When you cook pork butt for a long time at a low temperature, you’re rewarded with juicy, succulent pork that literally pulls apart when you touch it. But what are the best ways to shred pork?
As is the case with most cooking applications, some methods work better than others, and you’ll want to avoid the wrong ones if you can. Once you’ve learned how to shred pork correctly, you’ll be able to make splendid use of the results.
About Pulled Pork
Despite its intimidating reputation, pulled pork is actually quite an easy dish to make. The key is to start with the right cut of meat, then cook it at the right temperature. If you fail at either of these steps, the meat isn’t going to shred properly.
The best cut for making pulled pork is the upper portion of the pork shoulder. This cut is usually labeled as pork butt or Boston butt, despite the fact that it comes from the front half of the animal.
You can also use the lower half of the shoulder, known as the picnic ham or picnic shoulder. The picnic ham comes from the shank (or hock) segment, so it contains more bone than the upper section. It also has a meatier texture.
It’s possible to purchase an entire pork shoulder, but as these are serious hunks of meat that typically weigh between 12 and 16 pounds, we would recommend sticking with the pork butt. The meat will shred more easily, and it’s a better value overall. The rectangular shape also makes it easier to handle.
When selecting pork butt for the smoker, make sure the meat has a generous amount of fat. While you might be tempted to look for a leaner cut, pulled pork turns out better when you use a fattier cut. Don’t worry—all that fat will render out, helping to keep the meat moist during the long cooking process.
How To Make Pulled Pork
Once you’ve chosen the cut of meat, it’s time to get the pork butt ready for the smoker.
1. Trim the pork
First, check for any dangling bits of skin or fat, and use a small sharp paring knife to remove them. While you want to leave as much fat on the meat as possible, you should also trim any fatty segments that are more than 1/2 inch thick. When the fat layer is uniformly thick all the way around, the meat will cook more evenly.
2. Rub it in
Once you’ve trimmed the meat, give it a good rinse under cool running water, then pat the surface dry with paper towels. Set it on a platter large enough to hold the entire piece of meat.
Your next step is to add a seasoning rub, if desired. It’s fine to smoke the meat as is, but I prefer to use a blend of smoked paprika, brown sugar, garlic powder, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Adding a spice rub will amp up the smoke flavor and lend new complexity to the finished pork.
Make sure you have enough rub to coat the entire surface of the pork. Apply the mixture liberally, massaging it so that the spices have a chance to adhere. Don’t worry if any bits of seasoning fall onto the plate—if it doesn’t stick to the surface while it’s on the plate, it’s not likely to do so in the smoker.
If time permits, wrap the pork in a single layer of plastic wrap. Set it in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours, or overnight. Should you choose to take this step, remember to allow for enough time for the pork butt to come to room temperature before adding it to the smoker. Otherwise, you can start the smoking process right away.
3. Light it up
We would recommend using a pellet smoker for this stage of the process. The digital control panel makes it easier to maintain the proper temperature as the pork cooks. If you have a gas or charcoal grill, use indirect heat to cook the pork for the designated time period.
To make smoked pulled pork on a pellet grill, fill the hopper with your choice of wood pellets. For pulled pork, I prefer to use a blend of 70 percent apple to 30 percent hickory, but this might be a bit too strong for some palates. Feel free to adjust the blend as you see fit.
Set the temperature to 200-225 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoker should reach this temperature within 10 minutes.
4. Get cooking
When the smoker is ready, set the prepared pork butt on the cooking grate. If the grill is equipped with an internal meat temperature probe, now is the time to insert it into the thickest segment of the pork. Don’t allow the probe to touch the fat cap (or the bone, if you’ve chosen a bone-in cut), as this will give you an unreliable readout.
Close the lid and allow the pork to smoke for 90 minutes per pound if the meat is boneless, or two hours per pound if it’s bone-in. A boneless pork butt that weighs between 6-8 pounds should be done within a 9-12 hour window. We recognize that this represents a big time investment, so make sure you can devote the entire day to your pulled pork project before you start cooking.
