Smoked Pulled Pork
One of my favorite things to make is smoked pulled pork sliders. I don't make it that often because it takes quite a lot of time and supervision but it is well worth it. The methods described below is a culmination of techniques I have researched and learned from several forums as well as my own experiments through trial and error. What works for me may not work for others due to the design and material of each smoker box or the heat source such as charcoal, propane, or electric. I'll describe the technical parts of the smoking process that I follow but I will leave it up to you to modify as needed for your setup.
We like to buy our pork shoulder from the Costco Business Center located in Kearny Mesa. Unlike regular Costco warehouses, the business center has bone-in pork shoulder. While you can purchase and use either bone-in or boneless, I prefer cooking with bone-in. My thought is that the bone acts as an additional heating element which helps to cook from the inside once you reach the higher internal temperatures. Plus, when you buy boneless pork shoulder, the butcher cuts into the meat to remove the bone which then leaves an empty pocket that may not transfer heat as well.
The Costco pork shoulder is actually two pieces packaged together. So when you are purchasing a 20 lb package, calculate a cooking time for 10 lbs worth at about 1.5 lbs/hr. Also, expect a yield of approximately 66% of the original weight after cooking and removing the bone and excess fat.
I prep my pork shoulder a day or two before cooking. The first step is to thoroughly rinse any remaining blood from the pork under cold water. I then use paper towels to pat dry the pork and move it into a container such as an aluminium foil pan or casserole dish.
I then drizzle mustard across one face of the pork and then spread it around evenly. Don't worry about the strong taste of mustard. This layer helps to adhere our rub and the mustard flavor will become unnoticeable among the final flavor of smoke and seasoning.
Generously sprinkle your rub until you cover up all the mustard. You'll want to massage the rub into the meat a little bit.
Rotate the pork and continue applying mustard and rub across all sides. I suggest using plastic food handler gloves when spreading the mustard and massaging the rub. It will help keep your hands clean when going back and forth between grabbing the mustard and rub bottles and spreading and massaging the rub into the pork.
Once you have finished, tightly cover the pork with plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator. Repeat the same process if there are multiple slabs of pork, then allow time for the pork to marinade in the fridge until you are ready to cook it.
Take the pork shoulder pieces out of the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. We'll allow the pork to return to room temperature for a bit while we prep and warm up the smoker. I also use this time to soak several handfuls of wood chips in water. For pork, I like to use various combinations of cherry, apple, hickory, or pecan wood.
Turn on your smoker and allow it to heat up for several minutes. Our ideal cooking temperature is going to be 225 degrees. Since we will lose quite a bit of heat when we open the smoker door to put our pork shoulder in, I typically heat up my smoker past 225 so that the metal walls can retain as much heat as possible which then helps to bring the temperature back up once we close the door.
Once your smoker is hot enough, go ahead and put your wood chips in and give it a few minutes to get going. I also fill up my water pan about halfway to two-thirds full. Filling up too much at the start can potentially cause spill once some of the fat and juices from the pork melt and fall into it.
Then go ahead and put your pork shoulders in fat side down. The reason for putting the fat side down is to help protect the pork from toughening and drying out due to the heat source coming from below. Some people say to put the pork fat side up so that the fat melts into the pork. But in my experience the fat cap does not really melt until much later so I would rather protect the pork from drying out now..
I usually smoke for about 4-6 hours or until the internal temperature reaches approximately 140 degrees. This time will vary depending on the size of pork cooked. I also add wood chips about every 30-45 minutes and keep my eye on the water level and refill when needed.
At around 140-165 degrees the pork will go through what is referred to as as a "stall". To put it simply, the meat's internal temperature will seem like it has ceased to climb for long period of time. This is because the warm juices are being pulled to the surface of the meat which then evaporate and thus cools itself. Think of it like our own bodies. When we get hot our bodies act in a similar manner when we sweat.
It can take what it would seem like hours before the temperature rises again so at this point you can decide to do one of two things. Either let it continue as is until the pork has finished cooking or take the meat out and foil it. If you let it continue, the meat will have a firmer bark and a stronger smoky flavor. But if you choose to wrap it, the pork will cook much faster and turn out quite tender and juicy.
I prefer the foil wrapping method which is also known as the "Texas Crutch". To do this, tear two large sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil and place the pork shoulder fat side up into the center. Next, form a bowl by pulling up the sides of the foil. I like to add a mix of apple juice and bourbon into the foil at this time. Then I complete the wrapping the top to fully seal the pork.
Since I am choosing to foil my pork, smoke will no longer penetrate and flavor the meat. So I continue cooking the pork in my kitchen oven at 225 degrees. The oven is much more efficient than my smoker and I also save on propane fuel. And since I do not have to worry about monitoring the temperature when in the oven, I usually take a nap or go to sleep until the pork finishes. I also recommend placing your pork inside or over a pan to catch any potential drippings that may leak out of the foil.
Once the pork hits 195-200 degrees internally, I remove the pork from the oven. Be careful when handling this as it will be extremely hot and there will be quite a bit of juice within the foil wrap.
You might be thinking that meat cooked to 195-200 degrees would be dry and tough. While normally that would be true, the low and slow cooking method for barbecuing does a few interesting things that keep the meat juicy and tender, especially if you foiled. First, during the last few hours of cooking, the connective tissues around the muscles break part. Second, by foiling you seal the moisture and juices. And finally, since we placed the meat fat side up into the foil, when the connective tissues are breaking apart and the fat is melting, the fat seeps into meat further flavoring and preventing the pork from drying.
