The Right Meat for Pulled Pork

This easy recipe starts with choosing the correct cut.

Pulled pork
Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

Pulled pork is one of those recipes that cooks shy away from—it can seem intimidating, considering the reputation it has gained in the Southern United States. People travel far and wide for the best pulled pork sandwiches or work years to perfect their award-winning recipe. But, in actuality, it is one of the easiest barbecue recipes to master. 

Pulled pork is a great place to start when learning about smoking and barbecue for a few different reasons.

Pork shoulders and related cuts are relatively inexpensive, and the meat itself can be very forgiving. Undercook it (within the limits of safety) and it might be tough, but it will still taste good. Overcook it and you can still serve it with a smile. Pork allows you to practice your barbecue skills and still be able to eat your mistakes. (Brisket and ribs are not as forgiving.) But you need to make sure you start with the right cut of meat.

The Shoulder Cut

The most common cut for making pulled pork is the shoulder. 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 (or as it is also known the Boston roast), and the picnic roast. Contrary to what the name implies, the butt comes from the upper part of the front shoulder.

A full pork shoulder should weigh between 12 and 16 pounds. It will have a bone and joint plus a good helping of fat and collagen.

Because of the intense fat marbling, pork shoulder doesn't dry as quickly as other pieces of meat. The process of smoking causes the collagen to break down into simple sugars making the meat sweet and tender. This means you can skip all the traditional rubs, mops, and sauces and the pork will stand alone on the flavors of the meat and the smoke.

 

Boston Butt Vs. Picnic Roast

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. Both cuts will weigh between 6 to 8 pounds individually, but the Boston butt will have less bone than the picnic, which can come with or without the bone (you want one with the bone). The butt is the preferred cut for competition cooks and what most people are cooking in their backyards these days. It has a consistent, rectangular shape and is easy to handle. The picnic is more like an unprepared ham but works just as well for pulled pork.

Preparing the Meat for the Smoker

The meat you choose should have a good quantity of fat so preparing it for smoking is really easy. You can apply a rub to add flavor if you like, or you can simply put it in the smoker right out of the wrapping—just check it first for loose pieces of fat or skin and trim them off. Large, thick sections of fat should be trimmed down to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch in thickness. This will help to reduce the cooking time and let the smoke get to the meat better.

During the long hours of smoking, much of the fat will melt away, keeping the meat moist. Some experts will tell you that this is how to determine when it is done.

When most of the fat is gone and before the meat starts to dry out, it is the time to get it out of the smoker. 

Adding a Rub to the Meat

If you choose to use a rub, do so liberally—remember that you are trying to flavor a large piece of meat. To apply the seasoning, take the piece of pork, trimmed of unnecessary fat and skin, and rinse with cool water and pat dry. Then sprinkle the rub over the surface of the meat, massaging it in a bit. Make sure that every part is evenly covered—pork shoulders can have a very uneven surface so add the rub from every angle. The general rule is, what sticks is what stays. 

For the best flavor, wrap the seasoned meat in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight. Make sure to remove the pork from the fridge early enough that it will come to room temperature before you place it in the smoker—cold meat will burn on the outside.