Pulled pork is easily one of my top three favorite foods in the universe. It works on so many levels, especially the “tasting really good” level. But it’s also a great crowd pleaser (we cooked it for our wedding!), easy leftovers, and has real foodie appeal due to the time, palate, and skill needed to make legit “barbecue” (I know some of you were waiting for me to call it that, you can relax now). Yes, you can throw a bunch of pork in a crock pot and you’ll still end up with something good to eat, but there are wonderful levels of flavor that can be brought to the dish with just a little planning and attention. This is going to be a long post, but that’s just because I think it’s better to explain pulled pork in detail.
Right off the bat, I’ll affirm that I am by no means a barbecue expert. Most of the skill I’ve developed in this area and many others came from eating something delicious made by a pro and then trying to figure it out myself. In this case, my biggest asset and all-around favorite resource for all things barbecue is Meathead over at Amazing Ribs. He’s my kind of guy: he goes into nerdy amounts of detail about everything from smoking techniques to the science of slow cooking to the regional flavors and preferences around the country. You could (and I did) spend hours reading and learning about barbecue, and you are almost guaranteed to need some pork by the end. He even has lots of great recipes by him and other readers, with plenty of explanation. I’m not ashamed to plug another site when it does something well, and Meathead has done a great job making a resource for the rest of us.
So with what I’ve learned through others and through my own experiments, here is my official tutorial to the best pulled pork that’s ever come out of your kitchen so far. It’s going to be cooked in the oven, so for all you purists out there who are getting a little nervous and preparing to defend real barbecue in the comments section, I’ll start by saying this: the best pulled pork is made in a smoker. Hands down. If you know what you’re doing with a smoker (and if you have one, I guess) you have no excuse to not be out there doing the right thing and slow smoking your pork. Or, if you make my pork from this recipe and really enjoy it, I’d encourage you to learn how to smoke and take it to the next level. I have my own custom smoker that I built from a Weber Smokey Joe grill (that can be another post if you’re interested), and I agree there’s nothing better than real smoked meat.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s January or you can’t sit outside by the smoker all day, and personally I’d rather eat good food than be a purist sometimes. In these situations, your oven can work just fine. If you have the chance to smoke the pork butt for an hour or two, or if you’re not afraid to cautiously use wood chips in your oven (like me), feel free to do so, just so you get that smokey flavor. Otherwise, it’s still going to be awesome. Let’s get to it.
The techniques and temperatures come from Meathead’s post on pulled pork.
First, get yourself a pork butt. Pork butt is the front shoulder of a pig, and is dark, fatty and tough. It’s also some of the nicest and richest meat on the pig if you treat it right. If you can’t find pork butt or it’s too expensive, an okay second choice is a picnic roast, which is also sometimes called pork picnic or pork butt picnic. It’s just the next section down on the leg, and although it still tastes great, it’s not quite as dark and lovely as its big brother.
Once you have your butt, rinse it and trim it of any major areas of visible surface fat. This is less about calories and more about flavor: the fat will mostly melt and run off during cooking, so any spices and whatnot that are rubbed on the surface will go with them. Don’t worry about getting all of it, just trim any big chunks.
The next step is one of the most important ones. Brush the meat lightly with vegetable oil, and apply a spice rub evenly over the entire surface. You don’t have to go crazy, a thin layer will do, but try to get good coverage. The idea of the spice rub is to leave it for several hours or ideally overnight, so it will permeate and flavor the surface of the meat. Additionally, the salt and sugar in the rub will help pull moisture out of the meat’s surface, allowing a nice layer of crust or “bark” to develop while cooking. You can use your spice rub of choice, but I long ago fell in love with Meathead’s Memphis Dust recipe and use it every time. I scaled it down since I barbecue less frequently, so here’s the ratios for one pork butt or so:
Meathead’s Memphis Dust from Amazingribs.com:
2 tb brown sug
2 tb white sug
4 tsp paprika
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp ginger powder
1/3 tsp rosemary powder
(I also add a few pinches of chipotle powder or cayenne)
Massage the rub gently into the meat, then wrap it fairly tightly and refrigerate overnight.
On the day you’re cooking, get the meat out and preheat your oven. Depending on how much time you have, you can cook pulled pork anywhere between 225-275°F, and even crank to 300°F toward the end if you’re in a hurry (ribs are pickier, so don’t be so frivolous with temperatures if you’re making them). The goal is to get the meat to 190° very slowly, so that the proteins, fats, and collegen can all have time to break down slowly and so a nice “bark” can develop. This will take between 8 and 12 hours depending on how much meat you have, how hot you’re cooking, and how hungry you are (it’ll take longer if you’re hungrier, trust me). And for those of you like me who are impatient and like to cut corners, you cannot and should not skimp on the final cooking temperature. The pork will be “cooked” at around 160°, but the collagen will not break down and the meat won’t fall apart perfectly until 190°. So calm down.
I use a rig in my oven to create an open but moist environment. Place a large pan on the oven rack and fill with a quart or two of water. Over that, place some metal cooling racks (or the grate from your grill if it’ll fit) and place your meat on the rack. This will allow for moisture in the air, without the sauna effect that you’d get in a slow cooker that would prevent a crust developing.
Cook the pork for the rest of your life. Every few hours, check the internal temperature (or leave a probe in the meat so you don’t have to open the oven as much). Around 150°, the temperature will stop rising for an uncomfortably long time and you’ll be tempted to turn up the heat, but don’t worry about it. It’s part of the process.
When the meat finally reaches 190°, remove it from the oven (or turn the oven off) and let it rest for 30-60 minutes (let’s be honest, you’re going to pick 30, aren’t you?).
Take two forks or some other claw-like implements and pull the pork apart. It should come pretty easy. Make sure you pull the bark apart and mix it into the rest of the meat; it adds a lot of flavor.
Sauce: purists eat pork with little or no sauce. I like sauce, but I’ve learned to resist drowning the meat in it. You just put a lot of work into making a delicious meal, and you need to respect it like you would a good steak. Right now I really like Carolina style, vinegary-but-still-ketchupy sauces, so I put a little of that on my sandwich and that’s it. Alternatively, you can mix some sauce into all the pulled pork so it has a light coating but isn’t overwhelmed. It’s nice to have some on the side so people can decide how much they want.
Now- we’re done! You made amazing pulled pork in your oven. Eat it. With lots of people, on a great roll, with something classic like baked beans or cole slaw on the side. Please admit it’s one of the best things ever. What’s your favorite barbecue experience?
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