5. Walk away
As an aside, I should point out that there’s no need to hover over the pellet smoker all day. As long as the temperature holds steady, the meat will cook properly without any interference. Some units are even outfitted with Wi-Fi capability, which will allow you to correct any temperature fluctuations without even getting near the grill.
Pulled pork is considered fully cooked when the meat attains an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember that the temperature will continue to rise slightly during the resting process, bringing the total to the sweet spot of 205 degrees.
6. Let it rest
Once you’ve pulled the pork from the grill, wrap it in aluminum foil or butcher paper and set it in a disposable aluminum pan to catch any juices. Rest the meat for at least 20 minutes or up to two hours. The resting period will allow the pork to cool slightly, making it easier to handle. It also gives the juices a chance to redistribute and settle into the meat’s fibers, giving you pulled pork that’s moist and juicy.
The smoker is far and away the preferred method when it comes to pulled pork. However, if you don’t have a grill or smoker—or if the procedure sounds too complicated—you can also prepare the meat right in the kitchen.
The Slow Cooker
This is another carefree method, and one that provides you with plenty of cooking juices to mix with the pulled pork.
Start with a 3-4 pound boneless pork butt. Larger cuts won’t fit inside most slow cookers, and even if they do, the meat probably won’t cook as evenly.
Season the pork as you normally would, with a blend of brown sugar and spices. Pour a small amount of neutral cooking oil into the bottom of the slow cooker. Set the prepared pork butt on top.
Next, top the meat with prepared barbecue sauce, apple cider vinegar, and chicken stock or broth. Stir a blend of yellow mustard and Worcestershire sauce into the liquid that’s settled on the bottom of the slow cooker.
Cover and set the temperature to high. Cook the pork for 5-6 hours, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat reads 195 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the meat from the slow cooker and let it rest for 20 minutes before shredding it using one of the methods listed below.
This method works best with a cast iron Dutch oven, preferably with an enamel coating. Regular cast iron will conduct the heat evenly, but it’s much more difficult to clean. We would also advise using a 3-4 pound pork butt for this recipe.
To speed the cooking process, cut the trimmed pork into three or four pieces of roughly the same size and shape. Season the chunks as you normally would and allow them to rest overnight in the refrigerator if time allows.
When you’re ready to start cooking, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Remove the pork chunks from the fridge.
Warm a small amount of neutral oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear the pork in batches, making sure to turn the pieces frequently so that the spices don’t scorch. When all the pieces have been browned, arrange them in the bottom of the pot so that they form a relatively even layer.
Pour a bottle of beer or ale over the pork and cover the pot. Place in the oven and cook for about 3 hours, or until the meat is tender. At this point, remove the lid and allow the pork to cook until it’s tender enough to be shredded easily, about 1-2 hours longer.
Let the meat rest at room temperature for at least 20 minutes before advancing to the next step.
Best Ways To Shred Pork
The Two-Fork Technique
This method consists of pulling the shreds of meat apart with a pair of forks, and is probably how the dish came to be called pulled pork in the first place. Because it doesn’t require any special equipment, it’s still the preferred technique for most people.
Once the pork has had a chance to rest, take a fork in either hand. You’ll want to find a set of sturdy dinner forks for this—flimsy utensils will make the task that much more difficult. Place the pork butt in a disposable aluminum pan, or any roasting pan that’s large enough to hold it while catching all the juices.
Dig the forks into the meat with the sets of tines facing back-to-back. Gently pull the pork apart using an outward motion—literally as if you were pulling something apart with your hands. If the pork has been cooked long enough, it will fall into long shreds, which you can set aside as you work.
Shredding the pork with forks takes a long time—easily 30 to 45 minutes if you’re working with a large batch. This is prohibitively frustrating for many chefs, particularly since they’ve waited so long for the pork to be done in the first place.
