The Magic Behind Pulled Pork—What is the Right Temperature?

Smoke the pork

If you love to order pulled pork in restaurants, but have never tried your hand at making your own, now is the best time to start. Fortunately for home chefs, this prospect is nowhere near as daunting as it may seem from the outside. On the contrary, a batch of slow-cooked pork is an excellent option for large gatherings, as the process is largely hands-off. It can also be taken care of well in advance, which leaves the chef plenty of time to mingle and receive compliments on the mouthwatering results of their work.

To begin, purchase a good supply of high-quality pork butt (it may also be labeled as “Boston butt”) from a butcher you trust. This well-marbled cut is the ideal choice for pulled pork. Despite the name, it doesn’t come from the rear end of the animal at all—it’s actually located on the upper shoulder, so bone-in cuts may contain the blade (or shoulder) bone.

Located just below the Boston butt is the picnic shoulder (also known as a “picnic ham”), which contains the shank (or “hock”) bone. This cut also makes delicious pulled pork, and it requires less butchering than the Boston butt, which means it’s also less expensive. On the downside, the meat contains more bone and sinew, thereby requiring a longer cooking time, but the end result will be meaty and flavorful nonetheless, and possibly heartier than what you’re used to if you frequent Southern barbecue institutions.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to use a simple pork loin roast. While these cuts make delicious dinner roasts, they’re too lean to give your pulled pork the juicy texture that serves as the hallmark of the dish. Your guests will be tempted to mask the dryness by drenching the meat with barbecue sauce, but that won’t be enough to mask the sawdust-like consistency.

Pro Tip: Resist the urge to trim all the fat when you’re preparing the pork butt for the smoker or slow cooker. In fact, it’s fine to skip the trimming step altogether—the fat will render during the long, slow cooking process, giving the finished product an unbelievably rich flavor. If there are any large pieces left after cooking, they’re easily found and discarded.

Making Pulled Pork: A Step-by-Step Guide

The key to success is finding the perfect pulled pork temperature—that is, rescuing the meat from the smoker once it’s achieved the correct degree of doneness. While the other steps are important, all your work will be for naught if you don’t get the pulled pork temperature right.

Pro Tip: Remember that it’s better to err on the side of overcooking when it comes to this dish. If the meat hasn’t achieved the proper temperature, it will lack the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness that you’re looking for.

For this easy pulled pork recipe, you’ll need either a smoker or a good quality charcoal grill. If you’re making pulled pork in a slow cooker, ignore the advice regarding wood chips and coal temperatures, and simply cook the pork until it reaches an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit. You can still baste it with apple juice as you go along, but there’s obviously no need to wrap the meat in foil to preserve the juices.

Step by step guide for making pulled pork

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons onion powder
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons celery salt
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • About 5 pounds pork butt (bone-in if you can find it)
  • 1 cup apple juice
  • 4 cups prepared hickory wood chips

Cooking Instructions

1. Measure all the spices into a medium-sized nonreactive bowl, and mix well.

2. Rub the spice mixture onto the entire surface of the pork butt, massaging it into all the crevices. Let the seasoned meat sit at room temperature for no longer than one hour while you prepare the grill or smoker.

3. If you’re using a smoker, heat it to 210 degrees Fahrenheit. Add about half the wood chips, and pour about half the apple juice into the water pan. Add the pork to the center of the smoker and close the grill to begin cooking.

If you’re using a charcoal grill, wait until the charcoal is coated with a fine film of light gray ash, then arrange the coals so that they’re heaped on one side of the grill. Make sure the pork fits on the area with no coals directly underneath, or the overall cooking time will be affected. Once the temperature inside the grill area has reached 200 degrees Fahrenheit, add 1/4 of the wood chips to the coals, close the grate, then add the pork to the “bare” side of the grill and close the lid.

4. Cook the pork until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (you can refer to a pulled pork temperature chart if you have trouble remembering this number). During this time, you can check the grill or smoker every hour or two to add more wood chips and apple juice as needed (you may also need to add more coals if you’re working with a grill). Grillers should use a spray bottle to “baste” the pork with apple juice during this time. Make sure the cooking temperature stays between 200 and 225 degrees.

5. After about 5 hours, the pork should reach 165-175 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read thermometer. At this time, wrap the meat in a double layer of aluminum foil to preserve the juices, then return it to the cooking surface.

6. Start checking the meat after another hour. You’ll know that it’s done when it’s achieved that classic “pull-apart” consistency, but the internal temperature should read at least 190 degrees at this time. If it doesn’t, continue to cook (without removing the foil) for up to one hour longer.

Pro Tip: If you’re using a slow cooker, you can leave the meat unattended for the entire 6-7 hour cooking period.

7. Let the pork rest for 1 hour.

8. Carefully unwrap the pork. Remove and discard the bone.

Pro Tip: Perform this step over a large, heatproof, nonreactive bowl. This will help to preserve the juices.

9. When the pork is cool enough to handle, shred it into bite-sized pieces using the tips of your fingers. If any large chunks of fat or gristle remain, pull them out and discard them.

10. Serve the pulled pork warm, with toasted buns and a few of the suggested side dishes listed below. If you like, you can offer your favorite barbecue sauce as an accompaniment, but the pork will have a succulent smoky flavor all its own.

Smoke the pork

Rounding Out the Meal: What to Serve With Pulled Pork

While this pulled pork recipe is bound to be a big hit, it wouldn’t be a proper meal without a few classic dishes to serve alongside. Here are some suggestions to help get you started.

Cole Slaw

This is standard accompaniment for pulled pork, often piled right onto the bun atop the meat. Play up the sweet notes in the pork by adding grated or chopped apple to your usual recipe. Try not to go too heavy on the mayonnaise—the pork is juicy enough, and you don’t want your buns to disintegrate.

Pro Tip: To add an Asian flair to the proceedings, use red cabbage and grated carrot mixed with sweet Thai chili sauce. This combination is also great on corn tortillas!

 

Corn Bread

Everyone has their favorite type of corn bread, whether they prefer the dark crackling crust of the southern regions or the soft, pillowy loaves that haunt New England kitchens. Fortunately, every kind goes well with this pulled pork recipe.

 

Pro Tip: Hush puppies or corn fritters make for a delightful change of pace, and will be extra popular with the youngsters.

 

Baked Beans

The smooth molasses taste of old-fashioned baked beans provides a mellow counterpoint to the smoky, spicy pork. If you’re pressed for time, the canned variety will work fine, but it’s also fairly easy to prepare the real thing. Just be sure to add an acidic ingredient (such as tomatoes or vinegar) to the bean pot during the slow-cooking process, as this will prevent the beans from becoming too mushy.

 

Lemonade

All you need to whip up a batch of fresh lemonade is sugar, water, ice, and—you guessed it—lots of lemons. For the best results, make a simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and water in a large saucepan, then heating the mixture to a boil and stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Once the mixture has cooled to room temperature, slowly combine it with the ice and fresh lemon juice until you’ve achieved the desired flavor.

 

White Sangria

White wine combined with red and green grapes, pears, and juicy plums makes for a refreshing adult option, especially when paired with this smoky pulled pork recipe.

Conclusion

Once you’ve learned how to gauge that all-important pulled pork temperature, you’ll want to whip up this delectable dish again and again. Fortunately, if you share the results with enough of your friends and family members, you’ll have ample opportunity to do so. Bon appetit!

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