Real-Deal Pulled Pork: Easy Enough for Novices, Big Enough for a Crowd

pulled pork, showing the smoke ring

Nicely smoked barbecued pork shoulder should have a ring of reddish-pink right under the surface. That's the smoke ring, a sign smoke has penetrated and flavored the meat. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I would love to smoke big hunks of meat whenever I want, letting them ride for hours upon hours in a swirling haze until they turn black as coffee and jiggly and tender within. I would also love to have my own heated pool, where I could swim laps, splash around, and put my head underwater until I can't hold my breath any longer.

Come to think of it, I'd love to have a basketball hoop, but not for me—I'm so bad, I once got asked to leave a game of three-on-three because my teammates thought they could do better without my talents. My wife, Kate, though, would love that.

But I can't have any of those things, because I live in an apartment in New York City. Or, at least, I couldn't until recently, when grill manufacturer Traeger sent Serious Eats a WiFi-controlled pellet smoker to play with.

I was able to set the smoker up in Niki's backyard, load it with pork shoulders, go home, and monitor and control it from the comfort of my own apartment, until I went back the next morning to check on the progress of my smoked pork. I spent an entire week doing that—loading the smoker at night, going to bed in another location, and returning the next day. Technology is miraculous. If only I could remotely swim laps.

I picked pork shoulder for good reason. Of all the cuts a person could choose to barbecue, pork shoulder not only feeds a lot of mouths but is also among the most forgiving cuts. It's chock-full of tough, collagen-rich connective tissue that, with enough heat and time, gradually melts into tender and silky gelatin.

Plus, because it's so thick, the heat takes a long time to penetrate it, meaning it's difficult to accidentally overcook and dry out an entire shoulder. That makes it the perfect project for a novice barbecuer who wants to make enough food for a crowd.

A pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw

Here's a walkthrough of the essential equipment and techniques you'll need, along with links to all the relevant recipes at the top and bottom of this article.

The Equipment You'll Need

A Smoker and Fuel

You can use an endless number of smokers to make barbecue like the pork shoulder here: log burners, charcoal smokers, gas smokers, pellet smokers, kamados, and more.

Heck, you can even smoke on a Weber kettle grill, though it takes a lot of attention to get it to hold a steady low temperature. I might use one for smoked foods that cook faster, like chicken, and I'd maybe attempt a longer cook once or twice just for kicks, but if I intended to smoke with any frequency, I'd upgrade to a true smoker.

There are all sorts of trade-offs to consider. Some of the most traditional smokers—the ones that die-hard pitmasters use—have the potential to give you the best results, but they also involve steep learning curves.

A thermostatically controlled pellet smoker, like the one I used in my testing, doesn't allow you to control all aspects of the process, but it does make the process incredibly easy and hands-off, which is worth quite a bit to me. As much as I'd like to have endless free hours to babysit a smoker, that's just not the reality of my life. Maybe it is for you!

Since there's no one answer for everyone, it's worth perusing our buying guides, which were written for us by the experts at AmazingRibs.com. We have guides to their favorite smokers of all types under $500, their favorite pellet smokers, and the best kamado-style smokers (such as the Big Green Egg).

A Thermometer

On top of the smoker and whatever fuel it requires, you'll need a leave-in probe thermometer—the kind you slide into the meat and leave there to get consistent readings on its internal temperature. There are a lot of options on this front, too, and we have a review of the best leave-in probe thermometers to help get you started.

For barbecue, you're going to want to look for a multi-channel probe thermometer, so that you can get more than one reading at the same time. Not only does this allow you to get several temp readings of your meat at once, it also means you can use the thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of the smoker itself.

Extras

Depending on your smoker, you may also need something to catch dripping grease, so keep that in mind when preparing your equipment. With smokers that don't have grease catchers or drip trays, you can usually pop a disposable aluminum roasting pan inside to keep things clean and tidy.

When it comes time to pull the pork, you can use forks without too much trouble, but dedicated bear claws make it even easier. No need to go befriend a grizzly; I'm talking about a nifty barbecue tool here. To use them, you slip a plastic claw onto each hand, then tear at the meat. The bear claws can also be useful for lifting and moving the cooked shoulder without getting your hands too messy.

