I have a love hate relationship with pulled pork because when it’s done the authentic way it is a true barbecue sensory experience! The sweet, succulent and smokey strands of protein, with the right balance of seasonings, smoke and sauce are perfect when you’re in need of a classic barbecue soul food hit!
Where I find it hard to stomach is the bandwagon that has emerged in the last 5 years where pulled pork is available at almost all food outlets, including your trusty motorway services, and it is such a poor interpretation of this sensational food.
I’ve been fortunate to judge twice at the Jack Daniel’s World Barbecue Invitational Championships and tasted some of the best BBQ Pork there is, but it really irritates me when people label pork that’s been slow cooked in an oven as BBQ, just because it’s got a cheap generic BBQ seasoning on it and it’s dripping in sweet barbecue sauce!
Now we’ve established my position, *breathe, here is my fail safe beginners guide to cooking pulled pork, on your smoker (or barbecue) at home. I’m going to use a trusty off-the-shelf barbecue rub from the great people at Angus & Oink, and keep this really simple. Once you’ve mastered this cook on a few occasions I heartily encourage you to begin the tinkering you can do with the rubs, sauces and wood smoke combinations.
My 5 basics for cooking Pulled Pork are:
- Smoke only goes into meat when the outside edge is raw – no par-cooking requiring!
- Sauce is applied once the pork is cooked and pulled. High sugar sauces will caramelise and burn if used during the cooking process.
- A basic rub will have salt and sugar as the main components, with the trademark balance of herbs and spices to compliment the meat.
- Pork shoulder is a tough muscle that benefits from low, slow cooking in a moist environment. Cooked it too fast and it will go tough. Allow the time it needs to reach temperature certain intervals (details below) and you will have some of the most mouthwatering food of your life.
- Meat is a natural product. One piece of pork shoulder will cook slightly different to one that looks identical. Follow the principles below, treat each piece separately and you will create beautiful pulled pork every time!
*This recipe is for a 47cm Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker but it can be replicated on your other dedicated smokers, pellet grills,standard charcoal, charcoal ceramic or gas grills with a few alterations.
- 2.5kg pork shoulder (rind off)
- 100g Angus & Oink BBQ Rub
- 100ml apple juice
- 3-4 apple wood chunks
- Remove the pork from the fridge, place on a large tray and sprinkle with the barbecue rub. The rub should be enough to season all #the meat once it’s pulled so don’t be shy at making sure the pork is thoroughly coated, including any nooks where bones may have been removed.
*I used a boneless piece as it saves me calculating bone weight, etc. It may costs slightly more per kilo but I think it’s worth it.
Leave the pork to sit for about half an hour. The seasoning will initially be dry but after 15-20 minutes it will begin to look wet – this is known as the meat sweating. The seasonings will absorb some moisture from the surface of the pork and turn into a liquid, which can then begin to permeate the meat.
- While the seasonings infusing the pork turn your attention to setting up the smoker. For a long cook I prefer to use the minion method, which just means you light a portion of the fuel at the start of cooking, and this lit fuel will then catch the unlit fuel, extending the burn time beyond the regular burn time of the fuel.
It’s really important that you are using a good quality fuel. You don’t want your easy lighting fuel here as the acceleratents will flavour the food in a really unpleasant way. I use the Weber briquette but you could also use the Aussie Heat Beads.
- For the 47cm smoker I light half* a chimney of briquettes.
- Stand the lit chimney in a charcoal kettle, or on a dedicated stone flag while you place the unlit briqs in the fuel ring.
- Fill the fuel ring level with the bottom of the top row of holes.
- Next move some pieces of fuel from the centre towards the outer edge of the fuel reservoir to create a dimple.
- Pour the lit fuel into the dimple and even out using a set of tongs as necessary.
- For the 47cm smoker I light half* a chimney of briquettes.
- Build the remaining smoker and fill the water bowl with cold water.
Cold water will mean the smoker takes longer to come up to full cooking temperature. This will help extend the window of time you have to get smoke into the meat before it is cooked on the outside.