Fortunately, you can enlist the aid of a partner to help, since most households are equipped with more than two dinner forks. It’s easier to make this a two-person job if the meat is separated into smaller chunks beforehand.
If you aren’t worried about time constraints, go ahead and use the two-fork technique. Although it’s not quick, it’s certainly easy enough for beginners to grasp.
Here’s a video tutorial demonstrating the two-fork method.
The Bear Claw Technique
Known as bear claws or shredding claws, these handy devices are designed specifically for shredding pork and other slow-cooked meats. If you plan on making pulled pork or beef brisket on a regular basis, I would highly recommend investing in a pair of these.
Shredding claws are shaped like small combs with built-in handles. They perform the same function as the forks would, but with one key difference: They’re much larger and broader. This means that you can shred larger portions of meat in a shorter period of time, making your task that much more enjoyable.
This is the ideal method if you’ve prepared a huge batch of pulled pork and want to get it shredded in a hurry. Even if the batch is small, a set of shredding claws will help you get dinner on the table in no time.
Is there a downside? Sure, if you have limited kitchen space or if your budget is too small to allow for utensils with such a specific purpose. Some people consider this a frivolous purchase, but if you’re a barbecue enthusiast, you’re bound to disagree.
When purchasing a set of shredding claws, make sure to look for a sturdy material. Heat-resistant nylon is a good bet, but there are some stainless steel versions available that work just as well. Additionally, the prongs should be spaced just far enough apart to shred the meat without turning it into mush.
The Potato Masher Technique
Learning how to shred pork with a potato masher is easy. Just press the side of the masher (not the flat end) against the pork, and apply gentle pressure. The meat should fall apart into large chunks, which can be prodded apart to form shredded pork. This process usually takes a bit less time than the two-fork method, but it’s not as quick as using bear claws.
We would advise sticking with this method as a last resort. It works in a pinch if all your dinner forks are in the dishwasher and you have a bunch of hungry guests waiting. However, the results aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as you might hope. The potato masher tends to shred the meat in irregular chunks, which can be off-putting if you’re a perfectionist like me.
The Stand Mixer Technique
While it’s the quickest and most efficient technique on our list, this process has its pitfalls. You’re essentially attacking the meat with an electrical appliance, which can result in a mushy mess if you’re not careful. When you’re in a hurry, however, you can rely on this method as long as you know what you’re doing.
Set the pork in a mixing bowl. Attach a flat beater paddle to the stand mixer. Turn the mixer to medium and use the beater to shred the pork. Depending on how much meat you have, this could take 30 to 45 seconds. Be very careful not to overmix.
Unlike shredding claws, stand mixers can be used for a variety of cooking applications. That makes it easier to justify investing in one if you don’t already have one in your kitchen. The method is also much quicker than anything else we’ve listed. Although I prefer the hands-on experience provided by the bear claws, it’s fine to use the mixer when you’re pressed for time.
Once you’ve shredded the pork, mix in the cooking juices to keep the meat moist. If you’re not eating it right away, store it in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator. Consume the pork within three days, or store it in the freezer for up to three months. Once frozen, it should thaw in the fridge for a day before you reheat it.
Best Uses of Pulled Pork
Mixing the shredded meat with barbecue sauce and using it to fill a bulkie roll is the classic preparation, but pulled pork is far more versatile than that.
Add the pork to a plate of nachos, use it as a pizza topping, or pair it with corn tortillas and salsa verde on your next taco night. It also makes a delicious addition to homemade fried rice.
If you end up with too much pulled pork, you can freeze a batch or two for later use.
- How much pulled pork per person
- How to keep pulled pork moist & warm
- What cuts to get when butchering a pig
Now that you know how to shred pork using a variety of methods, you’ll be ready to whip up a batch for your next backyard gathering. If you don’t want to invest in any special tools, you can get the job done using everyday kitchen utensils.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!