The Pulled Pork Definitive

No Southern celebration is ever complete without pulled pork! Southerners have long known the advantages of cooking this inexpensive and forgiving cut of pork. Cooking a pork shoulder or butt "low and slow' renders the flesh to a tender succulence beyond compare, and leaves plenty of time for lazy afternoons of hose fights, beer-drinking, ice cream churning, and gossiping.

Home cooks seeking flavorful meals that require minimal effort and time in the kitchen should look no further than pulled pork, the ultimate meal solution. It's not just the flavors that make a dish, but the layering of textures. We love pulled pork because of the contrast between the crispy exterior (called the bark) and the succulent, almost-melting inside.

We start with a pork butt which is a cheap, but flavorful cut with a good amount of fat that renders out during cooking and bastes the meat adding to its caramelized crust. 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, and the picnic ham. Contrary to what most of us believe, the butt comes from the upper part of the front shoulder. While a picnic ham is a good option, a Boston Butt is easier to work with, uniform in shape, and contains the right ratio of fat to lean. You should look for a Boston Butt that is rectangular in shape with a layer of fat on one side. The color should be a rich pink to purple and the meat firm to the touch. The key is to start with a cut that has ample marbling and connective tissue so it softens as it slowly cooks, becoming so tender that it easily pulls apart.

Once you have selected your meat, trim off any loose fat and skin. These won't aid the pork much and will tend to just get in the way. With the meat ready, apply a rub to flavor the meat while it smokes and help it produce a crusty surface called “bark.” A typical pork rub will have sugar, salt, pepper (any combination of black, white, or red), and herbs. Work the rub deep into the meat and let it sit on the meat for about an hour to sink into the meat and form a moist paste on the surface. Now you're ready to smoke.

Fill a smoker or kettle grill with charcoal and light.* When the coals are mostly white, spread them out with tongs. Spread ½ cup of the wood chips over the coals (use 1 cup for a kettle grill). The smoke of pulled pork is provided by hickory and/or oak. While you can use any mild wood these are the traditional woods. You will want an even temperature around 225°F. You should try to keep the smoker temperature below 265°F no matter what.  If the temperature is too high, it will make the meat tough. You want to smoke your pork roasts for about 1 to 1½ hours per pound. This means you will be cooking your pork for a long time; low and slow.

Place the pork fat-side down on a rack (over the water pan if possible) in the smoker or on the grill, cover and cook, rotating the pork every hour or so. Add additional coals and water as needed to maintain the temperature and moisture in the smoker. We do not add wood after the first 2 hours of smoking because we think too much smoke gives the meat a bitter taste.

You can remove the pork from the heat once it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F, but it won't be ready. You will want to continue cooking at a temperature around 190°F until you can easily shred the meat with a fork. [Of course, if you have trouble maintaining a grill for this long you can use alternative cooking methods after a few hours. Wrap the pork tightly in foil and place it in your oven at 225°F until it is finished.]

When done, remove the meat from the grill and wrap completely with foil. Let stand for 20-30 minutes to redistribute the juices and cool enough to handle. Transfer the pork to a rimmed baking sheet (you'll want to catch all the flavorful juices) and shred by inserting two forks into a chunk of meat and pull in opposite directions to get long, thin shreds. Repeat with remaining meat. Pile the shredded pieces on a platter and pour any juices from the baking sheet on top.

Now the fun begins! You can use this juicy meat in any manner of dishes from traditional pulled pork sandwiches to smoky pork tacos. Try some pulled pork in a spicy Cuban-style wrap or stacked on a salad with grilled peaches and torn fresh mozzarella. The possibilities are endlessly delicious!

*If using a gas grill, preheat to high on one side; put soaked wood chips in a smoker box. Once smoking, reduce the heat to maintain a temperature of about 250°F and cook the pork, covered, on the cooler side of the grill.