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 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.
“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 Barbeque 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.”