What You Need
Pulled pork is one of the great traditions of barbecue and THE barbecue of the Carolinas. While this process can take 8 to 10 hours to complete, it isn't difficult. The secret is to let the flavor of the pork shine through while layering in flavors as you go. This process is best done with a smoker since it is the smoke that really makes this meat great. Don't have a smoker? You can make great pulled pork on a charcoal grill.
Most of the pulled pork that gets smoked these days is made from the Boston Butt, or as it is also known, the Boston Roast. This is a section of the pork shoulder. The Boston Butt typically weighs in around 6 to 8 pounds, while a whole shoulder will weigh as much as 20 pounds. For most people, the Boston Butt is just about perfect and it will cook faster than a whole shoulder, even if you smoke two of them.
What You Will Need
This process takes about 8 hours start to finish, depending on the type of smoker and the temperature at which the pork is cooked. As a general rule, at low and slow temperatures, a pork roast will cook at around hour per pound.
Preparing the Meat
A Boston Pork Butt (from the shoulder and not the other end) is basically a big rectangular cube of a roast. There is a large, flat bone running through one end and a lot of connective tissue and fat. If you threw this in the oven at 350 F it would be tough and flavorless. This is why we smoke this cut low and slow.
To prepare our pork roast we want to give it a good inspection on all sides. Typically there is a layer of fat on what we are going to call the bottom, and bands of fat that run around and through it. Leave all this in place. If there is anything hanging loose, cut it off. The roast should be compact and hold together well. Take a few paper towels and pat it dry before adding flavors.
Since this is a thick roast we want to get extra moisture and flavor deep into the meat. The best way to do this is with an injection marinade. This is a thin solution that combines water and vinegar with seasonings. Remember that whatever goes into this marinade must be able to pass through the needle of your meat injector. One simple way to make an injection marinade is to combine your pork rub with equal parts of water and vinegar (either white or cider).
Inject the solution evenly into the meat about 2 inches deep. The meat will puff up around the needle. Once the solution starts to leak out, stop and move to the next location. Once you have the pork roast injected, handle with care so that the marinade stays inside. Pat the surface of the meat dry again before moving on to the rub.
Now it is time for the rub. A barbecue rub is any combination of herbs and spices sprinkled over the surface of the meat. We don't actually need to rub it into the surface, but just evenly distribute it. Once you have selected your pulled pork rub you will need to make about a cup of it for each pork butt. The only rule on how much to use is, what sticks is how much you need. The natural moisture of the meat will hold it in place.
The rub is a vital set in this process. It not only adds flavor but works to produce the crusty surface or bark that we want in a good pulled pork. Rubs can, but do not have to, contain salt -- that is a choice that is up to you. Generously apply the rub, while gently handling the meat. Once the rub is on, cover loosely with a large piece of plastic wrap and place the pork roast in a place where it won't be disturbed. The time it takes to prepare the smoker is the time the rub needs to absorb into the surface.
Placing the Meat on the Smoker
As soon as the smoker is up to temperature is it time to place the meat. It's ideal to put a large, disposable aluminum pan underneath the meat. Do not place the meat in the pan, but if your smoker will allow for it, without disrupting the airflow, a drip pan really helps with the clean up afterward. This pork roast has a lot of fat, and that fat is going to turn to liquid slowly as we cook. Collecting that for disposal will make your smoker maintenance a breeze.
The pork should be placed as close to the center of the smoker as possible. If you are smoking more than one pork roast, or any other cut, it is important to make sure that there is at least two inches of space between them. This allows for heat and smoke to get to all surfaces. Bunching up meats on the smoker will dramatically increase cooking times and limit the amount of smoke that gets to the meat.
Smoking the Meat
Barbecue is all about the smoke. While you could cook your pork roast in the oven low and slow, without the smoke it will not have the right flavor and texture of real barbecue.
Maintain a good smoking temperature of 225 to 250 F/110 to 120 C with a good, smoky fire. Refer to your smoker's operating manual for information about your specific smoker. It will take about 1 per pound of meat to smoke a pork roast. Make sure you have plenty of time because undercooking will result in tough meat that just isn't barbecue. The final temperature we will be looking for is around 185 to 190 F/85 to 90 C.
During the smoking, you may choose to apply a mop. A mop will help add moisture to the surface of the meat while it cooks and helps add additional flavor. Mopping should be done late in the cooking process.
Checking the Temperature
Monitoring the temperature of the pork roast is important, but punching holes in the meat every 20 minutes is not a good idea. Trust that this is going to take several hours. Of course, you can use a temperature monitor so that you don't have to keep lifting the lid, but patience is a virtue in barbecue and you shouldn't need to check the temperature for at least 4 hours as long as the smoker has been running a consistent temperature.
To test the internal temperature, run the probe of your thermometer into the center of the meat from the end that doesn't contain the bone. Bone gets hot faster than meat so testing too near the bone will give you an incorrect temperature read. With a roast like this, a single temperature test is enough as long as you are reading from as close to the center as possible. Multiple checks will simply punch more holes in the meat allowing juices to leak out.
Completing the Smoke
After a few hours, the pulled pork will be getting close to done. If you have been monitoring the process you may have noticed that the internal temperature stalled around 145 F/65 C. This is normal. As moisture evaporated from the surface of the meat it robs the temperature a little. You can simply wait this out. Typically this stall lasts no more than an hour and if you have anticipated an hour per pound to smoke your pork roast you will have plenty of time. Do not be tempted to bring up the smoker temperature to compensate.
One strategy for dealing with the stall is to wrap the roast in heavy aluminum foil. This holds in the heat better and will allow the pork to rise faster in temperature. It is generally not necessary, but if you are pressed for time it is one trick to try.
Another trick with a long smoke time is to wrap the roast towards the end. Smoke absorbs less and less as the meat cooks, so it won't do much towards the end. Wrapping the roast will bring up the temperature faster.
And since the roast is wrapped, if necessary, you can place the roast on a wire rack on a large baking sheet and move it to your oven. Set the oven at 250 F/120 C, and allow it to finish off there. Remember that we are looking for a final temperature of 185 to 190 F/85 to 90 C.
Pulled pork is, well, pulled. Sliced, diced, or simply cut up will cause the meat to dry out faster. By pulling the meat apart by hand you leave the texture of the meat intact. As you pull the meat into small pieces (strips) remove all the remaining fat, bone, and gristle. This will leave you with tender, delicious, even lean meat. One of the best ways to start the pulling is to use insulated food safe gloves. You want to get to the pork while it is still hot and a good set of these gloves will let you tear the pork roast apart, into manageable chunks for a final shredding.
Keep the meat warm while it is being shredded. This can be done in a slow cooker or a large pot over a very low flame. Keep the slow cooker or pot covered as much as possible to hold in the moisture.
Once the meat is shredded and being warmed it is time to decide about a sauce. Pulled pork barbecue sauces come in a wide variety. With pulled pork, it is the pork and the smoke that should shine through so use a sauce sparingly, or put it in a bottle and let people add sauce as they see fit.
Good, smoked pulled pork is an amazing thing. It is truly one of the most versatile meats you can have. Make it into enchiladas, salads, tamales, or virtually anything, but first, make it into the traditional sandwich. Of course, the sauce is always optional with pulled pork, but piled high on a plain bun or roll with a good helping of coleslaw on top makes a fantastic meal. Yes, the coleslaw goes in the sandwich. Pick a good slaw, with just a hint of tartness and the pork will pop out and it will be delicious. This is the way pulled pork has been served for generations.