What You Need to Make Pulled Pork on a Charcoal Grill
Pulled pork is a delicious contribution to any cookout, tailgate, barbeque or casual lunch at home. It's a classic that can yield as many flavors as it does servings. A Boston butt or Boston pork roast is about 5 to 6 pounds of tough meat filled with bone, cartilage, and fat. Turning this block of a pork roast into a delicious and tender barbecue is going to take patience and a full-sized charcoal grill. It requires a charcoal grill and a griller that can hold a consistent cooking temperature of 250 F/120 C and is large enough that the pork roast can fit on half the cooking surface with space all around and good vent control. Plan on a cooking time of 6 to 8 hours from start to finish.
What You Will Need
Know the weight of the Boston roast you are using. Typically this process takes about 1 hour per pound of cook time plus an hour preparation time and about 30 minutes to shred and sauce the pulled pork. If you have a smoker you will want to follow instructions for making pulled pork on a smoker.
The Pork Injection
The Boston butt is a big rectangular block of a pork roast with one side covered in fat. There is no need to do much trimming or preparation of the roast itself. Try removing any loose pieces of fat, but other than that, it should be ready to go.
To maximize flavor and tenderness use an injection marinade. This requires a meat injector. The marinade needs to be a fine solution without large bits of seasonings which will clog the needle. You can use any herb or spice, but they need to be ground to a fine powder. Use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder to get to this consistency. One good strategy is to use the same spice rub in the injection marinade and the outside of the meat. Combine the rub with equal parts vinegar (either white or cider) and water. Mix well and load into the meat injector.
Inject the solution deep into the meat in equal parts throughout. The meat will puff up around the injection site. Stop injecting when it starts to leak out and move to the next spot. Looking down on the top (with the fat side on the bottom) inject every two inches in a grid pattern.
The Pork Rub
With the injection done, now apply the spice rub. Pat the meat dry with paper towels to help the rub stick to the meat and not run off before it hits the charcoal grill. A good pulled pork rub can be pretty much any combination of herbs, spices, and salt (which is optional). It should be a fine, powdery mixture.
For one pork butt, you will want about 1 to 1 1/2 cups (240 to 360 mL) of rub. The amount is what sticks to the roast; apply generously to all sides. It isn't as important to cover the thick fat pieces, but make sure that the meat has a good coating. Once the roast is covered in the rub, cover it loosely with plastic wrap and set aside while preparing the grill.
Preparing the Grill
Converting a full-sized charcoal grill to smoking is easy. Start with a clean grill, making sure that any previous ashes have been removed. It is best to light the charcoal with a charcoal chimney. This makes lighting the charcoal easier but will also allow you to light more charcoal later if you need more coals.
The aluminum pans need to fit inside the grill, covering no more than half the grill. These are the water and drip pan.
- Light the charcoal and once it gets up to a good burn, pour it out onto half the coal grate in the bottom of the grill.
- Fit the drip pan on the coal grate next to the burning charcoal. Make sure that it sits flat on the coal grate and that there is not charcoal underneath it.
- Put the cooking grate on the grill.
- Place the second aluminum pan directly over the burning charcoal and fill it with water.
- Put the lid on the grill and adjust the vents, top, and bottom, to hold temperature as close to 250 F/120 C as possible. This is the ideal cooking temperature and you will want it here the entire time.
Meat Placement and Timing
Once the grill is set up and up to temperature, it is time to put on the roast. But first, add hardwood chunks to the burning charcoal for smoke production. You will need to add more every hour for the first four hours to get the proper amount of smoke. These do not need to be moist, but it's best to use large chunks and not the little wood chips. Wood chips will work, but you will need to add them every 30 minutes for the first four hours to get the same amount of smoke.
- Place the pork roast on the cooking grate of the grill, directly over the drip pan, fat side down, and as far from the fire as possible (which is probably not very far). The goal is to cook this pork with indirect heat, so it can't be sitting over the burning charcoal.
- Once the pork is in place, return the lid and let it cook. Charcoal grills don't have the same level of temperature control that you find on most smokers, so this will need to be watched, particularly if this is your first time smoking on a charcoal grill.
- Plan on about 1 hour per pound for this to cook or about 5 to 6 hours. Every hour check the grill to make sure that temperature is being maintained and that there is plenty of water in the water pan.
- Rotate the roast to keep the cooking even and add additional wood chunks to keep the smoke going.
Wrapping the Pork
After about 4 hours of cooking time, the internal temperature will rise above 150 F/65 C. It is time to wrap the pork. By this time, it will have absorbed all the smoke it is going to get and the temperature needs to rise faster while holding in moisture. Wrap the roast tightly in a double layer of aluminum foil and place it on the grill. Check to make sure that the fire is burning well and that the grill's temperature is around 250 F/120 C. There is no need to add additional wood chunks at this point.
Keep the water pan full. This water pan has been not only keeping the moisture in the grill high, but also acting to keep the temperature inside the grill level.
Continue cooking for another hour or until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 185 F/85 C. Pork is considered cooked at 145 F/63 C, but barbecue requires much higher temperatures to ensure tenderness and flavor.
After about 5 hours, the temperature of the meat should start getting close to our target temperature (185 F/85 C). Check the meat with an accurate meat thermometer. Push the temperature probe into the pork roast as close to the center of the meat as possible.
If the pork is not reaching the right temperature, you can either keep cooking on the grill or move to the indoor oven, set at 250 F/120 C. It is possible, if you become pressed for time, to set that temperature higher, but if you have followed these steps you should reach the target temperature as estimated. Once the roast has reached temperature, it is time to pull it out for shredding.
Shredding the Pork
Pulling pork can be a bit of a time-consuming process. When we started with this pork butt it was loaded with fat, gristle and bone. Much of the fat has turned to a liquid and the connective tissues broken down, but there are still some things in here that we don't want to eat. As you shred the pork, remove any bones and bits that remain.
Keep the pork as hot as possible while it is shredded. Use a good pair of insulated food gloves. Start by tearing the meat into smaller and smaller chunks, dividing it up, and removing the bone and undesirable parts. A pair of forks or meat claws can be very helpful with this task. Continue shredding until all the meat is reduced to strands.
As the meat is being shredded transfer the finished pieces to a slow cooker or a large pot over very low heat to keep it warm. You can add a pulled pork barbecue sauce if desired. Adding sauce isn't necessary, but it can help if the meat has gotten a little dry.
Making a Sandwich
Smoked pulled pork is an amazing thing. So many wonderful recipes can be made with it. A traditional method for serving pulled pork is as a sandwich, on plain white buns with coleslaw on top.
Pick a good slaw, with just a hint of tartness. A sauce can be added before or when the pork is served. Often it is best to provide sauce on the side and let people add it if they want. Good pulled pork is perfect on its own, but many people expect barbecue sauce with it.