How to Make BBQ Pulled Pork

Pulled Pork Sandwich
Pulled Pork Sandwich

Pulled pork is the traditional barbecue of the Carolinas and one of the Big Three in all Barbecue. It is, in fact, the origin of barbecue. This process can take 8 to 10 hours, but don’t worry. It isn’t hard. Good pulled pork relies on the flavor of the pork first, the smoke second, and the flavoring third. This process is done on a traditional barbecue smoker, which can hold the low and slow temperatures and produce the smoke necessary to make it perfect. I’m relying on you to know enough about your smoker to build the fire and keep it going all the way to the end.

This method uses the cut of pork called a Boston Butt, Pork Butt, or Shoulder Butt. It comes from the pork shoulder and if you are not in an area where this is a popular cut or it is known by another name, ask your butcher for the rectangular roast that comes from the upper arm and contains the blade bone. A Boston Butt weights about 6 to 8 pounds and has well-marbled meat with a thick cap of fat over one side. It is sold with or without Bone. For a good pulled pork it is preferred that it be bone in.

What you need:

This method is going to take about 8 hours of cooking time. That does depend on the smoker and the weather. A general rule of thumb is that it will take about one hour per pound to cook the whole pork roast.

Step One – Preparing the Pork

Pork Butt
Pork Butt

The Boston Pork Butt we are using here is a rectangular block of roast. There is a lot of fat on and in the roast. A large, flat bone runs through one end of the roast to somewhere in the center. There is also a good deal of connective tissue inside. To break down the connective tissue and melt away the fat will take a long time at a low temperature. This is why the Pork Butt is the perfect roast for pulled pork.

Before we begin, examine the roast. The fat on the outside can be cut down to a thin layer. This fat won’t contribute much to keeping the meat moist, but large amounts of it will block smoke absorption and keep the flavors away from where we want it. Trim down any large pockets. This will also reduce the cooking time since it is reducing the mass of the roast. Any loose pieces of meat should also be cut away. The roast should be compact and solid. Once it is trimmed, pat the surface dry with some paper towels.

Step Two – Injecting the Pork

Pulled Pork Injection
Pulled Pork Injection

Because this is a block of meat, getting flavor deep inside isn’t easy. The rub we will be applying in the next step will add much of the flavor, but we want to get it deep inside the roast that the meat remains moist and well seasoned all the way through. To do this, start with an injection marinade. Basically, this is a solution of water, vinegar, and seasonings that are pumped into the meat with a hypodermic needle. The seasonings must be dissolved or ground so fine that they can fit through the needle without it clogging. A great way to make an injection solution is to combine the rub that you are going to be putting on the outside with equal parts water and vinegar. Many people swear by apple cider vinegar and I tend to be one of them. The solution should be mostly liquid and as thin as a light broth.

Inject the liquid evenly, throughout the roast. It is best to push the needle in as far as it will go and then slowly apply pressure to push the liquid through as you pull the needle out. Some will leak through, but that isn’t a problem. Mop it up with a paper towel when you are done. Inject the roast every two inches throughout the entire roast.

Step Three – Rubbing the Pork

Pulled Pork Rub
Pulled Pork Rub

The next flavoring will be the rub. This combination of salt, spices, and herbs is what is going to help create the crusty surface that will give the pulled pork texture and a deep flavor. Contrary to the name, a rub isn’t actually rubbed into the meat, but actually sprinkled over it. Whatever rub you choose, this is a vital step in getting the right flavor profile for barbecue.

The amount of rub you need will be determined by the meat. Generally, about a cup is plenty for any pork butt, however, what sticks is the amount you need. With the roast patted dry, sprinkle the rub over all the surfaces, turning the meat as you go. The natural moisture of the meat will hold in place the amount of rub that it needs. The rub shouldn’t be caked on, but it should be applied heavily.

Once the rub is applied the pork can go straight onto the smoker. However, it is best to let the spices and herbs liquefy slightly and allow the salt to penetrate into the meat before it starts cooking. Wrap the entire roast in plastic wrap. If it is going on the smoker within the next 30 minutes it can be left on the counter to come up to room temperature. If you are applying the rub several hours or the night before, place it in the refrigerator to keep cold. I recommend putting it on a platter or baking sheet since it can leak.

Step Four – Preparing the Smoker

Smoker Temperature
Smoker Temperature

It isn’t barbecue without smoke. Smoke adds flavor but also reacts with the meat and particularly the connective tissues to break them down into simple sugars. This is why barbecue has a sweet flavor. This pork butt should take about an hour a pound to smoke at a temperature between 225 to 250 degrees F (110 to 120 degrees C).

Set up your smoker to run at these temperatures for at least 8 hours. Refer to the manufacturer’s user manual for specific instructions. Make sure you have plenty of fuel for your smoker and a good amount of hardwood for producing smoke. The smokers environment should be very smoky at the beginning of the cook time since this is when most of that flavor will be absorbed. The more meat cooks the less smoke it will take.

We are looking for a final temperature of around 185 to 190 degrees F (85 to 90 degrees C) before the meat is completely cooked.