Just to be safe, after I remove the pork from the oven I wrap the bottom of the pork shoulders with another layer of heavy duty aluminum foil to ensure no spill. I then wrap each pork with an old but clean bathroom towel and place them into a large beverage cooler. Make sure to properly wrap the towels around the aluminum foil so that the cooler does not have direct content. From what I have read, some people have said that the direct and hot contact can cause the cooler wall to crack or melt.
Allow the pork shoulders to rest in the cooler for a minimum of one hour. This gives the pork time to redistribute its juices. You can actually leave the pork in the cooler for several hours without the temperature dropping that much. I once rested some pork for three hours and the internal temperature only went down to around 180 degrees which is well above the USDA's recommended holding temperature for cooked meat.
After allowing the pork ample time to rest, remove it from your cooler and drain the remaining juices into a container. Be careful because the pork’s juices will still be very hot. A good amount of the fat cap at the top of the pork should have melted into the pork and juices while cooking. But if there is any left, remove it as well as the bones inside. The bones should slide easily away.
Break apart the pork and place some chunks into a separate container for pulling. You can use two forks to pull but I recommend purchasing Wolf Claws which make this process incredibly easy and fast. Make sure to move the chunks around and not to miss any areas. Keep going until you have pulled all of the pork.
Once you have finished, you can optionally pour some or all of the juices back into the pulled pork. If the juices are too fatty for your preference, you can try straining it first or you can alternatively pour and mix a finisher sauce into the pork. For me I like to simply pour the juices back in since the juice contains the flavors of our rub, apple juice, and bourbon.
At this point, your pulled pork is complete and it's time to enjoy our hard earned creation! My perfect way of enjoying the pork is creating a slider with King's Hawaiian Bread and my friend's secret homemade sweet and spicy BBQ sauce. Here we added delicious cole slaw to our slider! I'll optionally add guacamole, fried egg, or corn salsa on it to mix up the flavors. Other great ways of enjoying this is adding it to mac and cheese, quesadillas, tacos, paninis, or even pizza!
After all this work, it doesn't hurt to add a refreshing drink like a glass of wine or a drink of your choice!
I do highly suggest using a dual probe thermometer for measuring the internal temperature as well as the heat chamber. Most built-in smoker thermometers are cheap and not accurate. You may also want to get a good pair of heat-resistant rubber or silicon gloves. They’re easy to wash and you can directly handle the pork.
As for rubs, you have plenty of options out there which include sweet, salty, and spicy. I used to buy a few sampler packs so that I could try and experiment with different flavors. Eventually I ended up just making my own rub which is much cheaper and can easily be made with common kitchen spices. One of my favorite recipes is the Dry Rub Recipe from The Blissery. It's very simple and goes well with pork shoulder, ribs, and steak.
Thanks for reading my post and I hope your pulled pork turns out well. If you have any questions or suggestions please let us know with a comment below. Bon appetit!
Smoked Pulled Pork Recipe
Active Time: 15 minutes prep, plus additional time for prepping smoker and oven, and 10-15 minutes to shred
Marinade Time: overnight
Cooking Time: 12-16 hours for 10 lbs, or estimate 1.5/hr per lb
Yield: 2/3 of original pork weight
- *10 lb Pork Shoulder with bone-in
- *1/4 cup Mustard in bottle, or enough to layer
- *3/4 cup of Dry Rub, or enough to layer (you can use your favorite pre-mix or recipe)
- Apple Juice, 1 oz
- Bourbon, 1 oz
*Note: ratio of first three ingredients will change with weight of pork
- Hawaiian sweet rolls
- Your favorite BBQ sauce
- Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil
- 100 cubic inch (~7 cups) of Cherry, Apple, Hickory, or Pecan Wood chips, or whatever works with your smoker
- 2 Clean Bath Towels, for covering pork
- Large Cooler, or big enough to hold pork
- Wolf Claws for shredding (optional)
- Prepare the meat: Rinse pork under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. In a large casserole dish, place the meat inside with fat side down. Add a few squiggles of mustard, then spread it with gloves. Sprinkle a hearty coat of seasoning, then massage in. Rotate meat and repeat mustard and seasoning on all non-fat portions of the slab. Tightly wrap using plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
- Smoke the meat: Insert the temperature probe deep into the meat, avoiding the bone. Place the slab of pork into smoker fat side down onto the rack into the pre-heated smoker. Cook at 225 degrees and add wood chips about every 30-45 minutes and refill the water when needed. When internal pork temperature reaches approximately 140-150, remove from the smoker.
- Finish cooking the meat: Using two large cross-strapped pieces of heavy duty aluminum foil, place the pork fat side down and form a bowl around pork to avoid leaking. Add in the apple juice and bourbon before double wrapping the meat completely (except for the temperature probe wire). Continue cooking in oven at 225 degrees until internal temperature reaches 195-200 degrees. Carefully remove from oven to avoid ripping foil and causing leaks.
- Rest the meat: Wrap with clean bath towels and place into a cooler, avoiding contact between the pork and the cooler. Close the lid and allow the pork to rest for a minimum of one hour. Remove from cooler.
- Prepare and serve: Unwrap pork. It's HOT! Remove the bone and fat, then pull pork until desired consistancy but don't overdo it. Optionally, you can pour some of the juices back in for extra flavor. Serve with bbq sauce on sweet hawaiian bread rolls!