Buying and Preparing the Pork Shoulder

A pig butchery chart

"Pork shoulder" is a vague term, since it describes a large primal cut of the pig that is rarely sold whole for retail. It's typically split into sub-primal parts: the pork butt, a.k.a. Boston butt, which comes from the upper shoulder area and is usually sold with the skin removed and either with or without bones, and the picnic shoulder, which is the lower part of the shoulder running down to the shank. The picnic is usually sold skin-on and bone-in.

Some people use the picnic shoulder for smoked pork shoulder, but it's a more difficult cut to work with—both because it's less uniform in shape than a Boston butt, making it more difficult to cook every part perfectly, and because it comes with the skin on, which can interfere with the smoke's penetration of the meat.

Most cooks are better off using a Boston butt for pulled pork. Try to get one that still has an even fat cap on it, which helps insulate the meat during cooking and will moisten the meat as it renders. (Remember, you can always remove excess un-rendered fat later, but you can't add more if the shoulder was trimmed too aggressively.)

Boneless and bone-in pork butts will both work for this application, so don't worry too much about that, though if you have a choice, go with bone-in. Like the fat, the bone acts as insulation during cooking and can help reduce moisture loss. Nobody wants to eat dried-out barbecue.

If you do get a deboned pork shoulder, it can help to truss it with butcher's twine so that it holds a uniform shape—that will translate into more even cooking. Folks who don't feel comfortable tying up a shoulder themselves can ask a butcher to do it for them.

Salting a pork shoulder for a dry-brine

Prepping the shoulder is easy. If you have time, start by "dry-brining" your Boston butt by sprinkling salt all over the meat, then letting it rest uncovered on a wire rack in the refrigerator for at least eight hours.

The dry brine seasons the meat well and also helps the muscle fibers retain moisture during the long, slow cooking process. Dry-brining isn't absolutely essential, so if you don't have time, simply salt the pork all over and proceed straight to cooking.

Slathering mustard and hot sauce on a pork shoulder, then applying a dry rub for pulled pork

Next, it's time for your choice of slather. Mustard works great, as does hot sauce. If you're indecisive, like me, do both.

This slather doesn't just add flavor; it also acts as an adhesive coating to which the dry rub can stick. As the shoulder cooks, this moisture-rich layer will concentrate and dry, helping to form the crisp exterior known as bark.

A pork shoulder with the dry rub applied

After slathering the meat with wet stuff, dust it all over with a dry rub. You can use any dry rub you like. Some recipes call for a complex combination of seasonings, while others keep it to little more than black pepper.

I settled on a rub that falls somewhere in the middle: It's fairly straightforward, with a strong black-pepper presence, brown sugar for balance, and then a little sweet paprika, coriander seed, and both onion and garlic powders for layered aromatics.

Note that many dry-rub recipes contain salt, but I leave it out, since I pre-salt the pork during the dry-brining step. That said, a little extra salt in the rub won't hurt anything—it's a lot of meat in need of seasoning, so over-salting is hardly a concern.

What Temperature to Use for Smoked Pork Shoulder

A pork butt in the smoker

I stick with a common barbecue temperature for my recipe: 225°F (107°C). This is a gentle temp at which to cook the meat, and in all my testing it produced excellent results, though it's good to know that you have some latitude—the smoker can get a little hotter than that without producing problems.

Some experts, including Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, cook hotter on purpose, with the smoker up around 270°F (132°C) or even a little higher. His results speak for themselves, and, since a higher cooking temperature shortens the cooking time, there's some incentive to try it out.

I'd suggest starting out with a lower temperature, which gives you a wider margin of error and more time for the fats and connective tissue to fully melt and render. Then, if you want to play with cooking hotter to see whether you prefer that, go for it.

How to Know When the Pork Shoulder Is Done

Lots of deep, dark bark on this smoked pork shoulder

Once your shoulder is in the smoker, it'll slowly creep up in temperature over the course of many hours. Your goal is to get the meat to an internal temperature between about 195 and 200°F (90 and 93°C).

It's a good idea to keep a pan of water in the smoker to boost the humidity, which will help prevent the bark from drying out prematurely. You can also use a spray bottle to spritz the shoulder from time to time with some cider vinegar, or even water, to keep the exterior from drying out, though pork shoulder is forgiving enough not to require that level of attention if you don't want to give it.

