Pulled pork is ridiculously simple to make, but it looks and tastes like you've been cooking all day. In a sense, you have. You'll need about 30 minutes of prep time, but you'll cook the shoulder for 4 to 5 hours or more. Happily, it's not very labor-intensive. All you do is add charcoal and wood chips every hour or as needed. Beer is optional, but it certainly helps pass the time.
Here is the perfect pulled pork recipe and 6 July 4th tips for the best pulled pork sandwiches:
Anatomy lesson: A whole pork shoulder tips the scale at 12 to 16 pounds. It's comprised of two parts: the Boston butt (the upper portion) and the picnic shoulder (the lower leg portion -- sometimes called a shoulder ham). You want former, which offers a higher ratio of meat to bone.
Skin in the game: One of the distinguishing features of a truly superior pulled pork sandwich is the presence of crisp bits of pork skins. Buy shoulders that have some skin intact, if you can find them. Markets that cater to a Hispanic clientele often carry them.
Don't knock wood: Traditional Carolina pulled pork is roasted over hickory embers. (At landmark restaurants like Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina, and Allen & Son BBQ in Pittsboro, they burn logs to embers in a firebox, then shovel the glowing coals under the meat.) At home, you can achieve a similar effect by indirect grilling -- with soaked drained wood chips tossed on the coals to generate wood smoke.
Overcook, please: Current food fashion calls for serving pork medium or even medium-rare, and this is fine for lean tender cuts, like loin and tenderloin. Proper pulled pork must be cooked well done, that is, to about 195 degrees F. Only at this internal temperature is the shoulder tender enough to be pulled (torn) or chopped into the meaty shreds so prized in the Carolinas. Be sure to pull it while it's still nearly too hot to handle.
Pulled, chopped, or sliced: Depending where you go in the Carolinas or elsewhere in the South, the pork will be "pulled" (torn into meaty shreds), chopped (with a cleaver), or thinly sliced (which is often how they serve it in Memphis). When pulling pork, invest in some insulated food gloves. For chopping, use a cleaver.
Sauce like you mean it: Unlike Texas brisket, pork shoulder requires sauce to achieve perfection. But which sauce depends on where you're sampling it and your personal taste. In the eastern part of North Carolina, they douse the pork with chili flake-stung vinegar sauce (which also contains salt, black pepper, hot sauce, and just a little sugar). In western North Carolina, the vinegar sauce is often enriched with a little ketchup. In South Carolina, mustard sauce (roughly equal parts mustard, brown sugar, and vinegar) is de rigueur. In northern Alabama, there's the tangy white sauce, created and made famous by Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q, in Decatur. (Big Bob Gibson's pulled pork sandwich is pictured, above.) In my book BBQ USA, you'll find an offbeat pulled pork served with espresso barbecue sauce.
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