Hot water will allow the smoker to reach target cooking temperature sooner and slightly speed up the overall cooking time.
- Replace the cooking grates and add the pork shoulder. If you are cooking with the aid of an external temperature probe (I used the ETI ThermaQ) insert the probe into the core of the shoulder and run the cable out under the lid, or via a rubber grommet if fitted.
- Add the wood chunks via the front door directly to the fuel and secure the door.
- For the next half an hour to an hour periodically monitor the temperature displayed on the lid gauge. I generally cook around the 115 – 125c mark. The pork will cook at anything above 95c, it will just take longer. I don’t like accelerating the cook too much as the pork will retain its’ tenderness if it is given more time and less heat – anything below 130c is fine though.
To regulate the temperature you do have to play with the vents – Top Vents is the Exhaust and Bottom Vents are the Intake.
I refer to the top vent as the Master as closing this will reduce the overall air that can be drawn in, but if I close the top slightly I am inclined to partially close the lower ones as well.
With the Weber fuel I find closing all Top and Bottoms vents by a 1/3 is generally a happy place for the smoker but just have a tweak and allow 15-20 minutes to see what the difference is.
- Now it’s time to let the cooker take the strain. You’ve got the heat setup and the pork on. Monitor every hour or so but don’t keep lifting the lid to look as this will slow everything down. I really only check the temperature gauge and after about 4 hours I check level of the water bowl to make sure it isn’t getting low**.
- Monitor the core temperature of the pork and once it reaches the mid-70’s centigrade it’s time to quickly wrap it.
My preference is to transfer the shoulder to a foil tray and add some apple juice, then cover with foil.The tray has a strength that will help you remove the shoulder when it’s all falling to pieces at the end of cooking.
- Replace the pork to the smoker (leave the external temperature probe in the meat) and close the lid.
- Continue cooking the pork until the core temperature reaches 95c.
At this point remove the pork from the smoker, leave safely foiled and allow to rest somewhere warm for at least 1 hour.
- With the pork rested it’s time to grab yourself a couple of big forks and start pulling. With the pork pulled warm a little barbecue sauce in a pan and mix enough into the pulled pork to give it a light coating. Don’t swamp it or you won’t taste the deliciously seasoned pork underneath.
Delicious authentic smokey pulled pork may be considered difficult by some, but the biggest challenge is controlling the temperature for an extended period of time. The other biggest challenge is controlling your own urges to go peak while it’s cooking! Larger pieces will always cook better, and any extra can be shredded, chilled and frozen in resealable freezer bags for future meal times. Reheat to 75c in a foil covered small oven dish with a dash of apple juice mixed with some barbecue sauce.
Pulled Pork is one of the Holy Trinity of BBQ along with Brisket and Ribs. They are cheaper cuts of meat that require that low n slow cooking method, with the right level of seasoning and smoke. I guarantee when you cook it yourself you won’t be able to go back to eating someone else’s sub-par shredded pork they’re trying to pass off as BBQ Pulled Pork. You’ll also discover how it’s a really useful thing to make ahead for those bigger barbecue parties 😉
*My Fuel Ratios for the Weber Smoker
- Fill the fuel ring level with the bottom of the top row of holes before moving some from the centre out to the edge of the ring.
- Light the follow quantity of coals to go in the centre
- 37cm – 1/4 chimney
- 47cm – 1/2 chimney
- 57cm – 3/4 chimney
** My Tips for Topping up the Water Pan
- If the temperature gauge is rising and you notice the water level has dropped I am inclined to top up with lukewarm water. This will take some heat out of the cooker and focus the heat on bringing the water up to temperature instead of cooking the pork too fast.
- If the temperature gauge is holding good and you notice the water is getting low, I often top up with hot water. This minimises the effect of any temperature drops and maintains a steady cooking temperature in the cooker.TOP TIP – Using a watering can with a long spout is good for getting the water where you want it.