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Don't get me wrong. I like a good slow-smoked, true barbecue pork shoulder just as much as the next guy, even with all of the babysitting (read: beer-drinking) that smoking one the traditional way requires. In fact, I probably like the process way more than the next guy. Still, there are times when we want things a little more streamlined, a little more hands-off, a little more reliable, whether it's because we're getting ready for a big party and don't want to risk screwing up that pork, or because we're busy weekday workers who still want to be able to come home and pull off a batch of pulled pork before bedtime. Not only that, but using a sous vide cooker allows you to achieve textures you can't get with traditional cooking methods.
Who knows—we may even want to cook sous vide pulled pork just because we have sous vide cookers and we must play with them. I know the feeling.
The Food Lab's Complete Guide to Sous Vide Barbecue Pork Shoulder
Why Cook Pork Shoulder Sous Vide?
The appeal of sous vide cooking seems obvious for achieving tender results with fast-cooking foods like steak and chicken breasts. But why would you want to use sous vide cooking for meats like pork shoulder or ribs, which require less precise temperatures and are far more forgiving of accidental overcooking?
There are a few reasons. First is convenience. Whether you're slow-roasting pork in the oven or on the grill, babysitting a hunk of meat for half a day is a commitment. It's a commitment I'm willing to make a few times a year so long as I've got beer and friends on hand, but it's not ideal for a weeknight meal. Sous vide, on the other hand, is a set-it-and-forget-it affair for the bulk of the cooking. I go about my day (or two days, as the case may be) with the circulator quietly heating away in the corner of the kitchen, slowly tenderizing that tough cut of meat until it's ready to be finished and served.
Sous vide can also allow you to get textures that are impossible to achieve using traditional cooking methods. Breaking down tough connective tissues like collagen into tender, lip-smacking gelatin is the primary goal when cooking a pork shoulder. This is a slow process that takes both heat and time—the cooler the temperature of the pork, the longer it takes. On the flip side of this coin, meat cooked at higher temperatures will also expel more moisture than meat cooked at lower temperatures. Sous vide cooking allows us to cook at temperatures that are significantly lower and more stable than traditional methods, which means that we can achieve tender results with relatively little moisture loss.
What Temperature and Timing Should I Use?
I cooked a number of pork shoulders sous vide at various bath temperatures, cooking each until I achieved complete breakdown of tough connective tissue. Here's what I found:
At a bath temperature of 200°F, pork shoulders take only a few hours to become fall-apart tender. At 145°F, this same process can take over a day. The results of cooking pork at these temperature extremes are wildly different. Cooked at 145°F, the pork has a firm, almost steak-like texture and can be easily sliced, but not easily pulled apart. It's also very juicy. Cooked at 200°F, the pork shreds at the slightest touch but is also quite dry—most of the internal moisture leaks out into the bag and can't be reabsorbed. Like Goldilocks, I like my pork cooked right in the middle: 165°F for 18 to 24 hours yields pork that is pull-apart tender, but still moister than anything you've ever pulled out of the oven or off the grill.
Incidentally, cooking the pork for longer periods of time will eventually allow it to break down to the point where individual muscle fibers begin to soften, giving the pork an almost mushy texture that I find off-putting.
Recommended Sous Vide Pork Shoulder Temperatures
|Temp and Time||Result||145°F for 18 to 24 hours||Sliceable and extra moist|
|165°F for 18 to 24 hours||Shreddable and moist|
To Smoke or Not to Smoke?
Whether we finish the pork shoulder on the grill or in the oven, it needs some time post–sous vide to achieve a dark, crispy mahogany crust. Not all pulled pork needs to emulate the smoky flavor of barbecue, but if you want that smoky flavor, what's the best way to get it in there?
Method 1: Liquid Smoke
One way is to use the method I use for my sous vide ribs: liquid smoke.
A small shot of liquid smoke added to the bag before cooking the shoulder sous vide will give it a mild smokiness that captures most of the flavors of real outdoor cooking. (After all, liquid smoke is nothing more than the condensed contents of actual wood smoke—mostly the exact same condensates that are deposited on meat as it's being smoked.) The liquid smoke approach is great if you're finishing the pork shoulder in the oven, but it will also work if you're finishing outdoors.
Adding a product like smoked salt to the rub can also give the pork a smoky flavor without any actual smoking in the process.
Method 2: Live Smoking
If you've got yourself a kettle grill, then you can enhance your sous vide pork through a bit of honest-to-goodness smoking. Now, you may ask, "If I've got a smoker or a kettle grill, why not just cook it start to finish in the smoker?" We come back again to two main reasons: convenience (monitoring a grill for the one to two hours it takes to finish a pork shoulder is much less of a commitment than monitoring it all day) and texture. Even with a finish on the grill, a pork shoulder cooked sous vide will come out juicier than one cooked 100% on the grill.
Is it better to apply that smoke before or after cooking sous vide? Well, according to folks like Meathead Goldwyn, author of the eponymous book on the science of barbecue, the flavorful compounds in smoke will adhere to and penetrate raw meat much better than they will cooked meat. Testing this out side by side—smoking first, followed by sous vide, versus sous vide first, followed by smoke—confirmed this. But, to be frank, the amount of smoke flavor I got out of a post–sous vide session in the smoker was ample for my taste buds, and smoking at the end makes the process so much more efficient. I'll stick to the post–sous vide smoke.
What About the Smoke Ring?
