When pork shoulder is cooked over a low fire for a long time, the meat becomes tender enough to shred with a fork. Most barbecue fans already know that, of course. But what does the internal temperature have to be in order for the magic to happen?
The answer is a simple one, but the process itself is fascinating. When you’ve finished reading, you’ll have all the information you need regarding the perfect pulled pork internal temp.
Pulled Pork Internal Temp
Pork shoulder (or pork butt) needs to be cooked to 195 degrees Fahrenheit before it’s tender enough to shred. If it’s allowed to cook to 200-205 degrees, the meat will be even softer, which makes it that much easier to pull apart. We would recommend giving it the extra time, provided that you remove it from the grill before it has a chance to overcook.
About Pork Shoulder
To make great pulled pork, you need to start with the right ingredients. Pork shoulder, which is also known as pork butt or Boston butt, is the cut of meat you want.
Some beginners are put off by the appearance of the cut. Dark pink in color, with plenty of connective tissue and a high percentage of fat, pork shoulder looks like it needs a lot of work in order to be edible. While that’s technically true, all it really needs is a long time on the smoker.
It’s not a good idea to trim too much fat off the pork shoulder. All that fat acts as a natural basting liquid for the pork, making the finished product moist and tender. There may still be a few chunks here and there, but for the most part, the fat should render out as the meat cooks.
Because it’s such a fatty cut, pork shoulder is relatively inexpensive. It typically sells for about $2 per pound, depending on where you live. During certain times of the year, it may even be available for as little as 89 cents per pound.
Making Pulled Pork
It’s important to cook pork shoulder correctly. Otherwise, the meat will turn out tough and chewy. That’s why it’s the best choice when making pulled pork.
If the meat is so tough to begin with, how does it get soft enough to be shredded using only a fork? That’s the magic of slow cooking, which happens when you set the grill’s temperature to 250 or lower.
Tough cuts of meat like pork shoulder contain high amounts of collagen. When they’re cooked using low-and-slow applications, the collagen will break down into gelatin. This gives the meat a rich flavor and texture that can’t be duplicated with leaner cuts.
The Cooking Process
Let’s take a closer look at what happens to the meat while it’s cooking.
At around 105 degrees Fahrenheit, certain enzymes begin the denaturing process. When the temperature hits 120 degrees, the meat begins to turn opaque. This is also the point at which red meat begins to turn pink. If you’ve ever eaten a very rare steak, chances are that it was removed from the heat at around the 120-degree mark.
As the temperature climbs to 140 degrees, the meat changes color again, from pink to grayish brown. If it’s allowed to climb past that, it will release a great deal of juice and shrink down as the meat becomes chewy and tough. This is why steaks cooked past medium are less juicy than their medium-rare counterparts.
Pork is safe to eat when the meat reaches an internal temp of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. However, just because the pork can be safely consumed at this temperature doesn’t mean you should stop there. Here’s why.
The conversion from collagen to gelatin begins to occur when the meat reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The collagen melts more quickly when it reaches this sweet spot, continuing on this trajectory until the 180-degree mark. The muscle fibers will begin to loosen, so even though the meat itself is dry, the gelatin has more room to spread out.
Pulled Pork Internal Temp
So, when you’re getting a digital readout of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, is it time to take the pork shoulder off the smoker? Not quite. You want to make sure all that lovely pork fat has had a chance to render out, which will make your job easier when it’s time to shred the meat.
You should cook the pork shoulder until the internal temperature reaches at least 195 degrees Fahrenheit. The pork will continue to cook during the crucial resting period, which will bring it up to around 200 degrees. At these temps, the meat will so tender that it will start to fall apart when you prod it with a fork.
If you’d like the pork to turn out even softer, it’s fine to leave it on the grill until you get a readout of 202 to 205 degrees. Try not to let it cook for any longer, though. It is possible to overcook pork shoulder. If this happens, your pulled pork will be unpleasantly dry.
How To Cook Pork Shoulder to 195 Degrees
Prepare the pork shoulder for the grill by trimming the excess fat and seasoning it with your favorite barbecue rub. At this point, you can let it sit in the fridge overnight, or allow it to rest at room temperature for about half an hour.
When you’re ready to start cooking, preheat your grill or smoker. Set a gas grill to medium-low, build a low charcoal fire, or set your pellet grill to 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
We prefer using a pellet grill for pulled pork because the wood pellets impart a wonderful smoke flavor. Alternatively, you can toss a handful of wood chips on a charcoal fire. It’s also possible to use wood chips on a gas grill by using the foil pouch method.
Place the pork on the grill rack, fat side up. If you’re using a meat temperature probe, now is the time to insert it into the thickest portion of the pork shoulder. Don’t allow the tip of the probe to touch the bone, or you won’t get an accurate readout. Close the lid of the grill and allow the pork to cook for about 2 hours per pound.
At the 160-degree mark, the temperature will stop rising for several hours. This dreaded phenomenon is known as “the stall” in pitmaster’s circles. Although it’s annoying, the stall is an expected part of the process. You have two choices: Either wait it out, or employ the “Texas crutch” to speed the cooking process.
If you’d rather shave a few hours off the total cooking time, here’s how the Texas crutch works. Just remove the pork shoulder from the grill when it reaches the 160-degree mark, then wrap it tightly in a layer of aluminum foil. Return it to the grill and continue to cook until it reaches your desired temperature.
The foil can cause the bark on the meat’s exterior to soften, which is why many pitmasters refuse to use it. If you want crispy bark, we would advise waiting out the stall. You can also attempt to revitalize it by removing the foil for 20 to 30 minutes toward the end of the cook, but this doesn’t always yield satisfactory results.
When the pork shoulder is done, remove it from the grill. If you haven’t already wrapped the meat in foil, now is the time to do so. Let the pork rest for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours before shredding it.
About Shredding Pulled Pork
When it comes to shredding slow-cooked meat, you have several alternatives. It’s possible to just pull the meat apart with your fingers. This is a good method because it allows you to pull out any pieces of fat or gristle that survived the cooking process. However, it’s also the most time-consuming method.
Alternatively, you can use a couple of forks to shred the meat. Turn the forks so that the prongs face outward from one another, and use them to pull the meat apart. If you plan on making pulled pork on a regular basis, we would recommend investing in a pair of shredding claws to make the task go more quickly.
As a last resort, you can use an electric hand mixer. This is the fastest method, and one that comes in handy if you’re making a big batch of pork. However, it’s important to use caution, as the meat can turn to mush in a heartbeat when it’s over-processed.
195 degrees is an acceptable temperature for pulled pork. That said, we would recommend waiting until the thermometer reads 202 degrees. The extra time will make your shredding duties go much more smoothly, and the meat will retain its moisture and rich texture.