The resting period is a necessary aspect of the cooking process when it comes to smoked meats. If you try to dig into a pork shoulder or Boston butt as soon as it comes off the grill, your results will suffer—and you’ll probably end up with burned fingers as well.
How long should you let pork shoulder rest before you transform it into delectable pulled pork? And should pork butt rest for the same amount of time? We’re here to answer these questions, along with a few others.
How Long To Let Pork Shoulder Rest Before Pulling
A resting time of 30 minutes is preferable when making pulled pork. You can let the meat rest for anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours, but you should target the 30-45 minute range for best results. Try not to wait too long, or the meat might get cold, especially if you’ve left it uncovered.
Why The Resting Period is Important
There are a couple of reasons why you shouldn’t neglect the resting period when making pulled pork.
First of all, the meat will continue to cook for a bit after you remove it from the heat. The extra 5-10 degrees might mean the difference between pork that won’t shred easily and pork that will break apart at the slightest touch.
Larger cuts of meat are more affected by this “carryover” cooking than steaks or pork chops. Since the average boneless pork butt weighs 5-8 pounds, the internal temperature should rise significantly as the meat rests. Be sure to pull the meat from the smoker when it’s 5 to 10 degrees lower than your target temperature, or it might overcook.
Second—and more importantly—resting the pork allows the juices to redistribute. When the meat is cooking, the protein fibers are firming up and expelling moisture. During the resting period, these same fibers will relax slightly, thereby reabsorbing some of the lost fluid.
What does this mean if you cut into the meat too early? The cooking juices will spill out onto the work surface instead of incorporating themselves into the pork. This means your finished product could turn out chalky and dry.
To Cover or Not To Cover?
Should you leave the pork uncovered as it rests, or tent it with foil? There are advocates for both methods. Here’s what you should know about each one.
If you choose to tent the meat with aluminum foil, it will conserve more heat, which contributes to carryover cooking. It may be a good idea to use this method if the pork is still well below your target temp when you take it off the smoker. Conversely, if the meat is already at 195-200 degrees, it might overcook if you cover it.
Leaving the meat uncovered means it will cool down much faster. If you wait too long before pulling and serving the pork, it might even grow cold. Fortunately, this isn’t often a problem with pulled pork, since the cuts are large enough to retain their heat for long periods of time.
We should also point out that covering the meat may affect the texture of the bark. If you’re worried about this, you would be better off resting the pork in a warmed oven instead of on the counter. Set the oven temperature to 150 degrees, or as low as it will go, and make sure to turn the heat off as soon as you put the pork inside.
Difference Between Pork Shoulder and Pork Butt
Pork shoulder and pork butt are your two best bets when pulled pork is on the menu. Though the cuts come from the same section of the hog, they aren’t identical. Once you understand the difference, you’ll be able to better appreciate the qualities that each cut has to offer.
A whole pork shoulder can be separated into two parts: the butt, sometimes called the Boston butt, and the picnic shoulder. The whole shoulder weighs in at around 14 to 18 pounds. While it’s a popular choice for commercial use, a home chef is more likely to come across the smaller cuts when shopping.
The pork butt comes from the top portion of the shoulder. It has plenty of marbling and a generous fat cap, both of which contribute to its rich flavor. A blade bone runs through a segment of the pork butt, but it’s often sold boneless as well.
Picnic shoulder refers to the lower half of the shoulder, down to the top part of the foreleg. Although it doesn’t have as much marbling as the Boston butt, it also becomes enticingly tender when it’s prepared using low-and-slow cooking applications. The cut may be sold boneless or bone-in.
Because pork butt is a thicker cut with more intramuscular fat, it’s the preferred choice for pulled pork. It’s fine to substitute pork shoulder, but this cut is better suited to recipes that call for slicing the meat rather than shredding it.
A Word About Target Temperature
Pork shoulder and pork butt are tender enough to shred when the internal temperature reaches 195 degrees Fahrenheit. At 200-205 degrees, the meat will have a softer texture that allows it to come apart more easily.
As we’ve established, the pork will continue to cook as it rests. We would suggest waiting until the internal temp registers 195 degrees on an instant-read thermometer before taking it off the heat. That way, it should be the perfect temperature by the time you’re ready to start pulling it.
Pork Shoulder Resting Period
You should always let pork shoulder rest for a minimum of 15 minutes before you attempt to pull it. However, if time permits, we would recommend a 30-45 minute resting period. This gives the meat time to reabsorb as much moisture as possible while still retaining plenty of heat.
How Long To Let Pork Butt Rest Before Pulling
Similar rules apply when you use Boston butt to make the pulled pork. Allow the meat to rest for at least 15 minutes, but preferably 30 to 45. Make sure to remove any large chunks of fat that didn’t have a chance to render out before you start shredding the meat.
How To Shred The Pork
When it comes to shredding tools, you have a few options.
If you make pulled pork on a regular basis, you should buy a pair of shredding claws. These invaluable tools will make quick work of large cuts of pork, and you won’t have to worry about burning your hands.
A pair of forks will do a similar job, but it might take a bit longer. Position the forks with the tines facing away from each other, and use them to force the meat apart.
If you’d prefer, you can pull the pork using your fingers. In this case, you should let the meat rest for 45 minutes to an hour to ensure that it’s cool enough to handle.
The electric mixer is another option, but it should be your last resort. It’s too easy to over-process the meat, leaving you with a pile of mush instead of tender shreds. Consider this method only if you’ve smoked several pork shoulders at once and need to prepare the meat in a hurry.
Resting the pork shoulder or butt is critical to success when making pulled pork. Since the succulent, juicy texture is one of the hallmarks of the dish, the last thing you want is for the meat to dry out. By waiting just 30 minutes, you should be able to avoid this fate.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!