If you grew up in or traveled through the Carolina’s, you know this dish is the very definition of BBQ. The traditionalists in this area will prepare this by cooking the “whole pig over whole logs”. It is then served, piled high on the cheapest buns you can buy and topped off with a dollop of creamy cole slaw. Depending where in the region you travel, the sauces, always served on the side, can run the gamut from vinegar to tomato to mustard based.
So, how close can we come to duplicating this process for the average cook? Well, honestly, not very! BUT…….you can still make a very wonderful and tasty pulled pork in the oven. You will miss the subtle taste of smoke, from those whole logs, but that is part of the price you pay when cooking in the oven.
Pulled pork starts with a cut of pork commonly referred to as “pork butt” or “Boston butt”. Unlike it’s name implies, this is NOT cut from the pig’s ass!! It is the upper part of the entire shoulder….where the leg “butts up” to the shoulder. The shoulder is comprised of 2 cuts, the butt and the picnic. The picnic can be used for making pulled pork as well, but the butt is the more traditional cut.
Butts are most likely shipped to your butcher in pairs, packed in cryovac, and the weight of each butt is around 7-9 pounds, making the total package 14-18 pounds. Many times, by the time it gets to the display case, it has been further cut in half and will weigh between 4-5 pounds. I always like to request a full butt and ask if I can have one directly from the cryovac package. The weight will make a difference when cooking, so choose whatever size is most convenient. I tend to cook only the larger, bone-in, 7-9 pounders. Pulled pork freezes very well and can be re-heated with fantastic results. So, why not cook a bunch!
OK, you have the butt, now what? There is very little trimming needed. I have always cut only the outside layer of fat away. Cut any fat off and trim right to the meat. 2 reasons why you want do this…there is plenty of internal fat to keep the meat moist and the rub will more easily disperse throughout the meat.
Once you have trimmed, now you can prep. You will want to cover the entire butt with a rub. This rub is nothing more than a variety of spices blended together.
Prior to applying the above rub, you will want to moisten the butt. You can use just plain old water or olive oil or some cheap, yellow mustard. The mustard adds a nice crisp “bark” to the outside layer of meat, yet does not have the overpowering taste of mustard. Slather any of these all over the butt and then apply your rub.
You have a choice, you can let this sit overnight and allow the spices to “mingle” OR you can cook it immediately. If aging over night, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Allow the roast to come up to room temp prior to cooking the next day.
How you cook this cut is the most important part to getting a nice moist pulled pork. This cut of pork is loaded with internal fat. It is this fat that we want to “render” away. Scientifically speaking, the connective tissues and collagen will start to break down at temps of around 150-160º. This is exactly what we want to happen. The great secret to allowing this process to occur is to try and keep the meat temp between 150-170º. The longer you can hold those temps, the more this fat will render.
So, how do you achieve this? By cooking the meat at very low oven temps. We cook all of our pork butts at a temp of 225º. For you at home, I would set the oven at 250º and plan on taking 2 hours per pound. This will assure that the meat temps will stay in those ranges (150º-170º) for a long time. In the end, we want the meat temp to reach and exceed 200º. This can be measured with a regular meat thermometer, just be sure you stick it into meat and not the fat OR you can stick a fork into the butt and twist it….it should twist easily.
Cook the butt in a roasting pan with a rack to hold it above the fat that will render out. Half of this butt will cook away, so there will be lots of fat! You may have to empty your pan, so keep an eye on this.
Let the butt cook for about 4 hours before looking at it. At this point, you can open the oven and “mop” the meat. Mopping is applying a liquid to the surface of the meat…this will help to keep it moist and add some flavor. I use a very simple mop of 3 parts apple juice or cider and 3 parts cider vinegar and 1 part of olive oil. This can be applied with a brush, a mop, or a spray bottle. You can now mop every couple hours or as often as you would like.
I believe the 2 hour per pound estimate will be accurate 90% of the time. However, one of 2 things will invariably happen when cooking a butt…..it will finish early or it will finish late. What to do? To speed up the cook, take the butt out of the oven and turn the oven up to 300º. Wrap as tightly as possible in heavy duty foil and place back in the oven. It will still take some time to finish so plan accordingly. If it finishes early, remove from oven and turn it off. Wrap as tightly as possible in heavy duty foil and return to the (unheated) oven. You can hold like this for several hours.
Once the butt is finished you can now “pull” the meat. Let it cool to the point where you can handle it. Then use your hands to pull strands of the meat. A pair of forks will also prove helpful when pulling the meat. There may still be pockets of fat, so remove these as you start pulling. Place this pulled meat into whatever serving vessel you plan on using. Be sure to mix in the nice darkened bark of the outside meat with the inside meat. This allows the flavor of that rub and mop to be distributed within the meat. At this point you should also add salt or, even better, more of the rub you used.
Now you can build your pulled pork sammiches!
BUILDING A PULLED PORK SAMMICH
First, use the cheapest buns you can find. Sorry, hard rolls just won’t cut it! Why? As in their definition, the exterior of a hard roll is very chewy. Subsequently, when you bite into it, the insides squish out onto your plate and not your mouth!
Next, add your favorite BBQ sauce. In South Carolina that is usually a mustard based sauce.
Finally. the creme de resistance, a large dollop of creamy cole slaw! Squish the buns together and enjoy your little trip to HEAVEN!