If you are just getting into barbecue, pulled pork is a forgiving way to begin. Pork shoulder is richly marbled with fat and stands up well to overcooking, so even if you let it go a little too long on the smoker, you’ll probably still end up with something delicious. The same cannot be said for more finicky cuts like chicken, ribs, or brisket.
Of course, pulled pork begins with buying some pork shoulder. Pork shoulder might be labeled as Boston butt or pork butt at your local grocer and it can be either boneless or bone-in. The shoulder cut can also range quite a bit in size — I’ve seen anywhere from 3 pounds up to huge 10 pound monsters. It is also possible to find a full pork shoulder — the butt comes from the upper half — which will likely range from 14-18 pounds and have the skin attached. Pulled pork can be made with any of the above, but I’d suggest sticking with a smaller 5-7 pound roast for your first time. If you go for boneless shoulder, it will take a little less time to cook, but make sure to tie it with some kitchen twine so it doesn’t fall apart on your smoker.
Because barbecue lives or dies by the quality of the meat, I highly suggest spending a little extra for good locally raised, organic, and humanely raised pork. If you can find it, heritage breed pork like Duroc or Red Wattle will give you extra flavor for an extra cost.
Okay, so you have a hunk of pork shoulder staring back at you from the counter, what next? If you need to throw it on the smoker right now for it to be done in time for dinner, then slather it up with some yellow mustard and rub it down with a good spice rub — I’ve included the spice rub I like to use in the recipe below. However, if you have the time, I recommend slathering and rubbing the pork at least 8 hours in advance, then wrapping tightly and placing in the refrigerator. This dry-curing process will help bring the rub flavors into the meat for even better results.
When it’s time to cook, the wood you choose to smoke over isn’t all that critical — I used cherry for this recipe. What’s more important is controlling your temps and burning a clean fire. Keeping a consistent temp throughout the cook is important to ensure even cooking and proper bark development. Ideally, you don’t want your cook temp to vary by more than +/- 10°F for significant periods of time. Burning a clean fire means that you are burning hot enough to keep the fire from smoldering. If smoldering, the fire will start putting out billowing white smoke that will leave an unpleasant acrid taste on your food. What you’re looking for is a thin, sometimes almost invisible, smoke with a slight bluish hue to it.
Otherwise, smoking a pork shoulder is a fairly simple endeavor. You shouldn’t need to spritz with anything since the fat marbled shoulder rarely dries out, so it is really just a matter so maintaining your cook temp until it’s done. If you notice that one side of the shoulder is cooking faster than the other, rotate the shoulder every couple hours to ensure even cooking. As it cooks, the shoulder will gradually change from rusty red to a dark, almost black, mahogany. Don’t worry! The pork isn’t burned, it just has a crisp and flavorful bark.
As a rough guide, smoke the pork until a digital thermometer registers 200°F in the thickest part of the roast. However, the pork is done when it is fork tender and the bone can be easily wiggled out of the roast, regardless of temperature. You can pull the pork at this point, but I find it’s even better if you lightly wrap the shoulder in foil or butchers paper and let it rest in an insulated cooler for a couple hours. If you don’t have time for the long rest, at least let the pork rest on the counter for 20-30 minutes before pulling. I also like to add a tart vinegar sauce and more rub to the pork after it’s been pulled to amp up the flavor. Once pulled, the pork is great by itself and even better in sandwich. Enjoy!
Low and slow on a wood-fired pit is the way to go with a big hunk of hog like this. Add in a splash of vinegar hog wash and you’ve got smoky and succulent pulled pork to grub on.
For the pork
- One 5–7 pound bone-in pork shoulder (aka, pork butt or Boston butt)
- Yellow mustard
For the rub
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt (see notes)
- 2 tablespoons spanish sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar (e.g., Sugar In The Raw)
- 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon granulated onion
For the hog wash
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt (see notes)
- 4 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce
- 1–1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 1–1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1/4 teaspoon granulated onion
Make the rub
- Combine all the spices for the rub in a plastic container or bowl and mix thoroughly, breaking up any lumps of brown sugar with your fingers or a whisk. Stored in an airtight container, the rub will keep for 6 months.
Make the hog wash
- Combine all the ingredients for the hog wash in a pint size mason jar. Secure the lid tightly on the jar and give it a good shake and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.
Prep and smoke the pork shoulder
- Trim the pork shoulder of any bone fragments or loose ends of fat or meat.
- Lightly coat the pork shoulder with yellow mustard and generously season all over with the spice rub. You will use about 1/4 cup of the rub for this, depending on the size of your roast.
- Wrap the rubbed pork shoulder tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. In a pinch, you don’t have to let the cure like this, but it helps drive flavor into the meat.
- Set up your smoker for a 225°F cook. I used cherry wood for this recipe, but apple, oak, pecan, or some mix of these would be fine as well.
- Place the pork shoulder in your smoker with the fat side up (see notes). Smoke at 225°F until an instant thermometer reads about 200°F when inserted into the thickest section of the shoulder and the bone begins to easily pull free of the meat, about 12 hours depending on the size of your pork shoulder. Make sure not to touch the bone with the thermometer probe or you’ll get inaccurate readings.
- Lightly wrap the shoulder in heavy duty foil and rest in an insulated cooler for 2-3 hours. Don’t wrap tightly or you’ll steam the bark and it will become soggy.
- Using insulated gloves or meat claws, pull the pork into meaty chunks, discarding any bones, tendons, or fatty membranes. Spoon some of the hog wash over the pulled pork and sprinkle with a little more of the rub and toss to mix. The pork should be very flavorful with a vinegar tang from the hog wash to cut through the richness.
- There are two primary brands of kosher salt; Morton’s and Diamond Crystal. I used Diamond Crystal for this rub because it has more delicate salt crystals that readily absorb into the meat. You can use either brand, but if you do go with Morton’s, cut the salt to a little over one tablespoon.
- This recipe makes more hog wash and rub than you will need. The extra rub will keep for 6 months or so if kept in an airtight container in a dark area. The hog wash will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.
- There is some debate about smoking fat side up or down. This mostly depends on where the heat is coming from and how the air flows through your smoker. If you notice that most of the heat comes from underneath your grates and the fat cap on the shoulder is not rendering well, then try smoking fat side down.
- If it looks like the pork is not going to be done in time, you can wrap it tightly in unlined butcher paper and throw it back on the smoker. This will significantly decrease the remaining cooking time, at the cost of no further bark development. It can also make the bark a little less crisp.
Keywords: pulled pork, smoked pork, pork shoulder, pork butt, smoked pork butt