If you choose you can apply a mop during the cooking time for added flavor and moisture. An easy way to make a mop is to add a 1/4 cup of the rub used before with 1/2 cup of water and vinegar each. Mopping should be done later in the cooking process and always heat the mop before applying it. The mop should be hot to the touch, but not boiling.

Step Five – Pork Placement

Pulled Pork on Smoker
Pulled Pork on Smoker

Once the smoker is prepared and has reached the proper temperature it is time to put the meat on. I recommend putting a large, disposable aluminum pan underneath the meat to help keep the smoker clean. There is no reason to clean the grease out of a smoker. This pork roast will render a substantial amount of fat during the cooking process. Make sure that the drip pan doesn’t obstruct the airflow and if desired, hot water can be added to it, depending on the type of smoker you are using.

Place the pork butt in the center of the smoker’s cooking rack. Air and smoke should flow evenly around all sides. In general, there is no reason to turn or rotate the roast while it cooks.

But which way to turn the fatty side? The roast probably has a side with a lot more fat than the other. Some argue that putting the fat side up will baste the pork as it cooks. Others disagree with this idea. Personally, I don’t see that it matters much, but I tend to put the fat side up when I am smoking a pork butt. It might just be a habit.

If you are smoking more than one pork butt, or have other items on the smoker, make sure that there is ample room between these items so that all surfaces are exposed to the smoke and the heat. Bunching up a lot of meat will dramatically increase the smoking times and reduce the smoky flavor.

Step Six – Smoking the Pork

Pulled Pork on Smoker
Pulled Pork on Smoker

After about three to four hours the pork will start getting close to being done. The safe cooking temperature for pork is 145 degrees F (65 degrees C). This is not high enough for barbecue and there is a lot of time left to get this pork done. One thing you might notice is that around this temperature the pork seems to stop cooking. The internal temperature may remain at this point for an hour, sometimes more. This is known in barbecue as ‘the stall’. It is not a bad thing and not something that requires turning up the heat. There are chemical reactions happening and at this temperature, much of the connective tissues are breaking down. As they do, moisture is released and this evaporates, stealing away some of the heat. Good barbecue needs a good stall time to reach the perfect tenderness. Once the stall ends, the temperature will rise quickly.

If are applying a mop, wait until the stall period is over. Once the meat has started climbing above 155 degrees F (70 degrees C) it is safe to start mopping. Make sure that the mop is relatively hot so that you are not cooling off the roast.

You may also choose to wrap the pork in foil at this point to hold in the moisture. If you have trouble with pork drying out, this is a strategy to try. In general, it isn’t necessary, but it is a perfectly acceptable method.

Step Seven – Temperature Checking

Pulled Pork Temperature Check
Pulled Pork Temperature Check

You should be monitoring the process of smoking throughout the cooking time so that you know if you need to make adjustments to the cooking temperature. Once the pork starts getting close to the target temperature, monitor it more closely. Test the temperature in at least two places, as close to the center of the roast as possible. Remember that unless you have a boneless butt, there is a very large bone running through it. The temperature near the bone will not be an accurate number. Test the temperature away from the bone.

One note: Over the years I have had several people write me to say that they have difficulty getting their pork cooked through to the right temperature. It is generally because the fire in their smoker is dying down. Since the pork has absorbed as much smoke as it will, the whole roast can be wrapped tightly in aluminum foil and transferred to a preheated oven at 250 degrees F (120 degrees C) to finish off. I won’t tell, honest. Just continue heating until you reach the destination temperature.

Step Eight – Shredding the Pork

Shredding Pulled Pork
Shredding Pulled Pork

Pulled pork is generally, well, pulled. It can be sliced, diced or cut up as desired, but pulled is best. By pulling the meat apart by hand, the long fibers are left intact and won’t lose as much moisture as when it is cut. If the pork has smoked correctly and reached the correct temperature, it should pull easily and quickly. I recommend food safe, insulated gloves for handling the pork. A pair of forks used the pull the meat apart can also help. This is a slow, but rewarding job.

As the pork is pulled it can be placed in a slow cooker (like a Crock-Pot) or a large pot over a very low flame to keep it warm. Remember, when shredding the pork that the consistency should be small and lose. This is ideally going on a sandwich and should be relatively fine.

If you are adding sauce at this point, start with small amounts and toss it gently into the shredded pork. You can also choose to serve a sauce on the side so that those doing the eating can decide how much they want.

Step Nine – Making Pulled Pork Sandwiches

Pulled Pork Sandwich
Pulled Pork Sandwich

The perfect Pulled Pork sandwich is actually very simple. Start with plain white buns. Don’t look for anything fancy. The bread is just there so you can get a good hold of the meat, after all that work, you want a sandwich that focuses on the pulled pork. How you build your sandwich is, of course, a matter of personal taste. Add sauce, or not. For pulled pork, tradition says a vinegar or mustard based sauce and a small pile of sandwich slaw on top.

Plan on two big sandwiches per person, just to be on the safe side.

Pulled pork can be used in so many great ways. Try it in enchiladas, on nachos, or any dish that uses shredded pork, but most of all take a moment to appreciate it and then go back for seconds.

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