Wells in Arkansas says he puts the leftovers in "Brunswick stew, baked beans, mixed with scrambled eggs, hash, the list goes on and on."
Sandra Aylor of Memphis sez: "With the leftovers, I like BBQ spaghetti or BBQ pizza".
Buzz in Wisconsin sez: "leftovers are made into tacos and enchiladas". I have been known to make tacos with slaw and bits of corn chips.
Gerry Curry of Nova Scotia sez: "For leftovers I love it hashed for breakfast."
Bill Martin likes to make a hearty breakfast by frying chopped pulled pork, chopped onion, minced chili peppers, and Tater Tots. He then tops this with poached or sunny side up eggs.
Duane Daugherty says "I make a pineapple-habanero hot sauce, and I love to use it with leftover pulled pork, mixed with scrambled eggs and my sauce, in a flour tortilla for breakfast."
Trace D Hillman says "I made egg muffins. Beat eggs, a little milk, salt cheese, leftover pulled pork, bake in muffin tins for 20 minutes at 400°F." The full recipe and a photo are on his blog.
Robb Barrett says "Pulled Pork works great in crab rangoons. Also as Pulled Pork Benedict. With cheese and crackers. In baba ganoush. There's no place where pulled pork DOESN'T work well."
Delaney Boling says "I've done raviolis before that turned out pretty great. Make a simple pasta dough and then prepare each ravioli with about 1 teaspoon of pulled pork mixed with a bit of mozzarella and some fresh chopped chives. Drop them into simmering water for about 7 minutes (or until the pasta is al dente). Meanwhile, whisk 2 parts BBQ sauce with 1 part cream and one part butter over low heat until fully incorporated (I call this bit of deliciousness beurre 'que and then spoon over the raviolis when plating. For some extra goodness, finely chop some of the pulled pork to incorporate into the sauce. Salud!"
Marshall Rothman says "Chop some red onions finely and mix with pulled pork and mix in bowl with some of your favorite bbq sauce add chopped hamburger dill pickles. Get some sausage casing ready and fill with the mixture and tie off links. A quick run on the grill and you have BBQ to throw on the grill for a quick fix anytime. Go Gators!" Amen to the sausages and to the Go Gators!
Dan Allatt makes "BBQ eggs Benny! Some English muffins, pulled pork, poached eggs and hollandaise with a little BBQ sauce, cumin, mustard powder, and ancho chile powder."
Mark Thomas Corn uses "Tortillas, red onion, cilantro. Thin pieces of leftover pork make great taquitos. All those ingredients compliment each other perfectly."
Donald Warner puts it on "Grilled cheese with sourdough or rye, cheddar and jack, pulled pork, sliced pickles and chopped hots."
Craig Shields makes potstickers with his leftovers.
A reader named Jeanne makes a pie with a layer of collards, mac and cheese, and then the pulled pork between the crusts. Click here to see her recipe on her blog.
A reader named Jason Evers makes egg rolls with the leftovers. He mixes the pulled pork with coleslaw, wrasp it up and fries them. Then he dips them in either peanut sauce or salsa verde. When you think of it, in the Carolinas pulled pork is usually topped with slaw, and egg rolls are usually pork with cabbage. Add the salsa and you have a real fusion of cuisines!
How do you like your pulled pork?
This page was revised 10/29/2013
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