When it’s cooked properly, pulled pork is the carnivore’s version of candy. The smoky, savory flavor pairs perfectly with the melt-in-your-mouth texture, and it’s versatile enough to be used in a variety of dishes.
However, we realize that the process can be intimidating to many cooks. Pulled pork isn’t difficult to make, but it does take a lot of time to get it right. The good news? Most of the process is hands-off. To the uninitiated, that means you won’t have to spend a great deal of time slaving over the ingredients. In fact, you’ll probably spend less time in the kitchen than you will enjoying the delicious results.
So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get started!
Step One: Selecting Your Equipment
The first thing you’ll need is a high-quality grill. A charcoal-burning unit—traditional or Kamado—works well, but a pellet smoker would be even better. We’ll get into the reasons for that in a moment.
If you have a gas grill, it will get the job done as far as texture and timing are concerned. However, it won’t give the pork the rich, authentic flavor that you’re looking for. If you’re serious about making smoked pulled pork on a regular basis, then you should consider investing in a charcoal or pellet grill.
Why pellet grills are the best choice
Smoked pulled pork is best when it’s cooked for a long time at a low temperature. This low-and-slow method gives the connective tissue time to break down, thereby tenderizing the pork. It also allows the fat to render and melt into the meat, giving you that finger-licking quality that’s the hallmark of the dish.
Why are pellet grills the best candidate for this type of cooking? Because they feature digital control panels that allow you to pre-set the temperature. Most of these units can be set to temperatures as low as 180 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the ideal environment for smoked meats. Built-in probes will let you know if the fire is burning too low or too high, and you can make adjustments without having to open the lid of the smoker.
In addition to providing you with the proper cooking atmosphere, wood pellets also allow you greater control over the flavor. You can choose from a variety of wood types to get the flavor profile that you’re looking for. We’ll supply you with more tips regarding the different wood flavors in “The Woodcutter” section, below.
What else will you need before you set out to select the perfect cut of pork? Here’s a comprehensive list of all the necessary equipment:
- Oversized zip-top bag
- Sturdy set of grilling tongs
- Heatproof gloves (silicone works well for this dish)
- Heavy-duty basting brush or mop
- Digital meat thermometer (if you have a pellet grill, this component may be built in)
- Paper towels
- Butcher paper or aluminum foil
- Inexpensive aluminum pan
- Shredder claws (two large forks will work in a pinch)
- Sharpened chef’s knife
- Your chosen ingredients (see “Best Pulled Pork Recipes” below)
Step Two: Selecting The Perfect Cut
What’s the best cut of meat for pulled pork? The answer that you’ll get from barbecue enthusiasts across the board is pork shoulder.
Pork shoulder is exceptionally fatty, with plenty of connective tissue. These two qualities combine to make it the most flavorful section of the pig, by far.
Since the shoulder is comprised of two halves—the picnic roast and the Boston butt—it’s easy to become confused when shopping for the right cut. Both the picnic roast and the Boston butt are suitable for making pulled pork, but the latter is easier to work with. Look for a thick, barrel-shaped Boston butt with a generous coating of fat on one side.
For the recipes we’ve listed below, you’ll need a cut that weighs 8-10 pounds, but it’s possible to make pulled pork in smaller quantities. Just be careful to keep an eye on the internal temperature of the meat to ensure that it doesn’t cook for too long. The pork butt can be either bone-in or boneless, depending on your preference. Bone-in pork will be slightly more flavorful, but boneless will yield more meat per pound.
Tip: Don’t be tempted to trim too much of the fat before making pulled pork. If there’s not enough fat on the meat, your recipe may turn out too dry.
Step Three: Assembling Your Ingredients
Many recipes recommend brining the pork for a few hours before adding it to the smoker, with some even recommending that you brine the meat overnight. Personally, I don’t feel that this step is necessary. The meat is flavorful enough without the added salt, and if you cook it properly, the meat will be tender enough. The whole point of brining is to make the meat more flavorful and juicy, and pork shoulder doesn’t really need the extra help. Save the room in your refrigerator for the side dishes that you’ll be serving with your pulled pork feast.
