Pulled pork from a whole pork shoulder

If you are talking about bbq (which is different then barbecue), then you are also talking about pulled pork. After you’ve mastered preparing perfect spare ribs, it’s time for pulled pork. Pulled pork is one of the easiest BBQ dishes to make and possibly the tastiest. The real difficulty is in mustering enough patience to wait for the pork to be pulled.

If you go for convenience, you choose a pork neck to make pulled pork. It has enough intramuscular fat to protect the meat from overheating, and the fat is evenly distributed throughout the cut. As a result, this pulled pork has the same texture and taste after pulling. But if we go for the tastiest pulled pork, we opt for pork shoulder as a cut.

Although a pork shoulder is less fatty than a pork neck, it is full of connective tissue that is converted into delicious gelatin during preparation. That gelatine melts through the meat as a seasoning. Once you’ve tasted it, you won’t want anything else. And with a complete pork shoulder, you immediately have enough pulled pork to feed a lot of people. With a pork shoulder of 6.5 kilos, you can make 25 well-filled pulled pork sandwiches.

What kind of grill do you use to smoke a whole pork shoulder

Smoking a whole pork shoulder isn’t that much more complex than smoking a pork neck. But what you do need is a bigger smoker that fits the pork shoulder. Now it’s time to upgrade that kettle grill and buy a real smoker.

What else do you need to smoke a pork shoulder

  • Oven tray with rack
  • Aluminium foil
  • a thermometer
  • Gloves

oven tray

Let’s start with the oven tray. That is a large oven tray with a rack that fits the pork shoulder. The oven tray catches the dripping fat, so it doesn’t end in your smoker. We can assure you that that saves a lot of cleaning up afterwards. Ikea has very nice trays in which a rack is placed. If you put the pork shoulder on it, it won’t be cooked in its own fat, and the smoke can come all the way around.

We will also use the tray as a base to wrap the meat during the so-called stall (we will explain this later). It sometimes happens that the aluminium foil is pierced by a piece of bone when it is placed back in the smoker. You don’t immediately realize it, and at some point, you find out that your grill starts smelling of burnt fat, and that precious moisture has flowed away.

Aluminium foil

Even if you use an oven tray, we still need aluminium foil. We always have a wide roll of aluminium foil. And preferably thicker foil that does not tear so quickly. It is admittedly a bit more expensive than the aluminium foil that you buy at the supermarket, but you use less of it, and, as mentioned, it does not tear as quickly if a piece of bone sticks out.

a thermometer

We do not use a separate thermometer for low and slow bbq to occasionally measure the core temperature. We need a thermometer that we can leave in the meat to read it from outside the barbecue.

A set of good gloves

We cook the meat to a core temperature of 96°C (204F). That is piping hot. And especially if the meat is also juicy. And that’s the point, right? Of course, you can pull the meat with 2 forks or so-called bear claws, but we like to use our hands and then need gloves that are waterproof and double insulated.

Whether you’re smoking a pork shoulder on a large smoker or a small kettle barbecue, these tools are handy to use with any grill.

What should you pay attention to when you buy a pork shoulder

Few butchers sell a whole pork shoulder from the counter. Usually, they can sell you the shoulder in parts as hams, pork neck, or ground meat. You will really have to order in front to buy a whole shoulder with leg bone and shoulder blade.

We found this Livar pork shoulder. It is cut like an American Picnic, so it has a shorter shoulder part. If you still want a smaller cut, you can go for the Boston Butt. This piece is named after the barrels (the butts) in which the pork was transported. We go for a pork shoulder, or picnic, without skin but with bone.

The leg bone and shoulder blade in the shoulder and the extra intramuscular fat of Livar meat provide additional insulation to cook the meat more evenly. This will eventually result in amazingly tender and juicy meat. If you end up with a pork shoulder that has already been deboned, you have to tie it up with butcher’s twine to get one piece of meat without loose flaps. This helps to cook the meat more easily without it drying out.

For preparation, we don’t do much with this pork shoulder. All we do is trim away too large and hard pieces of fat on the outside. You can keep a few millimetres of fat. The thicker parts of fat just melt away and take the herbs we applied with them. That would be a shame.

What do you season a pork shoulder with

Pork for pulled pork is seasoned with a dry rub. A dry rub is nothing more than a mixture of herbs and spices that adheres to the outside of the meat, forming a flavorful layer. During cooking, moisture and fat will be forced out and mixed with the herbs. In combination with smoke and heat, this layer will become thicker and firmer so that a so-called bark forms.

We made our basic dry rub for pulled pork that you can adjust with your own taste. If you go for really basic, an equal amount of salt and pepper is also delicious. See for yourself what you like or just experiment.

First, we provide an adhesive layer that the dry rub will stick to. We use mustard for this because you get a nice thick bark. Don’t be afraid that the meat will end up with a sharp mustard taste. That’s really not the case. After the pork has been rubbed with the mustard, sprinkle the dry rub evenly over the meat. We always keep a few empty jars, so you can apply the dry rub more easily.

This layer of dry rub is not the only thing that gives the pulled pork its taste. If you want the real authentic BBQ taste, you will have to smoke the meat. This taste cannot be copied without the use of real wood. If you have a choice in types of smoking wood, we generally choose wood from fruit trees. Apple or cherry is always good. Cherry has the additional advantage that the meat gets a nice reddish-brown colour.

