When summer begins to transition to fall and that chill shows up in the air for the first time, I think of pulled pork. Many women associate pumpkin spice with fall, but men know that fall is one of the best times for an old-fashioned barbecue.
There’s just something about the smell of smoking meat on a crisp fall day that makes you feel better about life in general. Pulled pork goes better than just about anything else with football tailgates, an easy meal at deer camp, or as the main dish at an end-of-summer celebration.
And here’s a secret that few self-respecting pit-masters are willing to share with you: Good pulled pork barbecue is ridiculously easy, and ridiculously cheap.
For the uninitiated, I’ll share with you how in just a moment. But the first thing I’m going to tell you is that the most important word in the sentence I just typed is “good.” When it comes to the culinary arts, cheap imitation often falls flat. One simply doesn’t do good chicken ‘n dumplings, for example. There’s a reason why everyone’s grandma makes the best chicken ‘n dumplings they’ve ever tasted — because it takes a grandma, with a lifetime of experience, to perfect the art of making chicken ‘n dumplings. I’d be willing to bet that none of today’s grandmas walked into the kitchen as a newlywed of yesteryear and cooked up a perfect kettle of chicken ‘n dumplings.
Nor does one easily do good pan-fried chicken (with good milk gravy that’s neither too thick or too thin), or good crab cakes with a remoulade sauce, or good croissants, or good clam chowder.
All of those things take lots of experience to get exactly right, and quite a bit of effort on each individual take. They can also be rather expensive, particularly if — in the case of crab cakes and clam chowder, especially — you use the freshest ingredients, which is just about the only way to get most dishes exactly right.
But pulled pork? It’s so, so easy. And it’s so, so cheap. So much so that it makes one wonder why it retails for as much as $15 per pound, and why preparing it intimidates so many.
First things first: There should probably be an asterisk by the above statement about it being “cheap.” The best pulled pork requires a smoker. Sure, there are other ways to cook a pork shoulder. You can cook it in a Crock Pot, for Pete’s sake. But that’s not smoked pork, which also means it’s not the best pulled pork. To get it right, you need a smoker. And even a basic smoker costs a couple hundred dollars.
But once you’ve made that initial investment, you can smoke literally hundreds of butt roasts — not to mention the other meats you can serve up — in the course of your smoker’s life. So it really isn’t too expensive. Think of your smoker as an investment.
The beauty of pulled pork
The true beauty of pulled pork is the set-it-and-forget-it method of cooking it. The process of smoking a pork shoulder (or a butt roast — yes, a pork butt and a pork shoulder are the same thing, which is understandably confusing for some people) involves using low heat and a long cooking process. For any other cut of pork, you’d only cook it to an internal temperature of 145°, the FDA-recommended minimum for avoiding food-borne illness. But pulled pork requires a temperature of around 200°. That extra heat and cook time causes the muscle fibers to break down, so that the meat literally falls off the bone and can be pulled apart by hand — hence the term “pulled pork.”
By the time the pork shoulder has been slowly smoked over hardwood for hours, it’ll have a rich, dark crust on the outside and the tenderest of meats on the inside. And it cooks while you sleep, or while you go deer hunting, or while you’re at church, or while you’re doing whatever else you have planned. That means you can spend more time focusing on the things in life that matter, and less time slaving over a grill.
The best way to smoke a butt
There’s no true right way or wrong way to smoke a pork shoulder. Some purists would laugh at what I’m about to tell you. That’s okay, because I certainly don’t claim to be (or pretend to be) an expert.
The easiest way to smoke pork is in an electric smoker. There. I said it.
Electric smokers are considered cheating by many BBQ purists. But if the goal is great-tasting meat, and not the experience of smoking meat, the pulled pork that comes out of your electric smoker isn’t going to taste remarkably different from pulled pork that comes out of a charcoal or wood-fired smoker. And the benefits to an electric smoker are that you don’t have to constantly battle to maintain a specific temperature, and you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel. Once the butt goes in, you don’t have to worry about it again until it’s time to take it out.
While the type of smoker you use might not make much difference in the quality of meat you serve up, the flavor of your smoke absolutely makes a difference. Anyone who has spent any time at all smoking meat knows this.
So what’s the best wood for great pulled pork? Really, it depends on the flavor you’re looking for. Some of the most popular choices are hickory, cherry and apple.
Keep in mind that, much like fine wines and good foods, different types of hardwood pair better with different kinds of meat. If you were smoking chicken, for example, you might use mesquite … but you wouldn’t want to use mesquite for smoking pork, because it would overpower the flavor of the meat and likely leave it dried out.