In “Best Pulled Pork Recipes,” we’ve provided you with tips on which ingredients you might want to use in your dry rub. Don’t be afraid of over-seasoning—you’ll want to be generous with the rub so that the flavors will hold up to the long cooking process. For an 8-10 pound pork butt, plan on at least 1/2 cup of rub.
You can apply the rub up to a day in advance, leaving it in the fridge overnight if necessary. If you don’t have that much time, try to give the rub at least one hour to do its work.
Tip: If you find that the seasoning mix isn’t sticking to the pork, you might want to coat the meat with a thin layer of mustard as well. This will help the rub adhere to the meat while giving you an extra boost in the flavor department. Inexpensive yellow mustard is fine, but feel free to experiment with your favorite artisanal mustards if you like.
Step Four: The Woodcutter
If you’ve followed our advice and chosen a pellet smoker, you’ll need to select the right type of wood for the flavor profile that you want. Charcoal grills can accommodate wood chips as well, but adding them requires a bit of finesse. We’ve given you more detailed instructions in “Heating the Smoker,” below. It’s also possible to add wood chips to a gas grill, but it’s easier if your grill has a smoker box attachment.
Here’s a primer on the most common types of wood used for smoked pulled pork.
- Oak: Medium to strong flavor, won’t overwhelm the other ingredients
- Hickory: Sweet and savory flavor that pairs well with pork, but can be strong and bitter when used alone
- Maple: Sweet, light, and smoky
- Pecan: Very sweet; best used in combination with other wood types
- Apple: Sweet and mild, holds up well during long cooking processes
- Cherry: Mild, a good compliment to hickory or other strong flavors
Tip: Avoid soft woods, like pine or cedar. These woods contain too much resin, which could ruin the flavor of your food. They could even cause damage to the interior of your smoker, so stick to hardwood pellets.
Step Five: Heating the Smoker
Once you have all your ingredients and equipment in place, it’s time to get the smoker ready for action.
1. Gas Grills
First, make sure your tank is at least three-quarters full. Since the cooking process is so long, you don’t want to get caught short in the fuel department.
Place two disposable aluminum roasting pans beneath the grill grates. Add water to the one on the left until the pan is nearly full.
If you’re using wood chips, add a handful to the smoker box. If your grill doesn’t offer this feature, you can make homemade wood chip pouches that will implement the flavors just as well. To do this, take several large squares of aluminum foil, placing a small handful of your chosen wood chips in the center of each one. Fold them over to create a pouch, making sure they’re well sealed. Slash a few holes in the top of each pouch with a sharp knife.
Place one pouch directly in front of the water pan. As the pork cooks, you’ll probably need to swap out the pouch for a fresh one every 2-4 hours. Start with at least six pouches to be on the safe side.
Tip: Some grilling enthusiasts claim that you should soak the wood chips in water for at least one hour before using them, but this step isn’t necessary. As long as you’ve sealed the pouches properly, the wood should smoke effectively without catching on fire.
2. Charcoal Grills
If you’re using a chimney starter, fill it with newspaper from the bottom, then flip it right side up and set it on the lower rack of the grill. Stack about 25-30 charcoal briquettes over the starter to form a pyramid shape. Light the paper in several places and wait for the coals to ignite.
For the lighter-fluid method, simply stack the briquettes in a pyramid and add about 1/4 cup of fluid. Light the coals right away so that the fluid doesn’t evaporate.
After about 20-30 minutes, your coals should be coated in a light film of silvery-gray ash. This means that you’re ready to start cooking. While the coals are heating up, create several wood-chip pouches by placing small handfuls of chips in squares of aluminum foil. Seal the pouches well and poke holes in the tops using a sharp knife. You can also add the wood chips directly to the fire as the pork is cooking, but this method will be more time-consuming and burn through more chips. It will also result in greater temperature swings, since you’ll need to open the grill to add more wood.