At what temperature do we smoke the pork shoulder for pulled pork

You can smoke a pork shoulder at a temperature somewhere between 110 and 160°C (230 to 320F). If you don’t have much experience keeping your grill at a stable temperature, we recommend keeping the temperature lower. If you accidentally end up at a higher temperature, then nothing’s lost. The fat inside ensures that your meat is protected against these temperature peaks.

If you have more experience keeping your grill temperatures stable, we will go for a kettle temperature of 150°C (302F). This fatty Livar pork shoulder can handle that just fine. And that fat is a requirement. For good BBQ, you need fatty meat. Lean meat dries out during low and slow cooking.

This higher temperature inside the grill ensures that the pork shoulder reaches the desired core temperature sooner. That can easily save a few hours, and you will be ready before dinner time. We don’t feel like telling everyone around dinner time that it will take a few hours more.

How long does it take to turn a pork shoulder into pulled pork?

That depends on several factors. The stated temperature in the kettle, the percentage of fat in the meat, and the thickness of the meat all have consequences. With a kettle temperature of 150°C (302F), we calculate approximately one hour and fifteen minutes per kilo of meat. But keeping an eye on the time makes almost no sense at bbq. The pulled pork is ready when the meat is tender enough. And that is at a core temperature between 93 and 96°C (200 to 205F). That’s all that matters.

So we put the rubbed pork shoulder on the grates in the tray and put it in the smoker. Then we insert the thermometer probe into the meat without touching the bone and close the lid. All you have to do now is watch a movie or walk the dog. If your grill is running at a stable temperature, you can get away for a few hours.

What is the stall?

If this is your first time barbecuing low and slow, you will be amazed by the phenomenon of the stall. Around 70°C (158F), the meat begins to expel moisture, making the surface moist. That moisture causes the outside of the meat to cool down. You can compare it to a sweaty body in the wind. As a result, the meat will no longer heat up until this moisture has evaporated.

This stall can take a really long time. Sometimes hours. It’s very frustrating, and if you don’t know what’s happening, you start to doubt everything. To shorten this stall, you can wrap the meat when you reach 70°C (158F). Just like putting on a jacket after exercise to keep warm, you can cover the pork shoulder with aluminium foil. This can really save hours of preparation time, and you serve the pulled pork on time.

Before you wrap the pork shoulder, we first check whether the rub has already formed a bark that has firmly adhered to the meat. We also check whether the meat has already withdrawn from the bone. This is the sign that we can wrap it.

To speed up the process of the pork becoming more tender, we pour some orange juice at the bottom of the tray. This juice ensures that the warm air in the package remains moist, and the acid will help break down the connective tissue, making the shoulder even more tender. You don’t need a lot of juice. 200 ml is enough. If you can seal the package properly, none of the moisture will escape, and it will mix with the moisture and fat that comes from the pork shoulder.

We put the aluminium foil over the pork shoulder and fold it under the edge of the tray. The tray gives you a sturdy bottom that does not tear open when you slide it back into the smoker, and you can easily remove the pork shoulder from the barbecue without having to worry that it will tear into pieces when you pick it up.

When will the pulled pork be ready?

We put the thermometer through the foil back into the meat and closed the lid. Now you just wait until the core temperature is somewhere between 93 and 96°C (200 to 205F). Then you insert a skewer or the probe of your thermometer into the meat. If it goes in and out without too much resistance, the pulled pork is ready. If this is not the case yet, you put the entire package back and wait until the core temperature has risen. But after that, you can’t unwrap the meat just yet.

We have to let the meat rest. Remove the entire package from the smoker and let it sit for at least half an hour. This is the hardest part of the whole preparation. You know what to expect when you remove the foil. But you really have to wait. Because all the moisture is on the outer edges of the meat, the meat has to relax so that the moisture can be better distributed throughout the pork shoulder.

If you are ready really early and it will take a few hours before you want to serve the pulled pork, wrap the meat in an extra piece of foil and put it in a cooler. This way, you can really keep the shoulder warm for a few more hours until your guests come. But after that, you can really go and see and pull.

The first thing you may do is pull the shoulder blade and leg bone out. This is an Instagram moment, so you have to have someone take a picture. Then you pull the rack away from under the pork shoulder. Now the meat is in the tray with the melted fat and the leftover orange juice.

Then you can get started with the gloves we talked about. We like to pull the meat to the point where we have long strands of pulled pork. Some people take it further until the bits of pork are even smaller. While pulling, you can clearly see the different types of meat that are present in a complete pork shoulder. Of course, you have the larger pieces of bark on the outside, but also the pieces of meat where the soft gelatin sticks too.

We carefully mix all these types of meat together and then build a sandwich with it. In the meantime, we pick up a piece of meat here and there to taste. We call that Pitmaster privilege.

Once all sandwiches have been made and eaten, it sometimes happens that there is pulled pork left. Really, it happens.

What do you do with the pulled pork that is left?

Make portions that you can use later and divide them in ziplock bags. Make sure there is an even distribution of meat and fat throughout. That will be easier to heat up later without the pulled pork drying out. Press as much air out of the bag as possible before closing it. Then let the pulled pork cool and put it in the freezer.

If you want to eat the pulled pork, take a bag out of the freezer and let it thaw in the fridge. Then put it in a saucepan with a bit of apple juice and heat it up with the lid on the pan. In 10 to 15 minutes, you have delicious pulled pork.

If you want to take your pulled pork adventure a step further and get started with a pork shoulder, let us know in the comments below what it turned out to be. Or better! Take a photo and post it on Instagram. Tag @bbq.heroes so we can see what you’ve made.

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