Hickory is the most popular wood for smoking any type of pork, and for good reason. It pairs well with a pork shoulder for those who like a stronger smoke flavor that isn’t overpowering, and it also includes just a hint of sweetness. That combination — smoky sweetness — is hard to beat when it comes to barbecue.
Cherry and apple each pair well with pork, but are distinctly different, for those who like a milder smoke flavor that is sweeter than hickory. Oak is a good option for those who don’t want a sweet smoke flavor, and who also want a stronger smoke flavor than apple or cherry (though not as strong as hickory).
My preference is to mix hickory and apple. But that’s just me. Once you start smoking butts, you’ll develop your own preference.
So, how to get started?
The real point of this musing is to talk about how easy and cheap it is to smoke a butt roast, and how much fun it is to smoke one in the fall — not attempt some sort of tutorial. But because so many people I talk to admit that they’ve never attempted smoking meat and they’re afraid they’ll mess it up, I’m going to tell you the way I do it.
There’s no real right or wrong way to prepare a shoulder for smoking (and I’ve already admitted I’m no expert). Mostly, it’s a matter of personal preference, just like the flavor of smoke that you use.
But for most smokes, you’re going to want to start by trimming off most of the thick layer of the fat cap that covers one side of the shoulder. Don’t take off all of it; fat adds flavor to any meat, and you’ll want some fat to penetrate the meat during the cooking process. Most BBQ experts would tell you to not obsess too much over cutting off too much or too little of the fat cap, as pork roasts are literally the most forgiving cut of meat you can smoke.
Once you’ve done that, bathe your roast. I like slathering it in yellow mustard. Some people prefer coating it in olive oil. The yellow mustard will seem like a lot, but the taste won’t be nearly as overwhelming as you think once the meat has cooked. It’ll simply add a nice little tang to it.
Then cover the roast liberally in rub. Sweet rubs are literally a dime a dozen. You can buy them already prepared at the grocery store, or you can mix your own. I prefer to mix my own because I found a recipe I liked, and because it is just more fun than shaking rub out of a store-bought bottle. There are lots of different recipes that you can google. Common ingredients include garlic, peppers, brown sugar, paprika, onion powder and other spices.
That entire process takes only 10 or 15 minutes. Then you might choose to pop the roast into the fridge to let the spices work for a couple of hours before sticking it in the smoker, but that step isn’t absolutely necessary if you’re in a hurry.
And then the real magic of pulled pork begins. Because you don’t have to babysit it.
Hurry up and wait
A good rule of thumb when you’re smoking a butt roast is to plan for two hours of cook time per pound of meat. If you’re cooking multiple roasts, the two-hours-per-pound time allotment applies to the largest single cut of meat, not the cumulative total of all the roasts. I don’t necessarily understand that either, but I’m a writer, not a physicist. Keep in mind that you aren’t cooking by time, but by temperature. An internal thermometer is absolutely necessary. A bluetooth thermometer is cheap and will prevent you from having to run outside every hour or so to check on your smoker. A wifi thermometer is a bit more expensive but an even better option if you aren’t going to be at home for the entirety of your smoke and you want peace of mind that all is going well.
The most common temperature for smoking pulled pork is 225°. Some cooks prefer to smoke it at 250° for the first several hours, just to help it reach the temperature safe zone a little more quickly. That means you want your roast to get from the refrigerated temperature of around 40° to 140° in four hours, to prevent the growth of foodborne bacteria. But a constant temperature of 225° will accomplish this goal just fine.
Other people prefer to wrap their roast in foil after the first four hours, which speeds up the cook time and also keeps the meat more moist. That’s just extra work in my book, and unwrapped roasts will be plenty moist enough.
One thing you might prefer to do is spritz your meat while it smokes. Most people who do this prefer an apple-based solution, usually a 1:1 mix of apple cider vinegar and apple juice. But you can use one or the other. Some people also prefer using bourbon for spritzing. If you choose to spritz, you’ll want to plan to do it once an hour for the first 4-5 hours. It does improve the flavor, but if you’re smoking your roast overnight, it’s not worth setting an alarm and waking up for.
Another thing you’ll probably want to do is change out your wood chips every 5-6 hours. Again, this isn’t worth setting an alarm clock and waking up for. If you need to wait an extra hour or two, it’s not going to ruin the taste of your meat.
And if you’re debating whether to soak your wood chips in water before loading them into your smoker, welcome to the longest-running debate in the BBQ world. The effectiveness of soaking wood chips, and how long you should soak them, is heavily argued. But one thing is for sure: Soaking your wood chips doesn’t hurt anything.
