Skip the crockpot and get back to basics with this authentic slow smoked BBQ pulled pork recipe.
Pork butt is a most forgiving cut and it is almost impossible to ruin. Follow these steps including how long to smoke a pork butt at 225 degrees for a surefire crowd pleaser.
With smoke woven through shards of moist meat, potent bits of strongly seasoned crust mixed in, and a gentle splash of barbecue sauce, pulled pork is the most versatile and foolproof low and slow smoked food, perfect for feeding large crowds. It is always a huge hit. And it is cheap. Pulled pork is a great place for the beginner to start experimenting with BBQ smoke cooking.
It is best made from pork butt (aka Boston butt, butt, shoulder butt, shoulder roast, country roast, Boston roast, and the shoulder blade roast) typically weigh from 5 to 8 pounds. And you can do it well on a smoker or practically any grill with a lid. Despite what it sounds like, pork butt comes from the shoulder, has a shoulder blade bone in it, and is laced with flavorful fat and connective tissue. That's the story of the origin of Southern barbecue. A cheap cut of meat that the slave owners didn't want, that, as the slaves discovered, when cooked low and slow, when the fat and collagens melt, the muscle fibers are made tender, moist, and succulent. Like buttah. Please don't ruin a lean, tender, pork loin by trying to make pulled pork. Loin meat has little of the fat and connective tissue necessary to make great pulled pork. If you have a loin, use this approach. No ifs ands or butts, butts makes the best sandwich meat on the hog.
If you're wonder how long it takes to cook a pork butt at 225 degrees, a good rule of thumb for this Southern barbecue favorite is 1 hour 15 minutes per pound. It's a lazy, slow, easy, and fragrant process. You set up a lawn chair, sip a cup of coffee as you put the meat on in the morning, as the sun gets high, you switch to cool refreshing beer, mid-day a mint julep refreshes the palate, and as it approaches doneness, with the sun waning, you switch to straight Bourbon.
Slow Cooker Free BBQ Pulled Pork Recipe
This pulled pork is the most versatile and foolproof low and slow smoked food, perfect for feeding large crowds.
Makes. About 8 heaping sandwiches. Leftovers freeze nicely.
Preparation time. It takes about 25 minutes to trim and rub the meat. 12 to 24 hours to let the salt penetrate.
Cooking time. About 8 to 10 hours depending on a number of variables. See "Cooking time" below.
Special tools. Claws for pulling are really helpful.
1 pork butt, about 5 pounds
1/3 cup Meathead's Memphis Dust
1/2 teaspoon Morton's kosher salt per pound of meat
10 kaiser rolls or hamburger buns
1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce
About the pork. Good old grocery store commodity pork is fine, but if you can, Look for Berkshire pork. Berkshire hogs are a breed that became scarce when the pork promoters moved to leaner pork to promote it as "the other white meat". Berkshires tend to have darker, fattier, and more flavorful meat. The best pulled pork I ever had was a Berkshire served at a catered event, without sauce, by Barry Sorkin of Smoque BBQ in Chicago. It looked like turkey dark meat and was incredibly tender and flavorful. It is not on their menu yet because it is expensive, but one can hope. There is significant shrinkage and waste in the form of bone and globs of fat you discard when pulling. Count on about 30% loss, and if there is less, then you'll have leftovers. How much per person? That depends on the gender, age, time of day, what else is being served, and amount of alcohol present. If you are serving chicken, hot dogs, brats, and burgers as well as pulled pork, you will need less. I usually plan on buying 1 pound per person before shrinkage, trimming, etc., and look forward to leftovers. I freeze leftovers in two person portions in zipper bags and they have rescued many a Tuesday night when we don't feel like cooking from scratch. Click here for an article on how much to cook for a party. Click here for an article about how to adjust cooking time if you are cooking more than one, if at all, if you are cooking several butts at once.
About the wood. Start with about 4 ounces and measure how much you use so next time you can add or subtract a measured amount until it is exactly the way you like it. Go easy on the wood the first time. Too much smoke is far worse than too little. Read my article on the Science of Wood, please.
1) Trim most of the of fat from the exterior of the meat but not all of it. Leave no more than 1/8". Some folks like to leave it all on hoping it will melt and baste the meat, but it cannot penetrate the meat! I want the seasonings on the meat, not on the fat, and I want the meat to get a crunchy flavorful, seasoned bark, not soft fat. Most of the butts I cook are 4 to 6 pounds, pretty well trimmed, and tied with butcher's twine to keep them from falling apart. If yours is not already tied, hogtie it with kite string. Don't worry if it isn't fancy, you're going to throw it out, just rope it so it doesn't fall apart.
