By definition, pulled pork needs to be cooked until it’s tender enough to fall into neat shreds under slight pressure. What many people don’t realize, however, is that it’s possible to cook the meat for too long. In this guide, we’ll fill you in on what might happen if you overcook the meat for pulled pork.
Can You Overcook Pulled Pork?
In a word, yes. If pork shoulder or pork butt is allowed to cook past 210 degrees or so, the meat will begin to dry out. This will affect the quality of your pulled pork, even if you smother the meat in barbecue sauce before serving it.
Best Cuts for Pulled Pork
There are two cuts that should yield good results: the pork butt and the pork shoulder. Both of these options come from the foreleg region of the hog. The butt, also called the Boston butt, is located higher up, just behind the head. The shoulder, or picnic shoulder, is cut from the area between the butt and the hock.
A whole pork shoulder contains both of these cuts, and usually weighs between 14 to 18 pounds. That’s an impressive size, and one that won’t work for most home chefs. Supermarkets will generally sell the butt and the shoulder separately, either boneless or with the bone still in.
Pork butt has a barrel-shaped appearance with dark pink meat and a ton of the intramuscular fat called marbling. The abundance of fat gives the meat its rich, savory taste. However, it’s important to cook the meat slowly, or the fat won’t have a chance to render and the meat will turn out too tough.
The shoulder is another tough, fatty cut, but it doesn’t offer quite as much marbling as pork butt. It also has a lopsided triangular shape that could lead to uneven cooking.
For these reasons, pork butt is the preferred choice for pulled pork. It’s fine to substitute the shoulder in a pinch, but on the whole, the shoulder is better for dishes that call for sliced or chopped pork.
Will The Pork Get More Tender The Longer It Cooks?
Up to a point, yes. At around 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the fat begins to render, slowly basting the pork from the inside.
A bit later, at 160 degrees, the collagen in the meat begins to break down into gelatin. This helps to transform the tough meat of the shoulder into mouthwatering pulled pork.
As the internal temperature climbs above 210 degrees, however, the muscle fibers in the pork will begin to toughen up again. The meat will dry out and be difficult to chew, which is exactly what you don’t want.
Can You Overcook Pork Shoulder When Making Pulled Pork?
The ideal temperature for pulled pork is 205-210 degrees. At these temperatures, the meat will be soft enough to shred easily using forks, shredding claws, or even your fingers.
Remember that the meat will continue to cook for a while after you take it off the smoker. That’s why you should stop the cooking process when the instant-read thermometer reads 200-205 degrees. You can take it off the heat at 195 degrees, but at lower temperatures, the meat might come apart in larger chunks instead of shredding.
What will happen if you leave the pork on the smoker too long? Well, the meat may still be edible, but it won’t be nearly as tempting. If you’ve ever eaten overcooked pork before, you’ll understand what we mean. The texture is akin to sawdust—nothing like the melt-in-your-mouth goodness you’re trying to achieve.
Should You Cook Pulled Pork in Liquid?
If you’re using a grill or smoker to cook the pork butt or shoulder, the answer is no. You want to put that beautiful piece of meat directly on the cooking grate so it soaks in as much smoky goodness as possible.
During the later stages of the smoke, you can spritz the pork with a bit of apple juice or cider, beer, or stock. Should you opt to use the “Texas crutch” by wrapping the pork in foil, feel free to add the same liquid to the foil before you secure the wrapper.
Making pulled pork in the crock pot or oven is a different story. In these cases, you can add about 1/4 cup of liquid for every pound of pork. This step still isn’t necessary, as the pork will release plenty of moisture on its own, but it’s permissible if you’d prefer to experiment with different flavors.
Remember not to add barbecue sauce until the last 15-20 minutes of cooking. Otherwise, the sugar in the sauce might burn and make your pork taste acrid and bitter. In fact, we would recommend waiting until the pork is shredded before mixing it with a sauce.
Tips on Keeping Pulled Pork Moist
To help the cooked pork retain its moisture, remove it from the heat as soon as it hits your target temperature. Wrap the meat in a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil and set it aside to rest. After 30-45 minutes, remove the foil and begin to shred the pork.
Bear in mind that the foil will raise the temperature of the pork even higher than it would be if you’d left it unwrapped. You might want to skip this step if the internal temperature is already pushing 210 degrees.
Let’s say your pork has reached the ideal temperature, but you have more than 2 hours to go before serving time. In this case, you can enlist the “faux Cambro” technique by filling a cooler with hot water and letting it sit for 30 minutes. After dumping out the water, line the cooler with towels and use it to hold the pork for up to 4 hours.
Can You Salvage Overcooked Pulled Pork?
As we mentioned, you can attempt to revitalize the meat by adding your favorite barbecue sauce. The meat itself might still be dry, but the right sauce can mask the inferior texture. Plus, you’ll be pleasantly distracted by all the zingy flavors.
Adding a bit of chicken stock or water as you reheat the meat can also help to rehydrate it. If you have any leftover juices from the last time you roasted a pork butt or shoulder, try mixing that in with the meat instead.
Another option might be to mix the pork into a stew or chili. When the meat is surrounded by so many other tasty ingredients, it won’t matter if it was a little bit dry to begin with.
If you’ve never had barbecue pulled pork pizza, consider trying it the next time your pork is on the dry side. Put a thin layer of barbecue sauce on the crust instead of pizza sauce, and use some to coat the pork as well. Top with a blend of shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, then add the pork along with sliced onions and green peppers.
The Bottom Line
So, can you overcook pulled pork or not? Yes, but the good news is that it’s easy enough to avoid this pitfall. The meat needs to cook for such a long time, you should be able to tell when the temperature is nearing the sweet spot between 200-205 degrees.
Best of luck with your pulled pork!