Of all the traditions of barbecue, pulled pork has held on to its roots stronger than any other. Large cuts of tough, cheap pork are smoked for hours at low temperatures, then pulled apart by hand and served on a bun or in a pile. While pulled pork has held on to the traditional cooking methods, there is still a lot of variation from region to region. We've brought together the best traditions and a simplified process for the best pulled pork you can make at home.
Choose the Cut
The first step when making smoked pulled pork barbecue is deciding which cut of pork you want to use. Unlike brisket, pulled pork can be made from any fatty pork roast or from a whole hog, but the best cut for pulled pork is the shoulder. High in fat and connective tissue, the shoulder is the most flavorful part of the hog. The pork shoulder is typically cut into two parts, the Boston butt and the picnic roast. You can use either for this method, but the Boston butt is the best since it's easier to work with, uniform in shape, and contains the right ratio of fat to lean. Look for a Boston butt that is rectangular in shape with a layer of fat on one side. The color should be a rich pink to purple and the meat firm to the touch.
Once you have your meat, trim off any loose fat and skin. Then apply a spice rub to flavor the meat and form a crusty surface called a bark while it smokes. Typically, pulled pork rub will have sugar (usually brown), salt, paprika, pepper (any combination of black, white, or red), and dried herbs. Work the rub deep into the meat and let it sit for about an hour to sink in and form a moist paste on the surface. Now you're ready to smoke.
While you can use any mild wood to smoke pork, hickory and/or oak are traditional. You will want an even temperature of around 225 F/100 C and you need to keep the smoker temperature below 265 F/130 C no matter what. Too high of a temperature will make the meat tough. Smoke your pork roasts for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours per pound—in other words, low and slow. You can remove the pork once it reaches an internal temperature of 165 F/75 C, but it won't be tender. Continue smoking until you can easily shred the meat with a fork, at around 195 F/90 C. If you can't smoke for this long, you can switch to the oven after a few hours. Wrap the pork tightly in foil and roast it at 225 F/100 C until tender.
Pulling the Pork
Once the pork is done, remove it from the smoker and let it sit for about 30 minutes. Now you are ready to pull. Ideally, the meat will be so tender that you can simply pull it apart with your hands or two forks. This allows you to separate out the meat from everything else. Place the meat in a pot over low heat to keep it warm. You can add a simple vinegar sauce of cayenne, paprika, and apple cider vinegar for moisture and flavor. Mix it all together before serving so that the meat is lightly coated.
Tradition also dictates that you provide your diners with a table or finishing sauce. This can be almost any kind of barbecue sauce, but again it would be typically served with a thin vinegar sauce. While this might sound like you'll have a sour dish, the meat will be sweet from slow cooking and the sour of the vinegar will be complimentary. You can serve pulled pork with sides on a plate or nestled in a bun.