2) Dry brine. If you have the time salt it 12 to 24 hours in advance. Called dry brining, this gives the salt a chance to start penetrating. If you dry brine you must usa a rub with no salt in it like Meathead's Memphis Dust. The spices will not penetrate, but the salt will. Just before cooking, wet the surface with water and sprinkle on the Meathead's Memphis Dust. The water helps the rub dissolve and adhere. Water dissolves the rub better than oil. Some folks like to slather it with yellow mustard. I don't think it makes much difference which you use, water or mustard. In fact, bottled mustard is mostly water. If you want mustard flavor, use mustard powder. I've done them side by side and there are so many other flavors going on the mustard gets lost. Marinating will not penetrate a big hunk very far, so don't bother. Read my article on marinating.
3) Fire up. Insert a digital probe like the Maverick ET-733 and position the tip right in the center. Make sure it is not within 1/2" of the bone. Start in the morning and fire up a smoker to about 225°F or set up a grill for 2-zone or indirect smoke cooking (cooker setups are described in the technique section of this site). Put the meat on, right on the grate, not in a pan, add about 4 ounces of wood chips, pellets, or chunks to the fir, and go drink a coffee. Go make your sauce, slaw, and beans. Go watch the game. Then cut the lawn. Wash the windows. Smoke a cigar. Unfold the lawn chair and read a book. You've got plenty of time. Just check your cooker every hour or so to make sure the fuel is sufficient and you are holding at 225 to 250°F. If it goes up to 300°F, don't worry. Butt is forgiving. But try to keep it down under 250°F. Add additional doses of wood, about 4 ounces at a time, every 30 minutes for the first two hours. The exact amount will be determined by your preferences and your cooker.
4) The stall. If you are cooking at 225°F to 250°F when the meat hits about 150°F internal temp it will probably stall. The internal temp won't go up for hours. That's because the moisture evaporating from the surface is cooling the meat at the same rate as the hot air is warming it and it stalls. You can just ride it out or you can bust through by cranking the heat to about 300°F or by wrapping the meat tightly in foil. This is called the Texas Crutch. To learn more about the stall click here. But the beauty of the stall is that it forms the bark, the dry, jerky like crust.
5) Finishing. When it hits about 170°F, collagens, which are part of the connective tissues, begin to melt and turn to gelatin. That's magic baby. The meat gets much more tender when this happens. And juicy. When it hits 195°F, it may be ready, and it may not be ready. Usually I shoot for 203°F, but it's time to check. The exterior should be dark brown. Some rubs and cookers will make the meat look black like a meteorite, but it is not burnt and it doesn't taste burnt. There may be glistening bits of melted fat. On a gas cooker it may look shiny pink. If there is a bone, use a glove or paper towel to protect your fingers and wiggle the bone. If it turns easily and comes out of the meat, the collagens have melted and you are done. If there is no bone, use the "stick a fork in it method". Insert a fork and try to rotate it 90 degrees. If it turns with only a little torque, you're done. If it's not done, close the lid and go drink a mint julep for 30 minutes. If the internal temp hits 195°F but the meat is still not tender, push on up to 203°F. At this number the meat seems to soften significantly. If it is still not soft, you've just got a tough butt. Wrap tough butts in aluminum foil and let them go for another hour. If you can't control the temp on your cooker, wrap the meat in heavy duty foil and move it indoors into a 225°F oven. Do not add sauce while it is on the cooker. That comes after you pull it.
6) Taste. When it is finally ready, go ahead, take a taste. You should notice a thick flavorful crust, and right below it is the telltale "smoke ring", the bright pink color caused by smoke mixing with combustion gases and moisture. If you are more than an hour from mealtime, you can leave the meat on the cooker with the heat off or put it in the indoor oven and hold it there by dialing the temp down to about 170°F. If you are more than 2 hours from mealtime, wrap it in foil to keep it from drying out and hold it at 170°F. If you are taking the meat to a party, use a faux cambro, which is nothing more than a tight plastic beer cooler in which you can hold the meat. Leave the probe in the meat, wrap the hunk tightly in foil, wrap the foil with more towels, and put it the whole thing in the cooler. Fill up the cooler with more towels, blankets, or newspaper to keep the meat insulated. Hang the thermometer cord over the lid of the cooler, and close it tightly. Plug the cord into the readout and make sure it never drops below 145°F. Just know that this technique will soften the bark and change the texture of the meat very slightly.