The dreaded ‘stall’
If you are new to smoking meat, you’ll watch the temperature of your butt roast climb steadily for the first few hours and convince yourself that you put the meat into the smoker way too early. Don’t fret. The temperature rise is fastest during the first few hours. It won’t continue.
Then you’re going to watch the temperature stop rising and convince yourself that the meat isn’t going to be finished in time. Again, don’t worry. If you appropriated two hours per pound of meat, you’ll be fine. What you’re watching is the infamous “stall.” This is where the heat’s energy is transferred to breaking down the collagens in the meat. Collagen is the fiber that holds the muscle together, and it begins to melt once the meat has reached a temperature of about 160°.
For all intent and purpose, the meat is done at 160°. You could take it out of the smoker and eat it at 160°. But you wouldn’t be eating a pulled pork sandwich. You’d be using a knife to slice the roast, much like you would a smoked pork loin. During this stall period, it might seem like nothing is happening because the temperature of the roast isn’t budging, but there’s a lot going on in there. The butt roast is literally becoming melt-in-your-mouth tender while you impatiently wait. You’ve reached the essential stage of preparing good pulled pork.
There is a way to hurry up the stall phase: wrap the roast in aluminum foil and return it to the smoker. This is sometimes referred to as a “Texas crutch” method of smoking a butt roast. There’s nothing wrong with this method, though some purists would again refer to it as cheating.
While you should plan for a couple of hours per pound of meat (at least 90 minutes per pound), it likely won’t take that long. There are a lot of different factors that go into determining how long it’ll take: the type of smoker you’re using, the temperature outside, the humidity, even wind speeds. That’s why you buy a thermometer and cook by temperature, not time.
The optimal temperature for pulled pork is 205°. But meats continue to cook, up to 10°, after being removed from heat. So your butt is ready to come out of the smoker once the thermometer reads 195°. It should then be wrapped in foil and allowed to rest for an hour or so before it’s pulled.
So what if it gets done way early? This is part of the magic of pulled pork, and another reason a pork roast is the most forgiving cut of meat you will ever smoke. You can hold a butt roast at a safe temperature for hours. Immediately wrap the butt in a double layer of aluminum foil after it comes out of the smoker and place it in a hard-sided cooler, placing enough bath towels beneath, around, and over the roast to completely fill the cooler and insulate the meat. It’ll then stay at a safe temperature for several hours. Remember, as long as the roast is above 145°, it’s safe. It’s only below 145° that bacteria growth begins and leads to a risk of foodborne illness.
That’s what makes pulled pork ridiculously easy. You literally spend a few minutes preparing the meat, then throw it into the smoker and forget about it for hours, or even until the next day. No one wants to be a slave over a grill when the ballgame is about to start, so once you start smoking pork butts you’ll be reticent to ever grill burgers again at a family function.
So incredibly cheap!
As for the ridiculously cheap part, you can often find pork shoulders on sale. Scenic Foods in Huntsville, for example, offers Boston butts fairly regularly for anywhere between $1.49 per pound and $1.99 per pound. This week, Bruce Posey and his staff at Scenic are offering a sale price of $1.79 per pound.
A bone-in pork shoulder loses about 40% of its weight when it’s being cooked and shredded, so a 10-pound pork shoulder will yield about 6 pounds of meat. And a standard rule of thumb is one-third to one-half pound of meat per person. That means a 10-pound butt roast will feed 12 to 18 people.
So you can feed up to 18 people for less than $18 at this week’s Scenic Foods sales price. That doesn’t include side dishes, of course, but standard sides for BBQ — like baked beans and slaw — are nearly as cheap and easy as the meat itself. It’s literally cheaper to feed your crowd pulled pork than it is to feed them hamburgers. And they’ll appreciate a good pulled pork sandwich way more than a hamburger, because burgers are such standard fare at a cookout or get-together. The added bonus — besides the fact that smoking pork on a crisp October day is so much fun that it can hardly be considered work — is the fact that you won’t have to stand over a grill while everyone else is watching the game.
But pulled pork doesn’t have to be reserved for sandwiches. Serve it with cornbread. Or as a topper for nachos, baked potatoes, or even mac and cheese. And the great thing about pulled pork is that it tastes almost as good reheated as it does when it first comes out of the smoker. So go big when you’re buying a roast. You won’t add much to your budget, and you can always refrigerate (or even freeze) what’s left over.
It’s way too easy and way too cheap. Once you’ve smoked a couple of pork roasts, you’ll wonder why you spent all those years grilling hamburgers.