How to Make Pulled Pork

Classic pulled pork is a perfect place to begin experimenting with a new meat smoking hobby: it’s an inexpensive cut (often under two dollars a pound), a sure-fire crowd-pleaser that leaves everyone fat and happy, and has a lot of room for error in the cooking process. It’s hard to make a mistake with a big pork shoulder; unlike ribs or brisket, as long as you cook a big slab of pork long enough and slowly enough, it should turn out okay.

The only detail that is a tiny bit unpredictable about slow-smoking a pork butt is the time to cook. It can take an hour and a half per pound, at 225 degrees. Or, for mysterious reasons, it can sometimes take up to two hours per pound. It’s always different (and when planning your smoke, you should plan for two hours per pound), but one thing is constant: your finished pork shoulder must have an internal temperature of 190 degrees. This is the temperature needed for all of that fat and connective tissue to liquefy, and for your pork to fall apart easily. In fact, when it’s ready, you should be able to reach into the butt and pull the shoulder blade bone out easily, with two fingers.

For a five-pound pork butt, we’re going to plan for about ten hours at 225 degrees, though the meat may be ready sooner. You’ll need an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the meat at the end of the cook, as well as a decent digital thermometer to measure the temperature inside your smoker. That little metal thermometer that’s built into your grill or smoker? It’s junk, and can be off by as much as 50 degrees, which is a pretty huge potential swing, when you are doing any cooking that depends on constant, low, accurate temperature. Look for a digital setup that provides both a reading of the inside of your grill or smoker, as well as a probe for checking the temperature of your meat.

Sauces
A good pulled pork is about letting the flavors of the meat and the rub shine through… NOT a heavy sauce. I am a recent convert to the North Carolina-style, light, thin vinegar-based mustard sauce. It’s sweet, sharp, and spicy all at once, and provides a bright complement to the heavy, smoky flavors of the pulled pork. Your pulled pork is going to turn out so well, that I insist you try it first with no sauce at all. If it ends up a little dry, please give it a squeeze of our North Carolina sauce. Of course, you will probably also want to include a few bottles of heavier, Kansas City-style sticky, tomato-based sweet sauces for your guests, since many people won’t accept barbecue any other way. You can feel free to mutter under your breath, as your guests douse your beautifully cooked pork with the gloppy stuff.

Rubs
Some recipes for pulled pork suggest you coat your pork shoulder in mustard before applying your dry rub, ostensibly to ensure the dry rub sticks to the meat. This is completely uneccesary. A big pork shoulder will accept a dry rub just fine by itself. It you must, you can rub it with vegetable oil, first. Not only will it make sure your rub sticks to your meat, but the oil will break down the spices and carry them directly into the meat. Make sure to rub it and pat it into your meat thoroughly, getting the rub mixture into any cracks and crevices you find. To make sure you get a nice, thick crust on your meat, pull the shoulder out of the fridge about an hour before you put it into the smoker, to allow the meat to come up to room temperature before cooking.

Mopping and Basting
Some recipes recommend basting or mopping your meat as it cooks, with either an apple juice mixture, or a vinegar mixture. Don’t. First off, pitmasters have a saying that goes something like, “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking,” meaning that every time you open the door to your smoker to peek at your meat or apply a mop, you are rapidly dropping the temperature of the smoker, which is counter to our goal of having a low, slow, even heat. Second, a crunchy, herbed bark is one of the goals of a good pulled pork, which is caused by dry heat driving moisture off the skin’s surface, allowing the fat underneath to melt and baste the meat within. If you’re constantly spraying your meat with water, you’re keeping this from happening, and inhibiting the formation of this bark. Put your pork butt in the smoker, and leave it alone.

Wood chips
Use wood from a fruit tree, like apple chips, soaked in water for a half an hour before use. Start out by adding about 4 ounces of chips to your smoking tray (a big handful). Then, add more wood chips by the handful every half hour for the first two hours, or until you have used about 16 ounces of wood. Then, don’t add any more wood for the rest of the cooking time. Meat will only accept smoke for the first couple of hours of cooking. After a certain point, no more smoke will penetrate the meat, but will simply sit on top of the pork butt and turn bitter. You only need to keep adding chips for the first two hours.

Smoked Pulled Pork with North Carolina Sauce
Serves about 8 hungry people

Ingredients:

  • 5 lb bone-in pork butt, trimmed of excess fat
  • 8 hamburger buns, split
  • Cole slaw (Optional)

For the North Carolina Barbecue Sauce:

  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon ground dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons cornstarch

For the Rub:

  • 3 tablespoons coarse-ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 tablespoons coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Method:

For the North Carolina Barbecue Sauce:

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine vinegar, molasses, butter, dry mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, Worcestershire, and dark brown sugar, and bring to a boil. After mixture boils, remove from heat.
  2. Dissolve 4 teaspoons cornstarch in 4 teaspoons cold water in a small bowl. Slowly pour into hot sauce mixture, and stir. Sauce will be very thin, but will thicken slightly as it cools. Serve in squeeze bottles.

For the Meat:

1. In a plastic bag, combine dry rub ingredients. Shake until spices are evenly blended.

2. About an hour before you are going to begin smoking, remove the pork shoulder from the fridge, to allow it to come to room temperature. Pat and rub the dry rub mixture onto the meat, working the spices into any cracks and crevices.

3. While you wait for the meat to come up to room temperature, soak 16 ounces of fruit wood chips in a bowl of water.

4. Light smoker and bring up to 225 degrees. If your grill or smoker has one, fill the drip pan with water. Place your pork butt in the smoker, directly on the rack, fat side up.

5. Add soaked wood chips, four ounces at a time (a big handful), every half hour for the first two hours of cooking. Stop at 16 ounces of wood chips; no more wood is needed after the first two hours.

6. Check the smoker every hour or so, to make sure your heat is remaining a consistent 225, but don’t worry if your temperature goes up too high. Pork butt is forgiving.

7. Check your pork shoulder after about seven hours of cooking, though your particular pork butt may take longer to cook. Your pork should take 1.5 to 2 hours per pound. When the internal temperature reads 190, and the shoulder blade bone pulls out easily and cleanly, the pork is ready.

8. Remove from smoker, and allow pork butt to rest for 30-40 minutes before pulling.

9. Using two forks, shred meat into chunks, removing any obviously large chunks of fat. Pile onto buns, top with North Carolina Barbecue Sauce, and, optionally, a scoop of cole slaw. Serve immediately.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," and the junk food-centric "Spork & Barrel." His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

12 Comments

  1. Very nice entry, Malcolm. As the recent recipient of a $250 Amazon gift card (for participating in an Adobe survey), I’ve been thinking of treating myself to a smoker (though the “feminine” part of meβ€”the part that would get the crap kicked out of him if his friends ever found out that he was admitting to thisβ€”is also considering a stand mixer).

    In either case, I’d be interested to know what model your Brinkmann smoker is and how you like it.

    And let’s keep that stuff about the stand mixer on the DL, okay?

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  2. I made this on the 4th! Started it in the smoker around 10am, dug into it just after 6:00. I wish it would have had more time, but it was insanely delicious anyway. I added finely-ground coffee to the rub. It had a fantastic crust! Thanks again, yall! The leftovers were really good, too… especially mixed with pinto beans and made into tostadas.

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