The smoke ring? You mean that pink ring of meat that appears around the edges of a well-smoked rack of ribs or brisket? Yeah, what about it?
Here's the fact: The smoke ring is purely cosmetic. That's right. It signifies absolutely no guarantee of smoke flavor or proper cooking. The smoke ring appears due to the interaction of carbon monoxide (CO) and nitric oxide (NO) with myoglobin, the natural pigment that makes meat red (a close relative of hemoglobin, the red blood pigment). As meat cooks in an environment rich with carbon monoxide and nitric oxide, its pink color becomes "fixed," preventing it from oxidizing and turning into metmyoglobin, the brown pigment you see in cooked (or old) meat. A red "smoke" ring will appear in any environment in which meat is slow-cooked in the presence of CO or NO, whether or not any smoke is involved in the process at all. For some deeper science on the smoke ring, I highly recommend reading this great myth-busting article on the smoke ring from AmazingRibs.com.
All that said, what if you do want a smoke ring, to help you replicate the barbecue experience as fully as possible? There is no CO or NO present in a sous vide bag, so getting that smoke ring seems like an impossibility, right? Not so fast. We can't get the exact same reaction, but we can get one that's darn close by using pink curing salts, a.k.a. sodium nitrite. The reaction between sodium nitrite and myoglobin is very similar to that between myoglobin and CO/NO, and it has the same effect: fixing the pink color. By adding a small amount of sodium nitrite to the spice rub, you end up with a nice pink "smoke" ring after the pork is done cooking—no actual smoke involved!
Sous Vide Pork Shoulder, Step by Step
Step 1: Apply the Rub
Working in batches, combine paprika, brown sugar, salt, mustard seed, black pepper, garlic powder, oregano, coriander seed, and red pepper flakes in a spice grinder and reduce it all to a fine powder. (See the full recipe here for exact measurements.) If you'd like your pork shoulder to have a pink smoke ring, add a quarter teaspoon of pink curing salt (Prague Powder #1) to your spice mixture. Set aside three tablespoons of the mixture; you'll use that to re-rub the shoulder before finishing. Rub the mixture generously all over the shoulder.
Step 2: Seal the Pork
Place the pork inside a vacuum-sealer bag. (Fold over the top while you add the pork so that no rub or pork juices get on the edge of the bag, which can weaken the seal.) Add a half teaspoon (about three grams) of liquid smoke to the bag if you're using the liquid smoke method. Don't worry much about distributing the liquid smoke evenly over the pork; it'll spread around during cooking no matter where you add it. Seal the bag using a vacuum sealer.
Step 3: Preheat the Water Bath
Set the temperature on your sous vide cooker to 165°F for pull-apart-tender pork, or to 145°F for pork that is tender but still sliceable.
Step 4: Cook
Drop your sealed pork into the water bath, set a timer for 18 to 24 hours, and relax. For extended cooks like this, it's a good idea to cover the top of the container with foil or plastic wrap to prevent excessive evaporation that could lead to the circulator shutting down.
Step 5: Pat Dry
Once the pork is cooked, you can chill it in the refrigerator for up to a week before continuing, or just go straight to the finishing steps. The first thing to do is get rid of excess moisture by removing the pork and patting it down thoroughly with paper towels. If desired, you can add the juices from the sous vide bag to your favorite barbecue sauce and reduce it over the stovetop to give your sauce extra porky flavor.
Step 6: Reapply Rub
The first sprinkling of rub did a good job of getting flavor into the pork. A second coat of rub now gives you a good foundation for building up that crunchy, dark, flavorful bark.
To Finish on a Smoker
Step 7: Light It Up!
To finish your shoulder over live fire, light up a smoker and set it to 300°F, or ignite a half chimney of coals and spread them out over half of the coal grates of a charcoal grill. Add a few chunks of hardwood (no need to soak it), and, as soon as it begins smoldering, place the pork in the smoker or on the grill, away from any direct heat. For a gas grill, light up half of the burners and leave the other half switched off. Place the wood chunks in a foil boat directly over the hot side of the grill, and place the pork over the cooler side.
Step 8: Smoking!
Cover and cook, adding a few pieces of wood and coals as necessary and maintaining the air intake valves to try to keep the cooker hovering at around 275 to 300°F at all times.
Step 9: Finished!
Keep cooking until the pork has achieved a deep, dark mahogany crust and pulls apart when you pick at it. This will take about an hour and a half to two hours. Jump down and continue with step 10.
To Finish in the Oven
Step 7: Slow-Roast
Place the pork on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack placed in it. Set it in a preheated 300°F oven, and cook until the exterior achieves a dark mahogany bark, about an hour and a half. Remove from the oven and continue with step 10.
Step 10: Shredding and Saucing
The meat is ready to be pulled! I find this easiest to do with two forks, but if you have heavy-duty plastic gloves to protect your fingers from the hot meat, then by all means go right in with your hands. I like to shred it apart into big, tender chunks, but you can also transfer the shreds to a cutting board and chop it more finely with a cleaver or chef's knife.
Note: If cooking the 145°F version of the pork, you won't be able to shred it; you're better off slicing with a knife.
Once the pork is done and shredded, it's ready to serve with your favorite barbecue sauce. I like either a sweet and sticky Kansas City–style sauce or a vinegary-hot Eastern North Carolina–style sauce.
Pair it up with some pickles, some creamy coleslaw, and a soft bun and you've got yourself the makings of a fantastic meal.