How to make the perfect pulled pork at home

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Published August 20, 2013

| The Daily Meal

When you hear that something is inexpensive to shop for, easy to make, and an economical way of feeding yourself because it’ll last for more than one meal, it’s pretty hard to turn it down. So why do we keep buying our pulled pork premade from the store?

For many, pulled pork is a quintessential Southern dish that can’t even be touched with a ten foot pole. “I don’t have a smoker,” may be a common excuse heard, or “I don’t know how to make authentic barbecue,” might be another. What people don’t understand is that pulled pork is one of the most basic and easy barbecue dishes to try their hand at (and we’re talking about real barbecue, not a party that you have in your backyard that revolves around a grill), and that even some of the most basic recipes for pulled pork don’t require a smoker or an open flame, like traditional barbecue recipes do.

A staple of the south, pulled pork originated out of the basic theory behind barbecue’s beginnings, which took place during the colonial period when plantation owners would give their slaves the cheaper cuts of meat that they didn’t want. What was soon realized was that these cheap cuts actually tasted pretty good, so long as they were cooked low and slow and slathered in sauce. Because of its origins, it’s clear that pulled pork was meant to be something that’s easy, and nothing could make this more clear than when barbecue guru Meathead Goldwyn instructs you to “make love to your spouse” while cooking it, among many other things.  Time would soon tell, too, that pulled pork is not just popular because it’s easy, but because it’s also finger-licking-good to enjoy.

If you’re not convinced already, then maybe the flexibility of pulled pork will further encourage you to try it. Pulled pork can be made from brines, marinades, dry rubs, or wet ones, and there’s not just one method used to make it, but a few for you to choose from. Particularly like olives? Then throw a couple of them in the braising liquid and call yourself a Cuban. Don’t have a smoker? Hope is not lost — your oven is a great alternative. 

Making pulled pork is really about deciding how you’re going to flavor it and what method you’re going to use to cook it, so to help you make the perfect recipe, we’ve mapped out all of your options with the help of barbecue experts who share their opinions, as well.

The Pork

The most common cut of pork used for pulled pork is the pork shoulder, which is also referred to as pork butt or Boston butt. There are two things to remember about this cut: it’s cheap and it’s marbled and fatty. The two things are inter-related, because the reason the cut is so cheap is because it requires longer cooking time to break down the marbling and connective tissue of the meat. Making it the perfect choice for pulled pork. In essence, any fatty cut will do, and in some regions, like Eastern North Carolina, they might do the whole pig. Most commonly, though, you’ll see pork shoulder as the choice cut.

The other thing about picking your pork is whether you want bone-in or bone-out. Having the bone-in will give you a much more tender result, but it’ll also take longer to cook. Another plus about bone-in pork is that jiggling the bone is a great way to check if your pork is tender enough to pull.

The Method

“Pulling pork is only possible when the pork shoulder or pork butt, as it is often called, is tender enough for the meat to, literally, pull away from the bone or remainder of the muscle. That being said, the cooking method always involves time and temperature in the process,” chef Michael Kornick of County Barbecue in Chicago, explains to us. And by time and temperature, and he means low and slow. Traditionally, the pork is smoked over low heat for several hours until tender, but more and more we’re seeing the pork dry-roasted or braised in the oven.  Here are the differences between each method:

Smoking: Smoking is often used for pulled pork because it imparts a strong, smoky flavor and it is one of the gentlest methods for cooking the pork slow and low. Most traditionally, you’ll see a dry-rubbed cut of pork smoked over a low flame for up to 12 hours. A typical six pound pork shoulder can take anywhere from 8-12 hours at 225 degrees. By smoking the meat, you’ll get a nicely charred crust and a moist, tender inside, which can be smothered in sauce. A smoker is easy to make at home on the grill. Here, Kornick explains how to do it:

“For outdoor smoking, set the coals up on one side [of the grill] so that the heat will be indirect, and only have enough coal at one time so that the lid is hot to the touch on the opposite side. You should be able to tap your fingers on the lid, without being able to hold your fingers on for more than a second.”

Dry-Roasting: Dry roasting the pork is similar to smoking it but instead you’re doing it in the oven, and you’re losing that smoked flavor from the wood chips. While most barbecue experts will smoke their pork dry for the entirety of its cooking time, a lot of people who choose to dry-roast their pork in the oven will finish it off by braising it or using the “Texas Crunch” method, which is when the pork is wrapped in aluminum foil to give it a dose of high and humid heat.

Braising: Braising is another popular method because it can also be done indoors and leaves a lot of room to add even more flavor from the braising liquid. The cut of pork is usually seared over high heat and then placed in a pan with braising liquid to be tightly covered and cooked low and slow. This method of braising can be used with a slow cooker, too, so you can literally set it — and forget it.

The Flavor

Chef Kyle Rourke of Red Star Taven in Portland, Oregon says it best when he tells us, “The two different ways to start the pork would be wet or dry.” The dry method involves making a blend of spices and rubbing the pork down before you begin to cook it. Some like to wrap their dry rubbed-pork in aluminum foil so that the juices will create a natural sauce from the rub, while others prefer to leave it dry so that it gets a nice, charred crust.

To start wet, the pork is usually brined for two to three days to break down the meat. Chef Chad Bowser of Katch in Astoria, New York likes adding his own special twists to the brine, like beer and espresso beans. While brining is a great way of marinating meat, other chefs, like Kornick, are less partial because they think that brines are less interesting, as they focus mostly on salt. Those who agree with Kornick might inject their pork with a marinade of choice, or slather it in a sauce before throwing it on the smoker or dry-roasting it.

Pulling the Pork

Once your pork is fork tender, you’re ready to pull. There are two ways to tell when it’s ready. For those of you who chose bone-in, use tongs or gloves and slightly jiggle the bone to see if it easily comes out. You can also take a fork and turn it — if the meat wraps around it spaghetti style, you’re ready. The best way to pull pork is in a large dish so that all of the juices and melted fat are collected and mixed into the meat. Take two forks — or these fancy meat shredders if you’ve got them — and pull away to the consistency you like.

Finishing it Off

Once you’ve decided on how you’re going to cook it and flavor it, you’re practically ready to enjoy some pulled pork. Now you just have to decide how to serve it. Will it be served in tortillas with sliced radishes and sour cream, as tacos? Or will you go to the traditional Southern route and throw it on a bun and top it with coleslaw and pickles. You might even go with North Carolina-style and skip the pulling, chop it up, and enjoy it all on its own. As with each step of making pulled pork, finishing it off is all about deciding what flavors you’re craving, and once you do that, your perfect pulled pork has been made.

Read more about making pulled pork at The Daily Meal

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