Introduction: Pulled Pork: How to Smoke a Bone-In Pork Shoulder

About: I'm a writer, computer geek, photographer, game designer, foodie, glassblower, gemstone cutter, synth nerd, musician, woodworker and wannabe jeweler.

I'm from Texas, where BBQ is all about beef. Pork is generally confined to ribs (see my Thai Spare Ribs Instructable for a non-traditional take on them). The first time that I had a really good Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich, though, I knew I need to branch out beyond brisket.

This is *not* a quick process. If you want to eat it for dinner the same day they're finished, you're going to need to pull an all-nighter (unless your smoker can automatically add more wood while you sleep). I usually make them the day before I want to serve them. For these, I got up at 5:30 AM and turned on the smoker (I use a digitally-controlled box smoker), had the shoulder in the smoker at 6 AM, removed the butt from the smoker at 10 PM and let it rest an hour, then pulled it, for a total time of 18 hours.

Step 1: The Right Cut

My cut of choice is a bone-in picnic shoulder. Depending on your market, you might find the entire shoulder (which includes the butt and the picnic shoulder), or you might find a shoulder labeled a butt, or vice versa. I've found inconsistencies in labeling by region. Both a butt and a shoulder can be used in this recipe -- whichever you get, it needs to have a good fat cap.

One of the best things about pulled pork is how cost-efficient it is for feeding a large group of people. The ~10 pound shoulder I used this time yielded almost 4 pounds of meat for under $20. Add some tortillas and salsa, and you're good to go.

Step 2: Rub It In

If I have the time, I'll brine the full shoulder for 2-3 days in the fridge. I didn't have 3 days available for this one, so I settled for an overnight wet rub. If you don't have a bunch of different dried peppers, just substitute generic chili powder.

Ingredients for the Rub

  • 2 tablespoons ground chipotle pepper (I smoke my own jalapenos for this, then grind them)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground ancho pepper
  • 1 tablespoon generic chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon dried mustard
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon cumin powder
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon hot paprika
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil

Mix all the rub ingredients together. With a sharp knife, score a diagonal pattern into the fat cap of the shoulder, about a quarter-inch deep. Thoroughly work the rub into the entire cut, stick it in a non-reactive bowl or pan, cover with cling-wrap, and put in the fridge overnight.

Step 3: Smoke, Part 1

Preheat your smoker to 225 F (107 C).

While it heats up, put a bunch of wood chips in a container full of water and let them soak at least 30 minutes. I generally use apple wood for the first 6 hours, then switch to hickory for the finish (IMO the meat takes the sweet flavor from the apple well for the first 4-6 hours, but after that, all you are getting is the 'smoke' flavor, and hickory is my favorite for that).

Next time you're tired of arguing about Apple vs. Android, hang out on some bbq forums and start a discussion about fat-cap-up versus fat-cap-down. Or maybe something less controversial, like religion...

I start with the fat cap up in the smoker. This allows the fat that renders out to drip down the sides of the cut. After six hours, I flip it to fat-cap down, to protect the meat from the direct heat below.

Step 4: Smoking, Part 2

Sometime around hour 8 I insert a probe thermometer into the center of the shoulder -- be sure that it isn't directly touching the bone, or it will throw your temp readings off.

Continue to smoke until the internal temperature reaches 203 F (95 C). At that point, remove from the smoker, cover it in foil, and go away for an hour.

Step 5: Pull!

When you come back, it will literally fall apart when you grab the bone and pull it out. Grab a couple of forks, and start shredding. As you shred, there will be some 'squiggly bits' -- veins, connective tissue that didn't gelatinize, etc. I remove this as I go. As far as the outer bark goes, I keep any bits that have actual meat attached, but the portions of the exterior that are nothing but rock-hard blackened charcoal are not, as Alton says, good eats.

At this point, if I'm serving the next day, I just put all the meat into a 2 gallon baggie and stick it in the fridge. To reheat, I put it in a crockpot on low, add a couple of tablespoons of kosher salt and 3/4 cup of apple cider vinegar. You can also chop up a few onions and add them to the reheating mix as well if you choose. Add some buns or tortillas, and you are now ready to feed a dozen people well...