Pulled pork is one of those magical meals that seems so complicated at first, but is a really simple thing to prepare. All you have to do to create restaurant-quality pulled pork is select the right cut of pork and make some good choices about seasonings. Then it's just a matter of cooking the pork low and slow until it is tender and succulent, perfect for the ultimate sandwich, burrito, or plate of drunken pig nachos.
The Best Cut for Pulled Pork
When it comes to making the right choice of pork for pulled pork, you'll be looking at pork shoulders. You'll specifically look at cuts from the front shoulder as the rear haunch is where the ham comes from. There are three shoulder cuts you'll look at for making the ultimate pulled pork recipes.
The Shoulder Cut
The shoulder cut is a large cut that includes everything from the shank to the shoulder blade. Sometimes, you'll find a whole shoulder cut in the butcher shop, often at a ridiculously good price. The downside is that you'll be dealing with a massive chunk of meat. Alternatively, you can also use smaller cuts from the shoulder. Both picnic roast and Boston butt come from the front shoulder. Most often, Boston butts are sold either bone-in or boneless, while the picnic roast is typically a bone-in roast.
Most people who are making pulled pork at home will use pork butt roasts. Pork butts are the cut that comes from the shoulder blade area and is the best pulled pork cut. This cut is heavily marbled and is packed with tons of flavor. A picnic roast also works well, but tends to be a little less flavorful and is leaner than the butt roast. You can make pulled pork with either a bone-in or boneless Boston butt or picnic shoulder, but we think the bone-in has more flavor even though it takes longer to cook.
Preparing the Meat for the Smoker
The prep work to get the meat ready for the smoker or the slow cooker is quite simple. The best thing to do is to remove the fat cap and any thick excess fat from the pork shoulder, Boston butt, or picnic roast. The reason is that the extra fat will inhibit flavor from getting into the meat. Most of the excess fat simply cooks off, while the fat cap is usually inedible after the cooking process.
With the fat removed, all that is left to do is get some flavor on your pork shoulder. Great pulled pork recipes are often simple because you can let the flavors of the meat shine through. We like to do ours in the smoker to add even more depth of flavor. At the end of the day, there are few things better than a delicious pulled pork butt sandwich slathered in Bearded Butcher Blend Barbecue Sauce or coated in our Hollywood blend.
Cooking Pulled Pork Like a Pro
One of the reasons that pulled pork is such a popular recipe on the competition circuit is because it lets you showcase your culinary skills and highlights the flavor combinations you can use. The main trick to perfect pulled pork is cooking low and slow to break down the relatively tough pork shoulder meat for pulled pork.
When using the smoker to make a pork shoulder for pulled pork, we will aim for a target temperature between 225 and 250 degrees. Because this is a large, tough cut that has lots of connective tissue and fat, you don't want to try and rush through the cooking process. Instead, aim for the lower end with a goal of stabilizing the smoker at around 230 degrees.
You'll also want to cook Boston butts to a higher temperature than you would with a cut like tenderloin. This is because you want to render down as much of the muscle fibers, collagen, and fat as possible. As a general rule, the ideal internal temperature for pulled pork is around 203 degrees. You should always cook a whole pork shoulder to at least 180 degrees, but don't go over 210 degrees or it'll start to dry out.
Ready to try it out? Here is our favorite smoked pork butt recipe.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What's the difference between a pork shoulder, Boston butt, and a picnic roast?
A: Pork shoulders are the entire cut, while Boston butts are the top part and the picnic is the bottom.
Q: Why do these cuts shred when cooked?
A: The real trick is to get the temperature high enough. Lower temps on shoulder cuts will result in meat that slices easily but is more chewy and tough. You want to wait until the pork reaches at least 180 degrees, while 203 is the accepted "best temp" to create tender pulled pork.
Q: How long does it take to smoke a Boston butt roast?
A: Plan on smoking for one-and-a-half to two hours per pound of pork butt roast, which means you might be smoking for anywhere from eight hours for a small roast to 16 hours or more for larger roasts. The only way to make pulled pork is slow-cooked.
Q: Is the slow cooker better than the smoker?
A: We prefer the smoker over the slow cooker, though both work very well. We like the added flavor and smoke ring that we get in the smoker.
Q: Do you need to rest the pork roast after cooking?
A: You should rest the pork butt roasts for at least 30 minutes after cooking. You can use a cooler and wrap the pork shoulder in aluminum foil to rest it for up to three hours.
The Difference between Pulled Pork and Carnitas
Pulled pork is what you get when you slow cook or smoke a pork shoulder and then shred it. To make carnitas, you simply use pulled pork, but add it to a cast-iron skillet on high heat with a little lard or oil and crisp the shredded pork up a little. Carnitas is ideal on a tortilla, nachos, or just on a plate.
Making Pulled Pork for Leftovers
One of the things that we often do when we make pulled pork is we plan on having leftover pulled pork for other recipes. It makes sense to do things this way because when you smoke a pork shoulder, you are dealing with a cut of meat that can way more than 15 pounds. That's another reason why we intentionally keep the flavors minimal on our pork butt – when we have leftovers, we can serve pulled pork in different ways.
One of our favorite ways to use leftovers is to reheat the pulled pork in a shallow pan with a bunch of our favorite BBQ sauce so it's all juicy and drippy. Delicious.
We also will make carnitas, or we will add in mojo flavors and make Cubano sandwiches. There are lots of different pulled pork recipes out there that are ideal for using leftovers when you keep your initial flavors simple.
An Easy & Well-Loved Meal
Properly making pulled pork at home isn't a difficult process and it offers the home cook a lot of opportunities to get creative with flavors and to find interesting ways to use delicious leftovers. The biggest challenge with making pulled pork at home is being patient and letting it cook all the way slowly so that the meat shreds and nearly falls apart rather than needing to be cut or sliced.
Once you've got the hang of making slow-cooked pulled pork recipes at home, you'll understand why it is such a popular dish on the professional smoking circuit. There are lots of variables that you can use to create unique and interesting flavors while getting the most from this relatively tough cut of meat.