Smoked Pulled Pork
I’ve always loved pulled meats, but my most recent love affair with smoked pulled pork started last summer. It was one of those incredibly hot days, and we went to a picnic one of hubs’ friends was having. He smoked pork and ribs on his charcoal smoker, and there were some other standard picnic foods. It was so hot it was hard to eat, one of those hot days when you just aren’t very hungry. But…that pork. That smoked pulled pork was the best I think I’ve ever had.
We tried to get all of his friend’s secrets, which he readily told us. But I think smoking meats can be one of those magical things where you don’t even realize you do something important until someone can’t quite reproduce your recipe. Anyway, we’ve been testing and retesting and tweaking our recipe, and we finally have a winner.
(I have a lot of feelings and things to say about smoked pulled pork, so feel free to skip my ramblings and go straight to the recipe!)
Electric or Charcoal
This smoked pulled pork can be made in an electric or charcoal smoker. The charcoal smoker gives a better bark, but the flavor is so good you’ll be a rock star either way. One benefit to using the electric smoker is that the pork won’t stall, so you’ll have a faster cook-time. We prefer it in the charcoal smoker, but I would never say no to any kind of smoked pulled pork.
We like to think of the wood as another level of seasoning when we smoke. Everyone has their own personal tastes, and that’s great. So, take our advice with a grain of salt and use what wood you like. And keep in mind that we like a heavy smoke flavor 😉
As you might guess, we’ve tried a few different combinations. Pecan was my least favorite because I thought it was a little sweet and not smokey enough. I tend to favor apple wood, and that works really well with pork. We both agreed that a combination of apple and oak gave the most well-rounded flavor.
Hubs used beech when we made this for a party since it’s a very light smoke flavor. Everyone raved about the pulled pork, even our friends who aren’t crazy about smoked foods.
Salting the Pork
We’ve played around with how to salt the pork shoulder. Sometimes we dry brine it, and sometimes we just mix the salt into the rub. Hubs agrees with what Meathead says: if you have time to dry brine, go for it. If not, it’s not a big deal. Pork shoulder has a lot of fat in it, so it doesn’t need a dry brine as much as, say, chicken.
If we’re dry brining, we use a ratio of 1/4 teaspoon table salt per pound, or 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound. It’s important to know what kind of salt you’re using because the size of the salt crystal matters in the measurements. Kosher salt is a larger crystal than table salt, so you can use more of it without over-salting the meat.
There are a lot of ingredients that go into the rub, but don’t be intimidated. Everything should be easily found in your local grocery store, if it isn’t already in your pantry. Hubs’ friend modified the Memphis Dust recipe, so that’s where we started.
Hubs mixed up a full batch of the Memphis Dust the first couple times we were smoking pork shoulders, which was great until he accidentally contaminated the. whole. container. Since we needed to mix a new batch, I decided to make some modifications.
I played with the amounts of sugar a lot: equal amounts (okay), more brown than white (the best), more white than brown (too sweet and too caramelized). We swapped in dried thyme for rosemary, decreased the paprika, increased the onion powder, and added a pinch of red pepper flakes.
I also wanted to make just enough rub for a single pork shoulder at a time, so we could make changes each time we smoked a new shoulder. So, I scaled it down – not with the exact ratios, but just to what “felt” right.
The recipe below is the perfect amount of rub for a pork shoulder that’s about 3.5-4 pounds. If you’re making one that’s closer to 7-8 pounds, I would recommend making one and a half times the recipe below. You want a pretty heavy coating on the pork shoulder. Or you can always scale it up to make a huge batch!
Hubs’ friend had one other modification…used coffee grounds. He dries them out on some paper towels and rubs them into the pork before the spice rub. It adds an amazing texture to the bark, but you don’t taste the coffee flavor like you might imagine. It also helps make the bark darker in color. Even if you’re not a huge coffee fan, I wouldn’t skip this ingredient. I did take the lazy way out and just add it to our rub, though. We didn’t notice any difference between the two techniques.
When you’re adding a spice rub to meat, you need some kind of “glue” so it sticks…which is where the binder comes in. Hubs’ friend uses mustard, and that’s also where we started.
When I took charge of the seasonings, I mixed yellow mustard, dijon, and molasses for the binder. I thought the molasses would tie in nicely with the brown sugar, and the combination of the mustards would add some vinegar to cut the fat of the pork a little. Eventually we ran out of molasses, so I started leaving that out – and we didn’t really notice a difference.
And eventually we got even lazier and started using just yellow mustard so I didn’t have to clean another bowl. We did add a few dashes of hot sauce, which I pour right on top of the pork when I squeeze on the mustard.
A lot of times, we end up eating the smoked pulled pork just as it is. It’s great as a sandwich, on nachos with salsa verde, on pizza, in tacos with vinegar-y slaw, or in a burrito. It freezes surprisingly well in a ziptop bag, at least for a few weeks (we haven’t managed to avoid digging into it for longer than that).
We prefer to heat any leftovers in our cast iron skillet – it re-caramelizes the bark so you get some slightly crisp bites – without giving that reheated meat flavor you get from the microwave. As someone who doesn’t really like reheated meat, I can honestly say this pulled pork reheats like a dream.
Phew! Did you stick with me through all of that? I know it’s a lot, but I want to set you up for success! So…now that I’ve talked FOREVER, here’s the recipe!
- one 3.5-4 pound pork shoulder, bone-in with the fat cap on top
- yellow mustard
- hot sauce
- 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt, if dry brining
- Rub seasoning, below
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1½ teaspoons paprika
- 2½ teaspoons garlic powder
- ½ tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 5-7 tablespoons used coffee grounds (5 if they are very dry, 7 if they are still pretty wet)
- 1 heaping teaspoon table salt (if you are NOT dry brining)
- clean kitchen towels
- any type of insulated cooler
- At least 12 hours before cooking but no more than 36 hours before, pat the pork dry and sprinkle evenly all over with the salt. Store in the refrigerator loosely covered, sitting slightly elevated on a cooling rack set on a cookie sheet.
- Mix the rub seasoning, making sure you DO NOT add any additional salt.
- Mix the rub seasoning, making sure you DO add the salt.
- Get your smoker prepped and stabilized around 250-275 degrees. We like to use a mix of oak and apple wood.
- Meanwhile, rub a few tablespoons of mustard and a few dashes of hot sauce into the pork shoulder, to taste. Season evenly and liberally on all sides with the rub seasoning. Insert your thermometer probe, if using.
- Once your smoker has stabilized, add your pork shoulder and smoke between 250-275ish degrees until the pork reaches a temperature of 195-200 degrees. This generally takes about an hour and a half per pound, but make sure you measure with a thermometer to ensure the pork will shred nicely.
- When the pork is around 192 degrees, pre-heat a cooler by pouring in hot water and letting it sit until the pork is ready. Empty the water once the pork reaches temperature.
- Once the pork reaches 195-200 degrees, wrap it tightly in foil, then warmed towels, and place in the pre-heated cooler for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 4 hours.
- Shred the pork and enjoy!
What are your favorite ways to eat smoked pulled pork??