Barbecue Pulled Pork

Pulled pork is quintessential barbecue fare. Regional distinctions dictating the use of different sauces and cooking methods exist, but in the southern US there are two things in common with nearly all barbecues: time and smoke.

Time is essential because barbecue is slow cooked to dissolve and soften the connective tissues and fats in the tougher cuts of meat traditionally used (like pork butt). Smoke from hardwood trees like hickory, mesquite, oak, apple, and maple are used to impart flavor to the meat.

Pulled Pork Barbecue

Pulled Pork Barbecue

About a week ago we looked at how to smoke in a charcoal grill. This is possible for cuts of meat, like ribs, that do not require many hours of cooking time. For a cut like pork butt, it’s best to use a smoker. The smoker will allow for a longer cooking time, better heat control, and  good smoke penetration.
For this smoking session, I bought a 7 pound pork butt, borrowed a smoker, made some North Carolina style vinegar-based sauces, and had a selection of Sticky Fingers sauces available.

There are a few different strategies when it comes to smoking a pork butt. I wanted to use the simplest method possible to let my friends compare the sauces so I just put the pork in the smoker and didn’t touch it for 14 hours. What did I get as a result of using the easiest, least intensive method of cooking? Fantastic pulled pork and a group of happy, well-fed friends.

Variations on the cooking method include brining, using a dry rub, and basting. I skipped all these optional steps to keep the preparation simple and the flavors consistent. A brine would have altered the texture, a dry-rub would have altered the flavor, and opening the smoker to baste the pork would have let the smoke out. The purpose was to compare the sauces, not to experiment with different preparation and cooking styles.

The most popular sauces were the eastern North Carolina ketchup and vinegar sauce, the Sticky Fingers Carolina Sweet and the Sticky Fingers Habanero Hot. If you haven’t tried the vinegar-based sauces before, it’s worth making a batch. I have included two NC styles of barbecue sauce after the pork recipe.

Basic Barbecue Pulled Pork
Makes about 10 servings
Special equipment needed for this recipe: a smoker.
Almost any hard wood can be used. Wood from fruit trees, like apple or cherry, is popular as it lends sweetness to the meat. Hard woods, like hickory or mesquite, will result in a strong wood flavor. I used all hickory.

Ingredients
1 6-8 pound pork butt (either bone-in or boneless is fine, mine was bone in)
This is also commonly called a Boston butt, shoulder blade roast, or pork shoulder.

Directions

  1. Rinse the pork and pat it dry. Remove most of the fat cap from the top –don’t worry, there will still be plenty of fat within the meat to keep it moist as it cooks. You don’t have to be very thorough removing the fat, much of it will render out of the meat.
  2. Load the smoker with wood chips, wood chunks, or natural lump charcoal as directed by the manufacture’s instructions. If your smoker has a water tray, fill this with water, beer, or soda to impart extra flavor to the meat. I used about 1/3 beer and 2/3 water.
    Barbecue Pork Butt

    Barbecue Pork Butt

  3. Put the meat in the smoker with the fat cap facing up. Adjust the heat so that the smoker stays in the 225-250F range (internal meat temperature should peak at 190F). Cook the meat at least 8 hours. I let mine cook for 14 hours. I’ve seen some people smoke their pork for almost 24 hours. The key here is to cook the meat until it is tender, not just until it is cooked through. The extended cooking time ensures that the connective tissue softens and dissolves.   

    Get some friends to do the work pulling the pork.

    Get some friends to do the work pulling the pork.

  4. Once you are satisfied with your cooking time, remove the meat from the smoker and let it rest on a plate tented with foil for 15-30 minutes. If it looks dark brown and crusty around the outside, you’ve done all well. That “outside brown”, as it’s called, is arguably the best part of the barbecue and should be well mixed in to allow everybody to get some.
  5. To pull the pork, use forks or tongs to separate the meat. For chopped pork, pull it loosely and chop with a large knife.
  6. Apply barbecue sauce and serve. Or leave the meat ‘dry’ and provide a selection of sauces to try.

 

 

 

Trays of Pulled Pork. They dissappeared quickly.

Trays of Pulled Pork. They dissappeared quickly.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce
This thin, liquid sauce made with vinegar and ketchup is representative of eastern North Carolina. This one was preferred of the two NC sauces.

Ingredients
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups water
1/3 cup ketchup
1/8 cup hot sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons salt

Directions

  1. Combine everything in a medium saucepan.
  2. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Western North Carolina Barbecue Sauce
This thin, liquid sauce made with primarily vinegar is representative of western North Carolina.

Ingredients
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Directions

  1. Combine everything in a small bowl.
  2. Mix well and allow ingredients to blend for about 4 to 8 hours.

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