Thursday, July 20, 2017

Recipe: Pulled Pork

Another recipe requested by a friend. Enjoy, Lenny.

Pulled pork is probably the easiest barbecue to make, especially for beginners. It is very forgiving of technique and can even be made in a crock pot, if you are desperate, though purists probably wouldn't consider that barbecue. (I usually resort to this in late January/early February, when the world outside is starting to dream of spring but it isn't quite warm enough to really run the smoker yet.) I strongly encourage you to smoke this, if at all possible, or even cook it on a regular grill, using two-zone heating. (That's a whole other post, for another day. If you really want to know, Google is your friend.) You can even roast it in the oven at a low temp, but if the crock pot is your only option, go for it. I've included crock instructions where they might vary from the smoker method, but most of it will be the same except for the actual cooking part. As for the oven, it's pretty much the same as the smoker only you are doing it inside.

First, you will need a pork butt, or pork shoulder as it is sometimes called. If you are cooking in a crock pot, I suggest a partial butt if you can find one. Even my largest crock would have trouble accommodating a full butt. Um, that just sounds wrong, but you get what I mean. Anyway ... if you can't find a partial butt, no worries. You can cut a full one into smaller pieces. I usually do that anyway, even when using the smoker, as it allows it to cook faster and gives me more bark (more on that later.)

This is a pork butt. Or pork shoulder. Call it what you like, it is delicious when cooked low and slow until it becomes fall-apart tender. My local butcher trimmed this up pretty well, so it is ready to go, but if your butt has excess fat on it (ahem) then you might want to get rid of some of it. CROCK TIP: This is especially important when cooking in a crock pot, as every bit of that fat stays in the pot. Trim it down to a 1/4-inch (about 6 mm) thick or less.

If you are working with a full butt, you may want to cut it in half. I usually do. It cooks faster and gives me more bark, that tasty, crunchy crust that forms around the meat when you smoke it. A half butt takes 10-12 hours to smoke, whereas a full butt will need 16 hours or more. I don't like to get up before dawn to start making dinner, so I cut it in half. CROCK TIP: Bark, alas, is not going to form in the crock pot, so that is not a factor for you, but size might be. You may need to cut your butt just to get it to fit inside the pot.

To cut a full butt, look for the bone, as knives and bones don't get along very well. Cut the butt in half just to the side of said bone. You should get two almost equal pieces which will cook at close to the same rate. CROCK TIP: You can freeze half your butt for another day or use the other half to make sausage. Your call.

After splitting your butt, you need to coat it with mustard. (Stop laughing, I'm being serious here!) The mustard helps the rub adhere to the meat and also helps develop that amazing crust. Traditionally, plain yellow mustard is used. I prefer Dijon mustard with a little of my homemade chili sauce mixed in, but any mustard will work. If you are not a fan of mustard, don't worry. The mustard flavor pretty much disappears during the cooking process. Even so, if you honestly cannot handle putting mustard on your meat, then you can substitute olive oil. I prefer the mustard as I find it easier to work with and think it makes a better crust; however, there are many cooks out there who would disagree with me.

Just use your hands and slather a thin coat all over the meat. Don't be afraid to get messy. If you really must, you can use a silicone brush to apply it, but it will take longer and your coverage won't be as even. CROCK TIP: Since you cannot form bark in a crock pot because it holds all the moisture inside the pot, you may skip the mustard if you like. It won't hurt to add it, but it won't hurt to leave it out either. Just skip ahead and sprinkle the rub directly on the meat, if you prefer.

Next comes the rub, the true secret to great pulled pork. Most pit masters have their own secret blend and I'm no exception. I won't share my specific recipe, but I'll give you a basic one to get started. Just mix all the ingredients together and sprinkle liberally on your butt. (Seriously, stop laughing.)

  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) coarse sugar. I use turbinado sugar. Brown sugar also works. Granulated only if that is all you can get.
  • 2 teaspoons (10 ml) coarse salt. I prefer kosher, but coarse sea salt also works. Table salt in a pinch. (haha -- pun!) IMPORTANT: If your butt has been injected with saline solution, omit any additional salt!
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) paprika. I prefer smoked, sweet paprika for this recipe, but any will work.
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) dried sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) ground cumin
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon (2-5 ml) pepper flakes. The more you use, the spicier it gets.
Don't be afraid to experiment with different spices in your rub. That's how you get your super-secret, signature recipe. Just remember to start with a sugar/salt base with a ratio of about 3 parts sugar to 1 part salt. Again, omit the salt if your meat has been injected with a saline solution.


Preheat your smoker to 225°F (107°C). This is your target temp, where you want to keep your smoker at, but as I said earlier, butts are very forgiving. If your setup strays a bit from this, don't fret. As long as you keep it between 200°-300°F (95°-150°C), you should be fine. Since there are a ton of different smokers and grills out there, I'm not even going to attempt to instruct you on temperature regulation here. Just follow the instructions that came with your smoker or grill and you should be good. NOTE: I use a pellet smoker myself. I find it easy to use and love how it regulates the temp for me. I've used charcoal, wood and propane smokers in the past as well, but greatly prefer my pellet smoker. I just fill the hopper, set the temp, toss in the meat when it's ready and forget about it until dinner. Can't get much easier than that.

As I mentioned earlier, a full butt can take 16 hours or longer to cook. Half butts like these generally take 10 hours, maybe 12, depending on the size. Use a good meat thermometer and start checking full butts at about the 12 hour mark, half butts at about 8 hours. Don't check too often though, as all your heat escapes every time you open the smoker. (NOTE: I recommend inserting a digital cooking thermometer into the butt when you place it in the smoker. This will allow you to monitor the internal temp without having to open up the smoker.) When the internal temp hits 195°F (90°C) stick it with a barbecue fork and twist gently. If the fork turns easily, it is ready. If not, keep cooking until the internal temp hits 203°F (95°C). Cooking beyond this temp will just dry out the meat, so it's time to take it out of the smoker. If the fork still won't twist at this point, you may just have a tough butt (Stop it!) and may have to slice it instead of pulling it. No worries, it will still taste good. 

Smoked pork butt, ready for pulling.

IMPORTANT: Do NOT put sauce on your butt while it is smoking! I mean it. You have to wait until after it is pulled. Sauce will ruin all that lovely bark.