Here's a complete, step-by-step guide on how to make the tastiest, juiciest, and most tender pulled pork you've (hopefully!) ever had. I live in USA's far north, so old-fashioned slow roasted barbecue is quite hard to come by. This perfected recipe was the result of my long quest to replicate authentic, southern-style barbecue. Enjoy!
- Smoker or grill with a fire box. A thermometer on the smoker/grill is necessary.
- Wood for smoking. I used plum tree wood for the aroma it gives off, but traditional woods like oak, hickory, maple, or mesquite work well also.
- Grill tongs
- Internal meat thermometer
- Knives and cutting board for meat preparation
- Tin foil
- Ingredients listed below
- At least seven hours of open time. This could be longer if you choose a larger cut of meat.
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Step 1: Ingredients
- 1 Pork shoulder or Boston butt cut. You may choose the size of the cut depending on how much you want. Pictured here I have a nine pound pork shoulder that I later cut in two.
- Preferred barbecue sauce for finishing
- 5 Tbsp brown sugar
- 2 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tsp smoked paprika
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp onion powder
- 2 tsp ground pepper
- 1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Step 2: Prepare Meat & Seasoning
Mix all ingredients listed under "Dry Rub" in the previous step. Ensure the mix is thorough and not clumpy to prevent pockets of one-note flavor when rubbing the meat. If you are sensitive to heat, you may reduce the cayenne pepper by 1/2 tsp to dull the spice level.
Allow the meat to come to room temperature, and prepare the meat by trimming excess fat. When cutting, leave a thin layer of fat on the top of the roast. This fat layer will melt during cooking and will keep the meat moist throughout the entire cooking time. At this point, I also cut my nine pound roast in half. I did this so that the cooking time would be shortened. The general rule of thumb when smoking pork is to smoke at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour and a half per pound of meat. Thus, by cutting the meat in half, I reduced the required cooking time from 13.5 hours to roughly six hours. This is an option if you anticipate cooking a larger roast, and it does not sacrifice tenderness or juiciness.
Step 3: Dry Rub Meat
After trimming the excess fat off the roast, vigorously apply the seasoning mix to all surfaces of the meat. It helps to apply this seasoning much thicker and more liberally that you would with most meats because the skin will be shredded and combined with the unseasoned inside of the meat when cooking is finished. Because of this, you want to establish a bold flavor profile on the surface of the meat. When the roast is seasoned well, cover it with plastic wrap or tin foil and let it rest for at least twelve hours. For planning purposes, I apply the rub the evening before cooking to ensure it has long enough to marinade.
Step 4: Set Up Smoker
To cook the meat, I am using a grill with an attached fire box. You have a variety of options that work well for smoking meat like this, such as traditional smokers as well. If you don't have a fire box attachment or traditional smoker, you can also build your fire on one side of a large grill (emphasis on large) and place your meat on the other side. However, this may result in uneven cooking and harder to control temperatures, so I would avoid it if possible.
I am using plum tree logs to smoke, but you have much discretion here as well. Traditional woods such as oak, mesquite, and maple work excellent as well. I used approximately 2-3 times as much wood as is pictured. A third of that I let soak in water the prior evening. If using whole wood and not wood chips, you will also need small sticks and kindling to start the fire. I chose to use whole wood because of it's flavor profile and ease of availability.
To begin, I started a medium size fire in the fire box (as pictured). Note, during smoking, the fire should not be this large. You may begin with a larger fire and then place several thicker pieces of dry wood on top to get them started burning. Then, close the lid to the fire box and open the vent to allow air through. Allow your grill to stabilize at 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Step 5: Place the Meat & Wait
Once the grill's internal temperature has stabilized around 250°F, place the meat on the regular chamber of the grill and close it. At this point, the hardest parts of this recipe are over. Using the cooking convention of one and a half hours of smoking per pound of meat at 225°F, you can calculate your approximate cooking time from this point. The only maintenance that needs to be done now is keeping the grill to temperature. The goal temperature for the grill is 225°F. To accomplish this, I added two small logs (like the ones pictured previously) approximately every half hour, occasionally adding a log that was soaking with water (allow excess to drip before adding). When adding wood, open the ventilator hatch (pictured on the left side of the box) to allow it to catch fire and avoid opening the main fire box lid for too long. If you do, your heat will rapidly drain from the main grill. After a few minutes, close the ventilator about half way. The ventilator is a tool you can use to choke the fire if it is burning too hot or allow more air in if it is not burning enough. Use it at your discretion. You will also want to avoid opening the main grill lid excessively because recovering the lost temperature does take significant time.
Step 6: Wrap Meat in Tin Foil
About half way through cooking, pork roasts tend to stabilize around 150°F. Their internal temperature may not budge for hours, even if the grill temperature is much higher. To avoid this period of stalling and preserve moisture throughout the second half of cooking, wrap the roasts in tin foil. Wrap them when they begin to stall at the 150°F mark, which will be a little later than half way through cooking. For my two, four-pound roasts, this was after four hours of cooking. You will have to use a meat thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of your own roast and determine wrapping time. By this time, the roast will have formed a beautiful "bark" on the outside, which is a term for the very flavorful, chewy crust on the outside of the meat (pictured above). It may appear to be burnt to the untrained eye, but this is simply the bark forming, and there is no cause for worry.
To easily wrap them in tin foil, line a cookie sheet with enough foil to cover the roasts completely. Then, use tongs to place the roast in the middle of the baking sheet and simply wrap the remaining portion by hand.
Now, return the roasts to the smoker and let cook until they have reached an internal temperature of 170°F. This will be the end of the cooking time you calculated when you first put the roast on.
Step 7: Unwrap & Return to Grill
Once the meat has finished cooking and reached 170°F, unwrap the foil in the same manner it was wrapped (on a cooking sheet) and return to the smoker for 15-20 minutes. The goal here is not to cook any longer, but to crisp the bark on the meat that has been softened by being wrapped. This should not take long, and you can use discretion based on how crispy you prefer the outer crust. Traditionally, the crisper it is, the better it tastes. At the end of this period, the bark will be a dark brown, almost black color, as pictured.
Step 8: Let Rest
Now, take the meat off the grill. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes. During this time, the internal temperature of the meat will peak around 180°F. Letting the meat rest ensures that it retains its natural juices when it is cut and enhances flavor.
Step 9: Shred & Enjoy!
After the period of resting is over, you are free to prepare the meat and serve it as you like. For traditional pulled pork, I shredded the meat and served on buns with barbecue sauce on the side. When prepared this way, the pork does not need barbecue sauce mixed in, as it is already highly flavorful and moist. Thanks for reading, and happy cooking!
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