BBQ Pulled Pork

There continues to be feuding in the Southern United States over which part of the hog is best for making pulled pork. Typically this debate is over using the entire whole hog or just the pork shoulder. At the end of the debate it can be agreed that both the whole hog and/ or the pork shoulder are great choices and stand on their own merits for different reasons. This page focuses specifically on the pork shoulder.

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Starting Out
Pulled pork is a great way for people to start when learning about smoking and barbecue. Pork shoulders and the related cuts are relatively inexpensive and the meat itself is very forgiving. Under cook it (within the limits of safety) and it might be a little tough, but it will still taste great. Over cook it and you can still serve it with a smile. Because of the fat marbling, pork shoulder won't dry out like other pieces of meat. You can skip all the traditional rubs, mops and sauces and it will stand alone on the flavor of the meat and smoke. Pork allows you to practice and still eat your mistakes. BBQ Brisket and BBQ Ribs are not as forgiving.

Which Cut
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 and the picnic. Contrary to what you are probably thinking the butt comes from the upper part of the front shoulder. A pork shoulder should weigh in at between 12 and 16 pounds. It will have a bone and joint plus a good helping of fat and collagen. The fat is good. During the long hours of smoking the fat will melt away and keep the meat moist. Some experts will tell you that this is how you determine when it is done. When most all the fat is gone and before the meat starts to dry out is the time to get it out of the smoker. Collagen is the connective tissue in meat. The process of smoking causes collagen to breakdown into simple sugars making the meat sweet and tender.
See Beef Brisket for more on collagen.

Pork Shoulder - Boston Butt or Picnic Roast
The pork shoulder is frequently cut into the Boston Butt and the Picnic Roast. The Boston Butt has less bone than the Picnic and both cuts will weigh about 6 to 8 pounds. If you can't find a whole pork shoulder at your local store you can get either or both of these cuts and have just what you need. The Picnic can come with or without the bone. Experts generally say that meat nearest the bone is the sweetest and will opt for bone in. The Picnic is more similar to an unprepared ham than the Boston Butt, but both work great for pulled pork. In competitions you more frequently see Butts over Picnics.












Preparing the Meat

The meat you choose should have a good quantity of fat. Preparing it for smoking is really easy. You can simply put it in the smoker right out of the wrapping, however you might want to check for loose pieces of fat or skin to trim off. You can apply a rub to add flavor. If you do choose a rub, apply it the night before you smoke to let the flavors sink into the meat. In the morning, take the meat out of the refrigerator an hour before you put it in the smoker to let it reach room temperature before you start.


Rubbing

If you choose to add a rub, do so liberally. Remember that you are trying to flavor a large piece of meat. To apply, take the pork shoulder or section, trim unnecessary fat and skin, rinse with cool water and pat dry. Take the rub and work it into the meat. Make sure that every part is evenly covered. Pork shoulders can have a very uneven surface with lots of folds and indentations so work it over well. BBQ Rub Recipes


The Smoke
Smoking Woods
Smoke is a necessity of barbecue. What woods you use for smoke is up to you. What works best however, are the Southern traditional woods, hickory and oak, particularly white oak. Also, pecan, walnut, cherry, apple and peach are good choices. You should stay away from alder and mesquite because they then to add too strong a flavor. Despite how long the meat is cooked, it should be exposed to smoke for at least the first six hours.

Purists will say that your fire should be made entirely from 1-2 year seasoned hardwood logs that have been burned down to coals and then added to the smoker.

Tip: Remove or burn off the bark on logs before putting in the meat to smoke. Bark tends to make smoke that creates a more sour taste.

Hardwood logs are not practical for everyone. Whether limited by equipment or temperament many people find it difficult to burn hardwood logs for the kinds of coals used by die-hard traditionalists. If you do go with charcoal, you will benefit most from hardwood charcoal, but you can, if need be, use regular charcoal. Stay away from charcoal with additives like lighter fluids. If you are using charcoal add hardwood chunks that have been soaked in water to the coals once you have a hot fire. Drain off all the water you can. The wood should be moist, not wet. During a long smoking period you will probably have to add additional burning coals to the fire to maintain the temperature.


Temperature

Once the smoker is ready add the meat. The ideal smoking temperature is around 215 degrees F with the acceptable ranges being between 200 degrees F and 235 degrees F. Under normal conditions you should plan on smoking for about 1-1.5 hours per pound. The temperature used modifies the cooking time. If you smoke on the higher end of the temperature range subtract about 10 minutes per pound. This means a ten-pound pork shoulder can take 15 hours to finish. Many people find it difficult to maintain a good temperature for this long and choose to wrap the pork in foil and place it in the oven. You should keep the meat in the smoker for at least 6 hours. Though there is still debate on the subject, conventional wisdom suggests that the amount of smoke flavor absorbed by meat declines as it cooks. Therefore the amount of smoke flavor you would be adding in the last two hours is relatively insignificant. Regardless, it is best to keep meat in the smoker as long as possible. If it becomes difficult to maintain the temperature or other circumstances get in the way move it to the oven. If you do transfer the meat to the oven, set the temperature in the ideal temperature range. Make sure you wrap the pork tightly in foil to hold in the moisture. Many people, even competition cooks, will smoke their pork roasts unwrapped for half the overall cooking time and then wrap in tin foil for the second half.

