The definitive guide to making pulled pork
Each week this summer, Cara Nicoletti of The Meat Hook is helping us get to know our favorite cuts a little bit better — and introducing you to a few new ones, too. Read on, study up, then hightail it to your nearest butcher.
Today: We’re showing you how to make classic homemade pulled pork, no Southern smokepit required.
Pork shoulder is no secret, especially to barbecue fanatics — so let’s talk about why you should cook it at home. While we will take shredded pork tossed in a sticky-sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce any day of the week (and we mean any day), it’s so easy to make in a Crockpot, Instant Pot, or Dutch oven at home, so why would you not? But first, the basics:
If you want to make pulled pork at home, look for pork butt or pork shoulder in the grocery store. They’re nearly identical cuts of pork and both lend themselves quite well to pulled pork recipes. You’ll find boneless and bone-in cuts available, and there are pros and cons to each: boneless means faster cooking and a more seamless shredding experience, whereas bone-in pork will help prevent the pork from drying out.
Pork shoulder comes, obviously, from the pig’s shoulder muscles. This area of the animal works hard, which means the muscles get a lot of blood flow, and are therefore packed with flavor. However, this also means that, if not cooked properly, pork shoulder can be relatively tough — it’s a cut that benefits from a low, slow cook. So you can throw it on the grill or in the oven, forget about it for hours, then pull it out and wow all of your guests with pulled pork sandwiches, pulled pork macaroni and cheese, or pulled pork au naturale.
If great flavor and minimal fuss aren’t reason enough, pork shoulder is also significantly cheaper per pound than pork loin, and a big cut can easily feed a crowd (with enough for leftovers). On average, a four-pound cut of boneless pork shoulder should cost about $20 and will yield servings for at least half a dozen guests, which is why pulled pork is so often the main event for Super Bowl parties. Let’s learn a little more about one of barbecue’s favorite meats.
Pork shoulder is generally separated into two primal cuts: the picnic and the butt (also known as Boston butt). The latter’s name derives from the method of packing and shipping pork in pre-revolutionary New England, where lesser-prized cuts like the shoulder were packed into barrels called “butts.” The name stuck and now we’re all confused, but at least we don’t have to get our meat in barrels anymore. Cooks generally prefer the butt to the picnic, as it’s slightly meatier and more tender. In my opinion, both work beautifully for slow-cooking — try them out and see what you think.
When buying your pork shoulder in the market, see if you can get a cut that still has the skin and the bone attached. These, along with the thick layer of fat under the skin, help to keep the meat moist through long hours of cooking — and add extra flavor to boot. If you buy fresh, well-raised pork, you’ll only need to add a few ingredients to it before popping it in the oven or on the grill. I generally rub mine with a simple mixture of sugar and salt, let it hang out for a few days in the fridge, and then add on some black pepper before roasting. If you’re looking for that quintessential messy, dripping pulled pork, toss yours with homemade barbecue sauce once it’s pulled.
Here’s how to make tender pulled pork in your oven:
Using a sharp knife, cut the skin on your pork shoulder into a crosshatch pattern, leaving about an inch of space between the cuts. Be sure to slice through the layer of fat below the skin, but not into the meat itself. Whisk some sugar and salt together and rub the mixture all over the pork shoulder. Allow the meat to sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least 24 hours, and up to 72. Before cooking, rub black pepper all over the pork shoulder and allow it to sit out at room temperature for one hour.
Cook the pork shoulder in a 275° F oven, or on the grill over indirect heat, until the internal temperature reaches 180° F to 190° F — about 6 hours. The meat should be very tender and easily pull away from the bone. Once the shoulder is cooked, crank up the heat on your oven to 500° F and cook the pork for about 15 minutes, until the skin is golden and crispy. Remove the pork shoulder and let it rest for 20 minutes, then shred the meat from the bone with two forks. If you’re feeling indulgent, remove the crackly skin, chop it roughly, and mix it with your pulled pork. Season the meat to taste, then pile it high on soft, sweet bread. Barbecue sauce and coleslaw are optional, but encouraged.
To make pulled pork in a slow-cooker, follow the same steps for scoring the fat cap and marinating the meat in a dry rub. But instead of cooking it in the oven, place it in a large slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours or high for four hours. I like to add about a cup of barbecue sauce (bottled or homemade) to the pot while the pork cooks, but you don’t need more than that, at least initially. By covering the slow-cooker with a lid, the pork will steam and create condensation, forming a looser sauce that will dilute a lot of barbecue sauce. So instead, toss the pork with the sauce after you shred the meat for the perfect sticky, saucy, sloppy mess.
1 (5- to 6- pound) pork shoulder, bone-in and skin on
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon coarse black pepper
Barbecue Sauce (optional)
See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.