If you've never made barbecue before, you may be surprised to encounter a phenomenon known as "the stall." Right when your meat is inching up toward the 170s, it'll just stop...and stay there...and stay there...and stay there. Then you'll start wondering if your smoker is broken, or maybe if your pork shoulder comes from a defective pig. You'll eventually question your life, gravity, and then reality itself. Perhaps you really are just a brain in a vat, and the program you're being fed is trolling you.

It's none of those things. It's just the stall. It happens when the meat hits an equilibrium at which the cooling effect of moisture evaporating off the surface of the meat is just enough to offset any further temperature gains.

One way to think of this process is that the meat is "sweating." Just as perspiration keeps our body temperature in check on a hot day, surface moisture on the pork shoulder keeps its internal temperature in check during the stall. The stall will continue until enough moisture has cooked off and the meat can finally break free and grow hotter again. Be prepared—it can last several hours.

You can cut the stall short by employing a barbecue trick called the "Texas crutch." That's just a colorful way of describing tightly wrapping the meat in something like aluminum foil or butcher paper. Wrapping tightly seals in the juices and water vapor, preventing the evaporation that's been cooling the meat down, and letting the meat sneak up to its final temperature faster.

Crutching works, and when you know what you're doing, it can make your barbecue even better. But the "knowing what you're doing" part is key. Crutch improperly, and you can melt your bark away, leaving you with a pile of damp and steamy meat.

There are all sorts of techniques that you can use in combination with the crutch for avoiding soggy bark. You can deliberately make your bark too dry and hard, in anticipation of it softening during the crutch phase, or you can pop the unwrapped meat back in the smoker after crutching it to dry it back out again. There's an art to applying the crutch and ending up in the right place, so feel free to try it out, but know that it may take a while to figure out a method that works for you.

The path of least resistance, though, is simply to wait out the stall. It'll get there eventually, I promise. It may take 15 hours from start to finish, but it'll get there.

It's impossible to give an exact cooking time for your pork shoulder, since that depends on the heat of your smoker and how steady you're able to keep it, the size and dimensions of the cut, and whether or not there are bones in it. Leave yourself some extra time, just in case your cook runs long.

How to Pull the Pork (or Chop It)

Shredding pork shoulder with the bear claws

When your pork shoulder is done, it should have a bark the shade of midnight, and it should feel delicate, like it might come apart if you're too rough with it. Let it rest briefly—20 minutes or so—then get ready to pull it.

Using forks (or, even better, those bear claws), shred the pork into stringy strands. Mix in the fat, both rendered and un-rendered chunks, along with all that great bark, which will give the pulled pork some awesome crunchy bits. Remove and discard the bones, if there are any. They should pull out pretty easily.

If you want to do it like they do in Eastern North Carolina, you can chop the pork even finer after pulling it. Up to you.

How to Serve Pulled Pork

Vinegar-pepper sauce for pulled pork

Eastern Carolina–style vinegar-pepper sauce.

Your pork shoulder is smoked, pulled, and maybe chopped. Now it's time to serve it.

Moisten the meat with as much or as little barbecue sauce as you want. I'm not going to take sides in the barbecue-sauce wars; I'm from New York and don't have any dogs in that particular fight. I'm providing a recipe for Eastern Carolina–style vinegar-pepper sauce, a very simple mixture of apple cider vinegar, black pepper, red pepper flakes, salt, sugar, and not too much more. It's thin and sour and spicy, which means it does its thing without altering the texture of the meat too much, the way thicker sauces can.

To serve, just pile the pork on potato buns and top with coleslaw.

How Many People You'll Feed, and What to Do With Leftovers

pulled pork piled on a potato bun

I'm infamous for underestimating how many servings my recipes yield, and I'm proud of it: I'd rather you have leftovers than not enough.

I'd wager that a six-pound boneless pork butt can feed about six to eight people, while a 10-pound bone-in one can feed about the same number of people. Maybe I'm crazy, and you can feed 15 people with just one of those. But I don't think so, and I sure wouldn't want to be the host of a cookout who got that one wrong.

The good news about having too much pulled pork is that it freezes beautifully. Just pack it into a zipper-lock bag, press out the air, and put it away until your stomach starts screaming again for the delicacy that's just a few thawed ice crystals away. Warning: That may happen before the pork has fully frozen.