We’ve been there: You grilled a huge batch of pork chops for a party and wound up with a ton of leftovers. Can you use pork chops for pulled pork in an effort to use up what’s left? And if not, why?
Can You Use Pork Chops For Pulled Pork?
It’s not a good idea to use pork chops for pulled pork. The meat is too lean and tender to hold up to the long cooking process, and if it’s not cooked to at least 185 degrees, it won’t shred properly. Moreover, pork chops are too small to make this a viable option in the first place.
What Is Pulled Pork?
You make pulled pork by cooking a large cut of pork until it’s tender enough to fall apart under slight pressure. The meat is then shredded until it resembles a pile of straw, at which point you can doctor it up by mixing it with barbecue sauce.
The pork won’t be tender enough to shred until it reaches an internal temperature of 185 degrees or so. We prefer to cook it until it hits the 200 degree mark, because it’s softer and easier to pull apart at this point.
Not every cut of pork can hold up to this kind of treatment. The meat needs to contain enough connective tissue and fat to remain moist at higher temperatures. Otherwise, the pulled pork will be way too dry.
You can shred pork using your fingers, but this takes a long time, plus you’ll need a pair of heatproof gloves. A pair of forks makes quicker work of the task. For large batches of pork, it’s worth investing in a set of sturdy shredding claws.
Pork Chops: A Primer
Whether they’re prepared boneless or bone-in, pork chops are a classic and versatile option for the grill. In fact, they can also be excellent when pan-seared, baked, braised, or smoked.
The chops are cut from the loin section of the hog. They have a round or oval appearance and may be sliced very thin, or measure up to 2 inches thick. It’s common for bone-in chops to be thicker than their boneless counterparts.
Each chop usually has a thin ribbon of fat curving around the outer edge, which helps to provide flavor. However, there’s not a great deal of marbling, or intramuscular fat, in the loin section.
Can You Use Pork Chops For Pulled Pork?
It’s not a good idea to give pork chops the pulled pork treatment. There are several reasons for this, but the most critical one involves the fat content.
Because of their lean texture, pork chops are best served medium rare. That means cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 145 to 150 degrees. If you let them cook past 160 degrees, the meat will start to toughen up.
Since pulled pork needs to cook far longer than that in order to achieve the right texture, that puts pork chops at odds with the whole concept. It’s better to reserve pork chops for recipes that will put their good qualities to better use.
There’s another practical reason why pork chops aren’t a great choice when making pulled pork: You’d need to have a lot of them.
Most pork chops weigh 4 to 6 ounces before they’re cooked (though some bone-in chops may be bigger), and shrinkage will reduce the yield even more. A few leftover pork chops might get you enough meat for a sandwich or two, but that’s it.
Are Pork Chops and Pork Steaks The Same Thing?
If you see a cut labeled as “pork steak,” chances are that it didn’t come from the loin section. This term is generally reserved for cuts that are taken from the shoulder portion of the hog.
As we’ll discuss in the next section, pork shoulder has certain characteristics that differentiate it from the loin in important ways. The meat has more fat and therefore more flavor, but it can be tricky to prepare.
Pork steaks can be delicious when they’re done right. Sprinkling them with a little bit of salt and pepper and searing them quickly for a few minutes per side is usually the best way to go.
While you can give pork chops this same treatment, there will be a slight difference. The pork steaks will be more flavorful, for one thing, and the meat should have more chew to it. If it’s tenderness you’re after, pork chops are likely a better choice.
While we’re on the subject of tenderness, remember that the pork tenderloin shouldn’t be confused with regular pork chops either. The tenderloin bisects the loin, but its meat is much softer and easier to overcook.
Best Cuts For Pulled Pork
To make juicy, authentic pulled pork, you need to start with a tough and fatty cut. The meat needs to hold its own against a cooking process that lasts for several hours. That doesn’t happen with lean cuts like pork chops.
For pulled pork, cuts from the shoulder are your best bet. The pork shoulder is taken from the foreleg of the hog, and a whole one weighs 15 to 18 pounds. We would recommend buying one of the two subprimals to make your task easier.
The upper portion of the shoulder is called the “pork butt,” or “Boston butt.” This is the ideal cut for pulled pork—it has a generous fat cap, its barrel-like shape makes it easy to handle, and there’s a great deal of connective tissue and marbling throughout.
A pork butt weighs 5 to 10 pounds, depending on the size of the animal. Remember that you’ll probably have to do some trimming, plus the meat will shrink down on the smoker, so you’ll only wind up with roughly 2 to 5 pounds of pulled pork when you’re done.
When you see a cut labeled as “pork shoulder,” you’re looking at the lower section of the whole shoulder primal. “Picnic roast,” “picnic shoulder,” and “picnic ham” are other common terms.
This cut extends down the leg bone of the hog, toward the shin. As such, it has a more lopsided, triangular shape than the butt. There’s not as much marbling in the shoulder either, although there should still be a decent fat cap attached.
When these cuts cook for a long time over low heat—225 degrees is best—the connective tissue in the meat will convert to gelatin, basting the pork from the inside out. Similarly, the fat will render into a liquid state, which makes the meat even juicier.
The shoulder has one major advantage over the butt: It’s sometimes sold with the skin on. If you enjoy roasting the skin until it gets nice and crisp and serving it as a snack, a skin-on pork shoulder is worth seeking out.
In short, we prefer the pork butt when making pulled pork, but the shoulder will do if that’s all you can find. Remember that bone-in cuts will give the meat improved flavor and texture, but your total meat yield will be slightly lower.
The Bottom Line
Pork chops aren’t a good choice when pulled pork is on the menu. If you have a lot of them left over, try reheating them slowly and basting them with a little barbecue sauce. That way, you’ll get similar flavors without ruining their texture.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!