Learn how to smoke BBQ pulled pork right at home!
Pulled pork is the traditional barbecue of the Carolinas and one of the Big Three of Barbecue. In fact, it is believed to be the origin of barbecue. Though the cooking process can take anywhere from 8 to 10 hours, it’s not complicated. The key to good pulled pork relies on the flavor of the pork first, followed by the smoky flavor and the seasoning. You’ll need a traditional barbecue smoker that can hold low and slow temperatures and produce the smoke necessary to make it perfect. It’s important to know your smoker well enough to build the fire and keep it going until the very end.
This method calls for a Boston Butt, Pork Butt, or Pork Shoulder, which comes from the shoulder region. If you are not in an area that offers this cut, or it is known by another name, ask your butcher for the rectangular roast that comes from the upper arm and contains the blade bone. A typical pork roast weighs about 6 to 8 pounds and is well-marbled meat with a thick fat cap on one side. For good BBQ pulled pork, choose the bone-in option since it is sold in both bone-in and boneless versions.
BBQ Pulled Pork Ingredients
- A Boston Butt roast
- A smoker
- Fuel for the smoker
- Chunks of hardwood
- An accurate meat thermometer
- An injection marinade
- A meat injector
- Binder like mustard, hot sauce or oil
- A good pulled pork rub
- BBQ Spritz
- A good pulled pork sauce
- Insulated food gloves
- Buns or rolls
- Cole slaw
As mention above, this method for BBQ pulled pork will take about 8 hours of cooking time. However, that time frame depends on the type of smoker you’re using and the weather conditions in your are. A general rule of thumb is that it will take about one hour per pound to cook the whole pork roast.
Step One – Preparing the Pork
The Boston Pork Butt we are using here is a rectangular shaped block of meat. There is a lot of fat on and in the roast, with a large, flat bone running through the center. You’ll also find good deal of connective tissue inside. If you want to break down connective tissue and melt away the fat, it’s essential to cook your meat at a low temperature for a long time. That’s precisely why Pork Butt is the perfect roast for pulled pork.
Before we begin, examine the roast. The fat on the outside can be cut down to 1/4″. This hunk of fat won’t contribute much to keeping the meat moist, but will block smoke absorption and keep the flavors away from where it’s needed. Trim down any large pockets to the mass of the roast. Any loose pieces of meat must be cut off to keep the roast compact and solid. Once it is trimmed, pat the surface dry with some paper towels.
Step Two – Injecting the Pork
Since this is a block of meat, infusing it with flavor can be quite challenging. The rub that we’ll apply in the next step will certainly add some flavor. However, we want to ensure that flavor gets deep inside the roast it remains moist and well seasoned all the way through.
To do this, start with an injection marinade. Basically, this is a solution of juice or broth, vinegar, and seasonings that are pumped into the meat with a food-safe needle. The seasonings must be dissolved or ground fine that they can fit through the needle without clogging it up. A great way to make an injection solution is to combine the rub that you are going to be putting on the outside with equal parts broth and vinegar. Many people swear by apple cider vinegar and I agree wholeheartedly.
Inject the liquid evenly throughout the roast. It is best to push the needle in about 1 1/2-2 inches, then slowly apply pressure to push the liquid through as you pull the needle out. It will leak through, but that isn’t a problem. Mop it up with a paper towel when you are done. Inject every two inches throughout the entire roast.
Step Three – Rubbing the Pork
The next flavoring will be the rub. This combination of salt, spices, and herbs is what is going to help create the bark (crusty surface) that will give the pulled pork texture and deep flavor. Contrary to the name, a rub isn’t actually rubbed into the meat, but actually sprinkled or patted on the meat. Whatever rub you choose, this is a vital step in getting the right flavor profile.
Use a binder
Before seasoning your roast, apply a thin layer (about 1-1 1/2 tablespoons) mustard, oil, or hot sauce all over your roast. This will help your seasonings stick to the surface.
The amount of rub you need will be determined by the meat. Generally, 3/4 cup is plenty for any pork butt. With the roast patted dry, apply your binder, then sprinkle the rub over all the surfaces, gently turning the meat as you go. The rub shouldn’t be caked on, but it should be applied heavily.
Once the rub is applied, let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before placing it in the smoker. If you’d like the flavors to really permeate, wrap the entire roast in plastic wrap and place it in the fridge for 4-12 hours. I recommend putting it on a platter or baking sheet since it can leak.
Step Four – Preparing the Smoker
It isn’t barbecue without smoke. Smoke adds flavor but also reacts with the meat and particularly the connective tissues to break them down into simple sugars. This is why barbecue has a sweet flavor. This pork butt should take about an hour a pound to smoke at a temperature between 225 to 250 degrees F (110 to 120 degrees C).
