Why It Works
- Cooking sous vide takes all of the guesswork out of traditionally attention-intensive barbecue.
- Using liquid smoke removes the need for actual smoking, but combining sous vide cooking with smoke from a grill makes for pulled pork that is moist and tender yet still smoky, with a great bark.
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, sous vide is a great option. 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.
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, it's convenient. 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. I'm willing to make that commitment 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.
Second, sous vide allows 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.
Sous Vide Pork: Tips and Tricks
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 a mushy texture 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?
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, 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 Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, the eponymous book on the science of barbecue—the flavorful compounds in smoke will adhere to and penetrate raw meat better than 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 is easier, so I'll stick to the post–sous vide smoke.
What About the Smoke Ring?
Ah, the infamous smoke ring. I’ve written about this before and will let my previous words speak for themselves:
"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 '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 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!"
The pink curing salt is added to the pork's seasoning blend. Half is applied prior to sous vide cooking and the other half is applied before finishing the meat in an oven or smoker.
Finish Sous Vide Pork in an Oven or Smoker
The meat needs some time post–sous vide to achieve a dark, crispy mahogany crust (referred to as bark by barbecue aficionados) either in an oven or a smoker or grill. This adds 1.5-2 hours of cook time, but this is significantly less than cooking barbecued pork 100% in a smoker.
This guide was produced for Serious Eats as part of our partnership with Anova, the makers of the Anova Precision Cooker.
For the Spice Rub:
1/4 cup (50g) paprika
1/4 cup (50g) dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons (35g) kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon (2g) Prague Powder #1 (optional; see note)
1 tablespoon (12g) whole yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon (4g) freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons (20g) granulated garlic powder
1 tablespoon (8g) dried oregano
1 tablespoon (12g) whole coriander seed
1 teaspoon (4g) red pepper flakes
For the Pork:
1 whole boneless or bone-in pork butt (shoulder), 5 to 7 pounds total (2.25 to 3.25kg)
1/2 teaspoon (3ml) liquid smoke, such as Wright's Liquid Smoke (optional; see note)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
For the Spice Rub: Working in batches, combine paprika, brown sugar, salt, Prague Powder (if using to develop a smoke ring), mustard seed, black pepper, garlic powder, oregano, coriander seed, and red pepper flakes in a spice grinder and reduce to a fine powder.
Divide mixture in half. Rub half of mixture evenly all over pork shoulder, pressing it in until it adheres. Place pork shoulder in a sous vide–safe vacuum-sealer bag. Add liquid smoke (if using) and seal bag.
To Cook: Set your precision cooker to 165°F (74°C) for more traditionally textured pulled pork, or 145°F (63°C) for sliceable but tender pork. When the bath is at temperature, add sealed bag with pork and cover with foil or plastic wrap. Allow to cook for 18 to 24 hours. After this stage, pork can be refrigerated for up to 1 week before continuing.
To Finish in the Oven: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 300°F. Remove pork from sous vide bag and carefully blot dry with paper towels. (The liquid from the bag can be added to your favorite barbecue sauce and simmered down to provide extra flavor.) Rub reserved spice mixture into the surface of the pork. Place pork on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and place in oven. Roast until a deep, dark bark has formed, about 1 1/2 hours. Continue with step 7.
To Finish on the Grill: Light 1/2 chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to medium-high heat, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.
Remove pork from bag and carefully blot dry with paper towels. (The liquid from the bag can be added to your favorite barbecue sauce and simmered down to provide extra flavor.) Rub reserved spice mixture into the surface of the pork. Place pork on the cooler side of grill. Add 4 to 5 hardwood chunks to the hotter side of grill. Cover and allow pork to smoke, adjusting vents to maintain a temperature between 275 and 300°F and adding 2 to 3 wood chunks twice during cooking. Smoke until a deep, dark bark has formed, about 1 1/2 hours. Continue with step 7.
Transfer pork to a large bowl or cutting board. Using a couple of forks, shred meat into bite-size pieces (or, if you cooked it at 145°F, use a knife to slice the pork). Season pulled pork to taste with salt and serve immediately, passing your favorite barbecue sauce at the table.
Prague Powder #1 can be added to give the shoulder a pink "smoke" ring. Liquid smoke will help give the pork a smokier flavor if you're using the oven method, but is not necessary.