Pulled pork is one of those recipes that cooks shy away from. It can seem intimidating, considering the reputation it has gained in the Southern United States. People travel far and wide for the best pulled-pork sandwiches or work years to perfect their award-winning recipe. As daunting as pulled pork might seem, however, it is actually one of the easiest barbecue recipes to master.
Pulled pork is a great place to start when learning about smoking and barbecue for a few different reasons. Pork shoulders and related cuts are relatively inexpensive and the meat itself can be very forgiving. Undercook it (within the limits of safety) and it might be tough, but it will still taste good. Overcook it and you can still serve it with a smile. Pork allows you to practice your barbecue skills and still be able to eat your mistakes. (Brisket and ribs are not as forgiving.) But you need to make sure you start with the right cut of meat.
The Shoulder Cut
The most common cut for making pulled pork is the shoulder. The pork shoulder is the entire front leg and shoulder of a hog. In your grocery store, you will usually find this divided into two cuts, the Boston butt (also known as the Boston roast), and the picnic roast. Contrary to what the name implies, the butt comes from the upper part of the front shoulder and not the rear of the pig.
A full pork shoulder should weigh between 12 and 16 pounds. It will have a bone and joint plus a good helping of fat and collagen. Because of the intense fat marbling, pork shoulder doesn't dry as quickly as other pieces of meat.
The process of smoking causes the collagen to break down into simple sugars making the meat sweet and tender. In addition, during these long hours of smoking, much of the fat will melt away, keeping the meat moist. (Some experts will tell you that the way to determine when the pork is done, is to take it out of the smoker when most of the fat is gone.) This means you can skip all the traditional rubs, mops, and sauces and the pork will stand alone on the flavors of the meat and the smoke.
Boston Butt vs. Picnic Roast
If you can't find a whole pork shoulder at your local store, you can get either or both of these cuts and you will still have just what you need. Both the Boston butt and picnic roast will weigh between 6 to 8 pounds individually, but the Boston butt will have less bone than the picnic. The picnic cut can come with or without the bone—and you want one with the bone for the best flavor. The butt is the preferred cut for competition cooks and what most people are cooking in their backyards these days. It has a consistent, rectangular shape and is easy to handle. Although the picnic is more like an unprepared ham, it works just as well for pulled pork.
Preparing the Meat for the Smoker
No matter if you have the whole pork shoulder or the Boston butt and/or picnic roast, the meat you choose should have a good quantity of fat to make preparing it for smoking really easy. You can apply a rub to add flavor if you like, or you can simply put it in the smoker right out of the wrapping—just check it first for loose pieces of fat or skin and trim them off. Large, thick sections of fat should be trimmed down to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch in thickness. This will help to reduce the cooking time and let the smoke get to the meat better.
Adding a Rub to the Meat
If you choose to use a rub, do so liberally—remember that you are trying to flavor a large piece of meat (or two smaller pieces). To apply the seasoning, take the piece of pork, trimmed of unnecessary fat and skin, and rinse with cool water and pat dry. Then sprinkle the rub over the surface of the meat, massaging it in a bit. Make sure that every part is evenly covered—pork shoulders can have a very uneven surface so add the rub from every angle. The general rule is, what sticks is what stays.
For the best flavor, wrap the seasoned meat in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight. Make sure to remove the pork from the fridge early enough so it will come to room temperature before you place it in the smoker—cold meat will burn on the outside.