Introduction: How to Smoke Pulled Pork

Pulled pork is a great way for beginners to learn how to smoke meat because it is so hard to ruin. It takes the cheapest piece of meat you can find and turns it into a delicious meal.  This Instructable focuses on the technique for making great pulled pork and less on rub or BBQ sauce recipes. If you don't have a smoker check out my Instructable for building your own drum smoker.  For more information on using a smoker read my Ugly Drum Smoker FAQ

Step 1: Ingredients

The most important ingredient is the meat.  You want to use a pork shoulder or a piece cut from the shoulder.  A whole shoulder can weigh 8-12 pounds so most people use either of the two main cuts from the shoulder: the picnic or the Boston butt.  (Nobody knows for sure why a cut of shoulder is known as a Boston butt but it really is from the shoulder.)  The shoulder is the best cut for making pulled pork because it is fatty and has a lot of collagen that will melt over the course of the smoke.  It's the melted collagen that adds the great flavor and lets you pull the pork into small pieces.

A cut with the bone in is preferred.  There is some evidence that meat holds on to it's flavor a little longer if the bone is still attached.  It also give you a way to determine that the pulled pork is done cooking (we'll discuss this later).

Don't use other cuts of meat, especially the loin!  They don't have enough fat or collagen and you'll end up with a dry, tough piece of meat, especially if you use a loin.

For this cook I am going to go with a very simple rub of salt and garlic powder.

Step 2: Apply Rub

The rub for pulled pork has the following goals:
  1. The salt in the rub pulls out some of the moisture near the surface of the meat.
  2. It adds different flavors.
  3. The rub determines the consistency of the crust, or bark, of the pulled pork after you are done cooking it.  Some people like thick crunchy bark. I prefer a soft bark.
For this cook I used a rub of just salt and garlic powder because it results in a very light bark.  Another rub I use often is Meathead's Memphis Dust which leaves a flavorful bark without being overly crunchy.

Whatever rub you use, apply it generously on your meat and rub it in (it is called rub, after all).  Make sure you coat the entire shoulder.  Cover it with tinfoil and stick it in the fridge for at least 4 hours to let the salt do its work.  I usually let mine sit overnight.

Step 3: Smoke and Smoke and Smoke.

Start up your smoker and set its temperature to around 225 degrees.  If you have a food thermometer (recommended) stick it into the pork so it sits in the middle of the meat without touching the bone.  Place it in your smoker, close it up, and let it cook for at least eight hours.

The Stall

If you have a food thermometer in the pork you may notice that after a few hours the internal temperature of your pork stops rising, usually around 160-170 degrees.  This is completely normal!  This is known as "the stall" and has annoyed BBQers since sweet smoke was first used to make pulled pork.  What is happening is that the temperature of the pork has become high enough that the moisture in the meat is evaporating and cooling down the meat.  Somewhere between 160-170 degrees the amount of heat going into the pork from the coals equals the heat leaving the pork via evaporation.  This will continue until most of the water has evaporated; once that happens the internal temperature of the meat will begin to rise again.

This does not dry out the meat appreciably.  There is still plenty of fat to keep the meat moist and your guests will rave about your pulled pork.  However, competition BBQers counter The Stall by wrapping the meat in foil.  This has two goals: 1) prevent some of the water from evaporating and 2) shortening cook time (because less water is evaporating).  To foil, open your smoker when it hits the stall and wrap with foil.  Many chefs will include a few tablespoons of liquid inside the foil, like apple juice or beer.

Unless you need to shorten the cook time, foiling your pork is probably more work than it's worth.  Just let it power through the stall and don't get antsy.

When is the pork done?

This is the most important part of this Instructable and if you only remember one thing remember this: pulled pork is not done after it's cooked for a certain time or it reaches a particular internal temperature.  It is done only when it passes the consistency test.  There are multiple ways that BBQers test the consistency:
  1. Attempt to twist the bone and pull it out.  If it comes out easily and cleanly then the pork is done.
  2. Take a skewer or fork and probe the meat in different areas.  If the meat has the consistency of butter then it's done.
  3. Stick in a fork and twist it.  If the fork turns easily then the pork is done.
There is no other way to be assured that the meat is done except by checking it's consistency.  You can start checking when the meat hits 190 degrees but every cook will be different.  Some shoulders will be done at 190, others at 205.

Step 4: Rest and Pull

Once you have probed the meat and verified it is done remove it from the smoker.  At this point you have the option of letting the meat rest.  There are varying opinions on the reasons for letting the meat rest or even if it needs to be done.  I generally let it rest only when the meat is ready before the rest of the meal.  This is usually the case because I pad the planned cooking time by a few hours in case I get a particularly stubborn shoulder or pork butt.  Wrap the meat in foil and towels and drop it into a cooler to keep it warm.

About half an hour before meal time take out the pork and use two forks to shred it into small pieces.

Alternative cooking strategies

Most BBQers use the low-and-slow method of smoking pork.  It's hard to ruin pork using this method because it's almost impossible to overcook it or burn it.  The downside is that it can be painfully slow.  Large cuts of meat can take over 12 hours!  It's possible to reduce cooking time by increasing the smoker temperature.  For example, a 10-hour cook at 225 degrees can be accomplished in 6 hours at 300 degrees.  There are, however, some drawbacks:
  1. Burning the meat becomes possible (although still not likely unless the smoker temperatures run away).
  2. The bark will be thicker and potentially tougher.  Not everybody sees this as a problem.
  3. The resulting meat will be drier.  At temperatures over 200 degrees the proteins in the meat begin to denature and dry out.  A little bit of this is fine because pork shoulder has so much fat and collagen.  However, if the internal temperature of the pork gets too high then too much of the meat will denature and the meat will feel tough and dry even with the fat.
The safer way to cook is to stick with 225-250 degrees.
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