Basic BBQ Pulled Pork

UPDATE: How To Make Perfect Pulled Pork BBQ

It’s time that I wrote down my barbecued pulled pork recipe so I can systematically improve it, kind of like I did with my no-knead bread recipe.

I’ve been making pulled pork for years. When I was in DC, I did it in the oven to everyone’s satisfaction. Technically that’s not considered barbecue since there’s no smoke in the process. True barbecue involves long, low heat and wood smoke. For instance, you don’t barbecue hot dogs and hamburgers. You grill them. Now that I have my own house, I smoke my pork shoulder on a charcoal grill for 6 hours and finish it in the oven. Purists will argue that you need a smoker to barbecue pork correctly, but purists usually have an expensive smoker/grill set-up. I don’t.

Here’s everything you need:

  • 8-9 lb. Pork Shoulder (a.k.a. Boston Butt or Picnic Roast), trimmed
  • 1 quart Apple Juice
  • 1/2 cup table salt
  • 1 3.46 oz can McCormick Grill Mates Pork Rub mix
  • 1 small bag Ready-Light Charcoal Briquettes
  • 1 bag Mesquite Wood Chips, soaked
  • 1 9″ Pie Tin
  • Plastic wrap
  • Water

I always try to buy an 8-9 pound pork shoulder and have the butcher remove the flesh and excess fat. That’ll cut the meat down to around 7+ pounds. There’s another pound of bone inside, and the cooking process will drop the total weight another pound or so. So when it’s all said and done, you’ll have around 5+ pounds of pulled pork, which will feed about a dozen people (or make +/-20 sandwiches).

I brine my pork for about 4 hours in a mixture of 1 quart apple juice and 1/2 cup table salt. This step makes the pork retain water during the long cooking process.

I rinse the pork and pat it dry with paper towels. I rub it thoroughly with half a can of spice rub, wrap it in cellophane, and refrigerate it overnight. One day I’ll experiment with my own rub mixture, but I’m trying to perfect the cooking process first.

Early in the morning, I light about 3 quarts of ready-light charcoal briquettes and let them burn in a pyramid until they’ve turned white. While the coals are burning like a bonfire, I soak a bag of mesquite wood whips in a large bowl of water. The time it takes to get the coals hot enough (and burn off the lighter fluid smell) depends on the brand. Follow the directions on the bag. When they’re white-hot, I use a garden hoe to rake them all to the front half of the grill. In the empty, back half of the grill, I place a pie tin beneath then grate. The tin is there so you can add water to control the moisture content and keep the pork from drying out. I clean and oil the grate and place the pork as deep in the grill and away from the heat as I can. Finally, I spread a handful of soaked wood chips on the grate directly above the coals. I drop an electric thermometer through the vent in the lid and let it dangle in the middle of the grill.

I keep the vent in the front of the grill (next to the coals) opened the entire cooking time. The incoming air keeps the coals hot and spreads the smoke to the back of the grill and around the meat. I use the vents in the rear and in the lid to regulate the temperature. I try to keep it around 225° throughout the cooking process. Depending on the wind and the diminishing coals, it’ll fluctuate between 210° and 250°.

Every 45 minutes or so, I check the temperature. I also open the grill and drop in another handful of wood chips. Every 90 minutes or so, I rotate the pork. If the fire is really hot in the beginning, I might rotate it once or twice over the first hour to evenly heat it. I accidentally let he rub on this shoulder burn a little too much in the first hour, hence the charring. Burnt ends are normal, but this is a little too much black. Still, look at how the meat has receded, exposing more of the bone. That’s what you want to see.

If I adjust the vents properly throughout the cooking process, the coals will maintain a constant temperature for at least six hours. You might be tempted to add a few more coals throughout the cooking process, but they’ll burn too hot and impart the taste of lighter fluid into the pork. When my coals are dying below 215°, I transfer the pork to a baking rack and take it to the kitchen. I usually sprinkle it with a little more rub (maybe a tablespoon) to add fresh spice to the crust. I throw a couple of cups of water into the tray and cook the pork at 220° until it’s done. It usually takes about 5 hours. Every shoulder is different, so the cooking time can vary. Look how much bone is exposed here. When it starts to feel a little loose in the meat, it’s done.

I let it cool under tented foil for 30 minutes or more. It’s going to be hot in the middle for a long time, but you should be able to start breaking up after a half hour. The muscles should pull apart, making it relatively easy to pull off the gristle and start separating the strands of meat. Some people prefer chopped barbecue and other like sliced. I say if you’re going to spend all day cooking a pork shoulder, then why not take another 15 minutes to shred it?

The point of preparing barbecue the long way is that the spice rub, smoke and melted fat season the meat perfectly. You really shouldn’t need any sauce to augment the flavor, but I like to put a little vinegar-based sauce on my plate in case I want a splash of sour to complement the sweet, smoky taste of the pork. Mainly, I dip the fallen strands of pork into the sauce the same way I would dip french fries in ketchup.

Please resist the urge to ruin your barbecue the way they do in the Midwest by slathering sugary sauce on the meat during the cooking process. The sugar burns and the whole thing taste like ruined caramel. And don’t even get me started on Texas-style barbecue. They don’t even cook the right animal.

NOTE: I’m still perfecting this recipe, so check back every so often for updates. It’ll take me a while to accurately quantify the recipe and document the cooking process so that it’s reliably repeatable. In the meantime, I’ll update with lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Basic BBQ Pulled Pork
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