7) Pull it. About 30 minutes before sitting down for dinner, put the meat into a large pan to catch drippings. If your butt came bone-in, the blade should slide right out if it was cooked properly.
Here's the blade bone removed from the butt after cooking. You can see the shank part at the top protruding from the butt on the left below. This is the arm bone that connects to the picnic ham at the elbow. If the meat is properly cooked this bone should pull out easily with two fingers and have almost no meat stuck to it.
Pull the clod apart with Claws, gloved hands, or forks. Discard big chunks of fat. If you wish you can slice it or chop it like they do in North Carolina, but I think you lose less moisture by pulling it apart by hand since the meat separates into bundles of muscle fibers, hence the name pulled pork. Try not to eat all the flavorful crusty bits when you are doing the pulling, and distribute them evenly throughout. Make sure you save any flavorful drippings and pour them over the meat.
Video: Making Perfect Pulled Pork
Here's a short video of the process:
This is flesh, not widgets, and one hog is different than another, your cooker has its own peculiarities that can significantly impact cooking time, and even weather and humidity come into play. The determining factor in cooking time for all meats is the thickness of the meat, so smaller butts will cook faster if they are skinnier. After you do one or two you will learn how your cooker handles this cut. Read my article on what determines cooking time. Allow plenty of time and have handy a beer cooler to use as as a faux Cambro to hold the meat if it finishes early. The meat is at its maximum tenderness and juiciness when it hits 195 to 203°F (203°F is my target, but actual time and temp varies on the individual animal). If it is not ready on time, don't panic. You can crank up the heat if you are running behind. Butt can handle it. Butts are very forgiving so temp control is not crucial. The bark might get a bit dry, there might be a little more shrinkage than usual, it might be slightly more chewy, but it will still be delicious. If you kick the temp up to about 275°F, you can cut cooking time by 2 to 4 hours. Again, your time may vary depending on a number of variables such as humidity in the cooker. Don't forget to allow 30 minutes to pull the meat if you do it with your fingers (ouch!), 15 minutes with Claws. If it is time to serve and it is still not at the ideal temp, just slice the meat. Don't pull it because it won't shred easily. Slices of smoked pork butt are wonderful.
You absolutely positively cannot rely on bi-metal dial thermometers. If you are not monitoring your cooker with a good digital oven thermometer, and if you are not monitoring the meat with a good digital leave-in thermometer you are setting yourself up for disappointment. All the pros use digital thermometers and this is far more important than injecting or foiling. Click here to read my buyer's guide to thermometers.
Cooking more than one large hunk o' meat
I frequently get asked how to handle cooking two shoulders (or more) or a shoulder and a brisket, or a shoulder, brisket, ribs, and a muskrat. The answer is here, in my article on Cooking More Than One Large Hunk O' Meat. For big parties across town I will smoke 3 or more butts, pull them, and then put them in a big pan. I add about 1/2 cup of water per 5 pounds, and about 1 tablespoon of butter per pound. I carry it to the party in a cold cooler. When I get to the party I heat it in a slow cooker. Occasionally I will add the sauce before I leave to make sure it is moist and easy to serve. Just don't use so much sauce that you can't taste the meat and the smoke.
For more crust or if you are in a hurry
Purists will fall out of their lawn chairs when they read this, but a good shortcut is to and cut your butt into two hunks. This will give you more surface area with more crunchy, tasty bark, more smoke penetration, and significantly speed up the cooking. The tradeoff is that the meat will lose a little more moisture. It can take it. Here's how:
Let's say your butt is about 10" long, and 6" diameter. If you feel around you will find the blade bone embedded in there. You may even see it sticking out. It is usually pretty much on one end, the slightly fatter end. You can cut it across the width, just below the bone. You will end up with one part slightly larger than the other. On an 8 pounder, one half will be about 5 pounds, and the other about 3 pounds. Put the large piece on the smoker first, and then the small piece about two hours later.
Here's another trick. After 2 hours of smoking at about 225°F with lots of smoke, put the meat on a roasting rack in a roasting pan, pour a cup of water or apple juice into the pan, cover the meat with foil, and fasten the foil tightly to the edges of the pan so the meat is in a nice enclosed environment. Don't let the foil touch the meat if you use a steel pan. Roast in the indoor oven at 350°F for another 2 to 3 hours or until the temp hits 203°F.
"Mrs. Meathead: Where are you going? Meathead: To watch the smoker. Mrs. Meathead: Mind if I come along?"