Once the meat reaches an internal temperature of around 180 degrees F to 190 degrees F it is ready to be pulled. You can serve the meat once it reaches 165 degrees F, but it will be hard to pull apart. Typically you can pull the meat easily once the internal temperature reaches 190 degrees F, but you don't want to go above this and the higher the temperature goes the greater the chance it will dry out. Always keep an eye on smoking meat.

Once the pork is cooked remove it from the smoker (or oven as the case may be) and let it sit for about an hour. This will cool it down enough for pulling. As you pull the meat apart, place it in a pot on a low temperature to keep it warm. You will need to separate the meat from remaining fat, bone or other non-palatable parts. From here you can serve. However many people prefer a finishing sauce so it's best to have one ready to serve.


The Pulled Pork Sandwich
There are several ways to serve pulled pork barbecue. In many places you will find it served up without sauce on a plate, but more commonly you will find it served as a sandwich. The sandwich tradition goes back to old tent revivals and political rallies where pulled pork sandwiches were served up by the hundreds or even thousands to guarantee a good turn out. You can still get these sandwiches served at restaurants from the big to the small across the south. In fact they are starting to turn up in national chain restaurants around the world.
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Pulling Pork
To make a pulled pork sandwich you need to start off with the pork. It should be shredded fine, with no large pieces. You want it to be loose in the bun and easy to eat. Now if the pork is smoked right it won't be chewy in the least. From here you need a bun. Cheap white bread buns are the bread of choice. Fancy and expensive buns simply won't do. You don't need high quality flavorful bread for this sandwich. All the bread does is give you something to hold onto.

Cole Slaw
Next comes the issue of slaw. For most people, cole slaw is a portable salad stuff that gets served in little polystyrene containers with chicken. In some regions of the pulled pork globe, the slaw can be on the side or it can be in the sandwich. Either way is fine as long as the cole slaw isn't too strong in flavor. The type of cole slaw used is generally nothing fancy. The standard cole slaw is cabbage, mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper.

As for serving these sandwiches, it is best to let the diners assemble their own. This way they get exactly what they want. Try serving up yours with two sauces, one hot and one sweet, a simple cole slaw and plenty of buns. Everything can be optional.


The Sauce
Regionally sauces divide in much the same way as the cuts of pork used to make barbecue. Along the Eastern side of the Carolina's the sauce is spicy, hot and completely devoid of tomatoes. As you move west tomatoes enter into the sauce and it moved from the hot to the sweet.


Sauce Options

There are several saucing options for pulled pork aside from finishing sauces. Sauces known as mops or sops can be applied during the smoking process to add flavor and maintain moisture on a relatively lean piece of pork. Mops and sops are thin sauces typically made with water and vinegar and some kind of seasoning like cayenne. Though most people will tell you that it's not a necessity to use one of these sauces, many people like the additional flavor it can provide.

Finishing Sauce

The Traditional sauce for pulled pork is what is commonly called a finishing sauce. This is added to the meat at the table. It is also called a table sauce. Finding the right sauce can be a challenge. You can stick with tradition or you can use what you like best. It is not recommended to use thick commercial sauces. For pulled pork it's best to stick with something thin and not overpowering. After all you've just spent several hours making a tough piece of pork tender and delicious.

Tomato vs. Vinegar Sauce

Southern Style
sauces fall into 3 categories.

1) Sauces with tomato.
2) Sauces without tomato.
3) Sauces based on mustard.


A basic sauce without tomato has cider vinegar, hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper. You can also add brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard (prepared or powdered), and most anything else that catches your fancy. These sauces, sometimes referred to as vinegar sauces, are usually hot. Tomato sauces can be hot, but are usually sweet. The tomato in tomato sauces can come from whole tomatoes, paste, sauce or ketchup and are usually made with some vinegar, brown sugar or molasses, garlic and chili powder or hot sauce.

Tip:
Another way to sauce up your pulled pork is to do it before you serve it. Once you have the pork pulled and it's sitting in a pot to stay warm add about 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar and 2 teaspoons of cayenne. Stir and simmer until the meat absorbs the vinegar and it develops a thick sauce. You can always add other ingredients as you go. Occasional taste testing will tell you if the flavors are properly balanced. Some people find the vinegar adds to bitter a flavor, while others find it the perfect addition. The sauce should add to the flavor, not cover it.

Pulled Pork Recipes
BBQ Pork Ribs
Whole Hog BBQ
Woods for Smoking
BBQ Dry Rub Recipes

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