When the coals are hot, shift them to one side of the grill using sturdy tongs. Replace the cooking grate and position the wood-chip pouch directly above the coals. When smoke begins to escape from the holes in the pouch, you’re ready to add the pork butt.
3. Pellet Grills
This step is one of the main reasons we prefer a pellet grill when it comes to making smoked pork butt. Just fill the hopper with the wood pellets of your choice, use the digital control panel to set the temperature to 180-225 degrees Fahrenheit, and wait for the readout. Once the fire is hot enough (which should only take 5-10 minutes), you can begin the smoking process.
Step Six: Smoking the Hog
Smoked pulled pork takes a long time to cook—about 90 minutes per pound for boneless, and two hours per pound for bone-in. That means that a boneless 8-10 pound pork butt will require 12 to 15 hours of cooking time. Make sure you’re ready to invest the appropriate amount of time to your smoked pork butt recipe.
Tip: Don’t worry that you’ll have to spend every minute standing over the grill. Even though the process is a long one, you’ll have plenty of down time while the fire does its work.
A Word About Mops
A barbecue “mop” is a great way to keep the meat from drying out. It will also result in a softer bark and a more pronounced smoky flavor. You can apply the mop every 30-60 minutes using either a basting brush or an actual mop (make sure the tool is designated for barbecue use only). For a lesson on how to make a basic mop, see our “Best Pulled Pork Recipes” below.
1. Gas Grills
Once you have your water pans and wood pouches in place, turn on the heat beneath the water pan to its lowest setting. Place the pork on the opposite side of the grill, over the empty pan. This will catch the drippings and help to prevent flare-ups during cooking.
You want the temperature to maintain at a steady 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep an eye on the grill’s built-in thermometer to make sure it’s staying within range, and adjust the heat as needed.
Tip: You might find that it’s necessary to turn on the second burner in order to maintain the correct temperature.
When all the water has nearly evaporated from the second pan, carefully refill it using a kettle with a long spout. Stand as far back as possible to avoid steam burns. Likewise, feed a fresh handful of wood chips into the smoker box every hour or so. If you’re using the foil-pouch method, switch them out every 2-4 hours as needed. You’ll be able to tell when it’s time to make the swap by the quality of the smoke. It should issue from the holes in a slow, steady stream, permeating the cooking chamber with a pleasant aroma. If it smells burnt or ashy, then it’s time for a fresh pouch.
Tip: If the smoke is billowing out in thick white clouds, then your wood is burning too quickly. Adjust the heat for optimal smoke flavor.
2. Charcoal Grills
Set the pork butt over the portion of the grill that’s free of coals. This is known as the indirect heat method, and it will allow the pork to cook slowly without developing too much of a char on the outside.
For the foil-pouch method, swap out the pouches every 2-4 hours as outlined above. Chips added directly to the fire will need to be replenished every 45-60 minutes. For the last hour, move the pork butt over to the direct-heat side to finish cooking.
3. Pellet Grills
Place your pork butt on the main cooking grate and close the lid of the smoker. If your unit includes a meat-temperature probe, you can insert it into the thickest part of the meat to check on its progress. Make sure the probe isn’t touching fat or bone, as this will lead to inaccurate readouts.
Step Seven: Putting it to the Test
Your pork is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit. We prefer allowing it to cook to 205 degrees to ensure that the meat shreds properly. Toward the end of cooking, test the meat frequently using your digital thermometer or built-in probe to see if it’s getting close.
Tip: When the pork reaches 160 degrees, the thermometer may not budge for some time. This is known as “the stall,” and it’s perfectly normal. See “Frequently Asked Questions,” below, for more information regarding the stall.