Serving pulled pork
There are so many wonderful ways to serve pulled pork. It is marvelous just piled warm and steaming on a plate with no sauce. So many people make the mistake of dumping a bottle of sauce over the meat. Please don't. The taste unadorned and unadulterated, hot from the smoker, is unmatched in the culinary world. It is the quintessence of porkdom. Serve it nekkid. Urge people to taste it nekkid. Then, if they wish, a splash sauce on the top is all.
- The classic pulled pork sammich. Mound it high on a nice bun. Top it with a small amount of your favorite sauce. Kansas City Classic sweet red sauce is always popular, but this is where the Carolina vinegar and pepper sauces really shine. They soak in nicely and, if you go easy, really compliment the flavor. Try my Lexington Dip or my East Carolina Kiss & Vinegar. I also love the mustard sauces like my South Carolina Mustard Sauce but my favorite is my herbaceous Grownup Mustard Sauce. I like my pulled pork with chopped raw onion mixed in. My wife likes her onion grilled and on top. Sometimes we chop up raw apple and mix it in, too. Sometimes I slice the roast rather than pull it and douse it with a classic Texas sauce, which is thin and more like a gravy. It lets the meat flavor come through without masking it. I know folks who like to garnish it with sliced tomato, pickle chips, and a raw onion slice.
- Mound it on a bun with slaw, South Carolina style. In many places in the South folks often crown a pulled pork sandwich with slaw (use my Creamy Deli Slaw). Barbecue champ and instructor Jack Waiboer of Charleston tops his slaw with dill pickle chips and thin sliced Vidalia onions, and calls it the "Carolina Crusher."
- With melted cheese. Mark Stevens in NJ says he takes "A nice bit of pulled pork, a thin slice of onion, a slice of pepper jack cheese, a good glug of Hoboken Eddies Mean Green Roasted Pepper Sauce" and puts it all on buttered white bread. He then places the sandwich in a pie iron, butter side out, and cooks it over a fire until golden brown and the cheese is melted.
- Pulled Pork Reuben. Serve it on thick bread with sauerkraut, thousand island dressing, and melted Swiss cheese.
- Carnitas. Bill Martin, a friend in Texas, likes to cut smoked butt into 1/2" pieces and fry them in a pan with some of the fat that dripped off. When crisp they make wonderful carnitas tacos, he says.
- Rollups. Roll it in a tortilla with chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, jalapeño pepper, shredded cheese.
Cook today, serve tomorrow, and serving leftover pulled pork
I often get asked what's the best way to cook pulled pork on Saturday and serve it on Sunday. My answer is "don't do it". That's called serving leftovers. Fresh meat is best. But it can be done.
These meats are best fresh off the smoker. If you have to serve it at noon on Sunday, the best method is to get up in the middle of the night and start cooking in the wee hours. If you need to take it to a game, then wrap the hot meat in foil and blankets and put it in a beer cooler and you can keep it warm that way for about two hours (read my article on faux Cambros).
If you cook it Saturday to serve Sunday, click here for tips on how to pull it off.
Pulled pork the following day is best reheated in the microwave a small amount at a time. But it will be a bit drier and tougher than the first day, so bring back some life with a splash of water, apple juice, or barbecue sauce. The best method is in the microwave, second best is to heat it slowly in a pot with the lid on.
If you have leftovers that you will not scarf down in a few days, mix the leftovers with a bit of barbecue sauce, and freeze them in measured portions in zipper bags. The sauce prevents freezer burn. Pop one in the microwave and you've got a great emergency meal for two.
Here are some other things to do with leftovers.
- Tacos or enchilladas. Buzz in Wisconsin sez: "leftovers are made into tacos and enchiladas". I have been known to make tacos with slaw and bits of corn chips.
- Taquitos. Mark Thomas Corn uses "Tortillas, red onion, cilantro. Thin pieces of leftover pork make great taquitos. All those ingredients compliment each other perfectly."
- Nachos. Try adding pulled pork to nachos.
- Carnitas. Melt some bacon fat or pork fat or fat from the drippings when you smoked the butt in a large pot or pan, add some onions, garlic, bayleaf, oregano, and cook them over low heat for a few minures. Take the pulled pork and add it and turn up the heat and fry until crisp. Serve on tortillas or straight from the pot.
- With scrambled eggs. Duane Daugherty says "I make a pineapple-habanero hot sauce, and I love to use it with leftover pulled pork, mixed with scrambled eggs and my sauce, in a flour tortilla for breakfast."