Set up your smoker to run at these temperatures for at least 8 hours. Refer to the manufacturer’s user manual for specific instructions. Make sure you have plenty of fuel for your smoker and a good amount of hardwood for producing smoke. The smokers environment should be very smoky at the beginning of the cook time since this is when most of that flavor will be absorbed. The more the meat cooks the less smoke it will take in.
We are looking for a final temperature of around 200 to 205 degrees F before the meat is completely cooked.
If you choose you can apply a BBQ spritz during the cooking time for added flavor and moisture. Spritzing should be done after the first 2 hours of cooking time after the bark sets up, and dry spots are present. Always heat (warm not boil) the mixture before using. Spray above the roast and not directly on it to avoid ruining the bark.
Step Five – Pork Placement
Once the smoker is prepared and has reached the proper temperature it is time to put the meat on. I recommend putting a large, disposable aluminum pan underneath the meat to help keep the smoker clean. There is no reason to clean the grease out of a smoker. This pork roast will render a substantial amount of fat during the cooking process. Make sure that the drip pan doesn’t obstruct the airflow and if desired, hot water can be added to it, depending on the type of smoker you are using.
Place the pork butt in the center of the smoker’s cooking rack. Air and smoke should flow evenly around all sides. There is no reason to turn or rotate the roast while it cooks.
But which way to turn the fatty side? The roast probably has a side with a lot more fat than the other. Some argue that putting the fat side up will baste the pork as it cooks. Others disagree with this idea. Personally, I don’t see that it matters much, but I tend to put the fat side up when I am smoking a pork butt. It might just be habit.
If you are smoking more than one pork butt, or have other items on the smoker, make sure that there is ample room between these items so that all surfaces are exposed to the smoke and the heat. Bunching up a lot of meat will dramatically increase the smoking times and reduce the smoky flavor.
Step Six – Smoking the Pork
After 3-4 hours, the pork will start getting close to being done. The safe cooking temperature for pork is 145 degrees F (65 degrees C). This is not high enough for barbecue and there is a lot of time left to get this pork done.
One thing you might notice is that around this temperature the pork seems to stop cooking. The internal temperature may remain at this point for an hour, sometimes more. This is known in barbecue as ‘the stall’. It is not a bad thing and not something that requires turning up the heat. There are chemical reactions happening and at this temperature, much of the connective tissues are breaking down. As they do, moisture is released and this evaporates, stealing away some of the heat. Good barbecue needs a good stall time to reach perfect tenderness. Once the stall ends, the temperature will rise quickly.
Wrap the pork in aluminum foil with 1/4 cup apple juice or cider vinegar at this point to hold in the moisture. If you have trouble with pork drying out, this is a strategy to try.
Step Seven – Temperature Checking the Pork
You should be monitoring the process of smoking throughout the cooking time so that you know if you need to make adjustments to the cooking temperature. Once the pork starts getting close to the target temperature, monitor it more closely. Test the temperature in at least two places, as close to the center of the roast as possible. Remember that unless you have a boneless butt, there is a very large bone running through it. The temperature near the bone will not be an accurate number. Test the temperature away from the bone.
One note: Over the years I have had several people write me to say that they have difficulty getting their BBQ pork cooked through to the right temperature. It is generally because the fire in their smoker is dying down. Since the pork has absorbed as much smoke as it will, the whole roast can be wrapped tightly in aluminum foil and transferred to a preheated oven at 250 degrees F (120 degrees C) to finish off. I won’t tell, honest. Just continue heating until you reach the destination temperature. Once cooked, remove from the heat source, keep it wrapped and let it rest for 1 hour. After that time, unwrap it and remove the bone.
Step Eight – Shredding the BBQ Pork
Pulled pork is generally, well, pulled. It can be sliced, diced or cut up as desired, but pulled is best. By pulling the meat apart by hand, the long fibers are left intact and won’t lose as much moisture as when it is cut. If the pork has smoked correctly and reached the correct temperature, it should pull easily and quickly. I recommend food-safe, insulated gloves for handling the pork. A pair of forks used the pull the meat apart can also help.
Once the BBQ pork is pulled, place it into a slow cooker (like a Crock-Pot) or a heating tray to keep it warm. Remember, when shredding the pork the consistency should be small and loose. This is ideally going on a sandwich and should be relatively fine.
If you are adding sauce, start with small amounts and toss it gently into the shredded pork. You can also serve the sauce on the side.
Step Nine – Making BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches
The perfect BBQ Pulled Pork sandwich is actually very simple. Start with plain white buns. Don’t look for anything fancy. The bread is just there so you can get a good hold of the meat, after all that work, you want a sandwich that focuses on the pulled pork. How you build your sandwich is, of course, a matter of personal choice. For BBQ pulled pork, tradition says a vinegar or mustard based sauce and a small pile of sandwich slaw on top.
Plan on two big sandwiches per person, just to be on the safe side.
BBQ Pulled pork can be used in so many great ways. Try it in enchiladas, on nachos, or any dish that uses shredded pork, but most of all take a moment to appreciate it and then go back for seconds.