Pulled Pork: The Meat

Slow Smoked Pork Shoulder, properly seasoned

Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

There remains an ongoing feud 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 hog or just the shoulder. Of course, this debate is something of an apple and orange argument. A whole hog is prepared very differently from the shoulder and largely for other reasons besides pulled pork sandwiches. My main focus here is with the shoulder.

If you are interested in going whole hog, there is an entirely different process for you.

Starting Out: Pulled Pork is a great place to start when learning about smoking and barbecue. Pork shoulders and related cuts are relatively inexpensive and the meat itself can be very forgiving. Under cook it (within the limits of safety) and it might be tough, but it will still taste good. Over cook it and you can still serve it with a smile. Because of the intense fat marbling, pork shoulder doesn't dry as quickly as 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 alone. Pork allows you to practice your barbecue skills and still be able to eat your mistakes. Brisket and 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 (or as it is now 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. The fat is good and plentiful. 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. Collagen is the connective tissue in meat. The process of smoking causes collagen to break down into simple sugars making the meat sweet and tender.

Butt or Picnic: As I said 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. You want one with the bone. The picnic is more similar to an unprepared ham than the Boston butt, but both work well for pulled pork; the butt is the preferred cut for competition cooks and what most people are cooking in their backyards these days. The butt has a consistent, rectangular shape and is easy to handle.

Preparing for the Smoker: The meat you choose should have a good quantity of fat and preparing it for smoking is really easy. You can simply put it in the smoker right out of the wrapping, however, you should 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. You can apply a rub to add flavor. I have several rub recipes for you to choose from.

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, trimmed of unnecessary fat and skin and rinse with cool water and pat dry. Take the rub and sprinkle over the surface. The general rule is, what sticks is what stays. Make sure that every part is evenly covered. Pork shoulders can have a very uneven surface so add the rub from every angle.

Next Page: The Smoke