- Egg muffins. Trace D Hillman says "I made egg muffins. Beat eggs, a little milk, salt cheese, leftover pulled pork, bake in muffin tins for 20 minutes at 400°F."
- BBQ Eggs Benedict. Dan Allatt makes "BBQ eggs Benny! Some English muffins, pulled pork, poached eggs and hollandaise with a little BBQ sauce, cumin, mustard powder, and ancho chile powder."
- Poppers. I love to make a killer app with pulled pork: jalapeño poppers. Split jalapeño peppers in half, scoop out the seeds and hot ribs with a spoon, and chop off the stems. Mix 1 part leftover pork with sauce and 2 parts fresh chevre or another cream cheese, and fill the peppers. Grill over a medium-low heat until the cheese is soft, and the peppers begin to char.
- Hash. In South Carolina, leftover pulled pork is often used in making "hash". The recipe varies from place to place, but it is typically a stew of pulled pork, pork liver, onion, and mustard sauce, served over white rice. Sounds plebeian, but I think it's ambrosia.
- Dirty rice. Another nice dish is pulled pork in Louisiana Dirty Rice. Classic Dirty Rice is white rice mixed with cooked chicken livers and giblets and the "holy trinity", which is sautéd green pepper, onion, and celery. But you can substitute or add pulled pork and amp it up.
- Load a baked potato. Here's something fun: Plop some on top of a baked potato.
- Bistro salad. Kelly Abbott in San Diego stir fries it a bit til it is crunchy and makes a "bistro salad" with a poached egg.
- Brunswick stew. Joe Wells in Arkansas says he puts the leftovers in "Brunswick stew, baked beans, mixed with scrambled eggs, hash, the list goes on and on."
- BBQ spaghetti. Sandra Aylor of Memphis sez: "With the leftovers, I like BBQ spaghetti or BBQ pizza". BBQ spaghetti is big in Memphis.
- Pizza. Put it on a pizza with fresh chevre.
- Raviolis. Delaney Boling says "I've done raviolis before that turned out pretty great. Make a simple pasta dough and then prepare each ravioli with about 1 teaspoon of pulled pork mixed with a bit of mozzarella and some fresh chopped chives. Drop them into simmering water for about 7 minutes (or until the pasta is al dente). Meanwhile, whisk 2 parts BBQ sauce with 1 part cream and one part butter over low heat until fully incorporated (I call this bit of deliciousness beurre 'que and then spoon over the raviolis when plating. For some extra goodness, finely chop some of the pulled pork to incorporate into the sauce. Salud!"
- Hash. Gerry Curry of Nova Scotia sez: "For leftovers I love it hashed for breakfast." Bill Martin likes to make a variation on hash by frying chopped pulled pork, chopped onion, minced chili peppers, and Tater Tots. He then tops this with poached or sunny side up eggs.
- Sausages. Marshall Rothman says "Chop some red onions finely and mix with pulled pork and mix in bowl with some of your favorite bbq sauce add chopped hamburger dill pickles. Get some sausage casing ready and fill with the mixture and tie off links. A quick run on the grill and you have BBQ to throw on the grill for a quick fix anytime. Go Gators!" Amen to the sausages and to the Go Gators!
- Mac & Cheese pie. A reader named Jeanne makes a pie with a layer of collards, mac and cheese, and then the pulled pork between the crusts. Click here to see her recipe on her blog.
- Sliders. Scottlaw says "We use small dinner rolls, add pulled pork, 1 slice of ham, Jarlsberg cheese, a pickle, and some homemade garlic aoli sauce (1 cup mayo, 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, 5 roasted garlic minced). Delicious."
- Grilled cheese sandwiches. Donald Warner puts it on "Grilled cheese with sourdough or rye, cheddar and jack, pulled pork, sliced pickles and chopped hots."
- Potstickers. Craig Shields makes potstickers with his leftovers.
- Crab rangoons. Robb Barrett says "Pulled Pork works great in crab rangoons. Also as Pulled Pork Benedict. With cheese and crackers. In baba ganoush. There's no place where pulled pork DOESN'T work well."
- Egg rolls. Jason Evers makes egg rolls with the leftovers. He mixes the pulled pork with coleslaw, wraps it up and fries them. Then he dips them in either peanut sauce or salsa verde. When you think of it, in the Carolinas pulled pork is usually topped with slaw, and egg rolls are usually pork with cabbage. Add the salsa and you have a real fusion of cuisines!
How do you like your pulled pork? Tell us below.