Step Eight: Letting it Rest
Smoked pork butt can rest for up to two hours after it’s finished cooking, to allow the juices to redistribute and the meat to cool slightly.
Pull the meat from the grill when it’s within 5-10 degrees of your desired temperature. The pork will continue to cook as it rests, so don’t be tempted to leave it on too long. At this point, you can wrap the meat in butcher paper or aluminum foil, or put it in a disposable aluminum pan covered lightly with foil, until you’re ready to serve.
Step Nine: The Shredder
Once the pork has rested and cooled, you can use your shredder tools to separate the meat into rough pieces. While you may have heard the designation “falling off the bone” to describe pulled pork, you actually don’t want it to “fall off,” or it might be too dry. Instead, it should separate easily when you give the bone a twist. Boneless pork should be fork-tender, with fat that’s fully rendered and melting beneath your fingers.
Step Ten: Adding the Sauces
If you’d like, add sugar-based barbecue sauces once the meat has been shredded. (You might want to set some “undressed” pork aside for other recipes before serving.) For large parties, set out individual ramekins and various bottles of hot sauce, and allow guests to customize the meat to their liking.
Step Eleven: After the Fire
Since it takes such a long time to smoke pulled pork, you’ll want to enjoy the results for as long as you can. Here are a few ideas for using up the leftovers:
- Use it as a pizza topping along with barbecue sauce, caramelized onions, green peppers, and a mozzarella-cheddar blend.
- Fill corn tortillas with pulled pork and top with chopped onions, cilantro, salsa verde, and a squeeze of lime.
- Top grilled hamburger buns with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, then top with crispy fried onions and coleslaw.
- Use pulled pork to top a simple green salad.
Best Pulled Pork Recipes
Basic Pork Rub
- 1/3 cup paprika
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons black pepper
- 1 tablespoon dry mustard
- 1 tablespoon mixed dried herbs (such as oregano or basil)
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container for up to four weeks.
Southwestern Pork Rub
- 1/3 cup smoked paprika
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 2 teaspoons Mexican oregano
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container for up to four weeks.
- 4 cups cider vinegar
- 1 cup white vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the salt has fully dissolved and the sauce has come to a bare simmer. May be refrigerated for up to three months; stir before each use.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is pulled pork bad for you?
Pork is a great source of protein. However, because it’s so high in fat, smoked pulled pork butt should be consumed in moderation.
How much pulled pork should I make per person?
You should plan on around one-third to one-half pound of meat per person. Since a 10-pound pork butt yields about 6 pounds of finished meat, this amount can be used to serve a party of 12-18 people. If you’re planning on leftovers, you might want to buy two or three pork butts at once.
Why does it take so long to make smoked pulled pork?
Pork butt is high in fat, with a great deal of connective tissue. These elements take time to break down, and won’t do so properly at high temperatures. If you attempt to cook a pork butt too quickly, you’ll end up with tough meat and a bunch of stringy fat—not an appealing texture at all! When you give pulled pork the time it needs to cook correctly, you’ll be rewarded with delectable results.
Is there a way to end up with more crust on the meat?
If you prefer a thick crust or “bark” on your pulled pork, don’t wrap it in foil after cooking. You can also get a tougher crust by skipping the mop and allowing the meat to cook without any additional basting.
Why is the temperature stuck at 160 degrees? Am I doing something wrong?
Nope! That period is known as “the stall.” It means that the connective tissues in the meat are taking their time to break down, resulting in the fork-tender texture that you’re looking for. The thermometer might stall at around 160 for as long as a few hours, so be patient and don’t worry.
Can you make pulled pork ahead of time?
Absolutely! Pulled pork reheats beautifully. Since it contains so much fat, it also keeps well in the refrigerator for up to four days. In fact, the flavors might improve if you allow the meat to rest overnight.
By now, you should have all the information you need to impress your friends and family with your pork-smoking skills. We hope our advice will contribute to many delicious years to come.