Traditional pulled pork is made from pork shoulder (shoulder cuts may be called pork butt, Boston butt, or picnic roast). It is cooked low and slow in an outdoor smoker. The meat is moist and succulent with a pink ring of smoky bark around the outside and when done, it pulls or shreds easily for classic pulled pork sandwiches.
If you don't have access to an outdoor smoker or winter weather prevents you from maintaining a consistent low temperature in your barbecue, don't despair. You can prepare a good pork shoulder in your oven if you follow a few tips.
Rub: Traditional pork shoulder is covered in a barbecue rub which helps to create a nice bark, or crust. Our preferred method, whether cooking inside or outside, is to slather the meat with mustard (any yellow mustard will do) and then apply our favourite barbecue rub. Allow the meat to sit after applying the mustard and rub while the oven preheats. You will see the rub begin to tack up and glisten. You won't perceive a mustard taste when the meat is cooked, but it will help the rub stick to the meat and create a nice surface coating.
Temperature: Pulled pork is moist and succulent because that particular cut of meat is full of collagen in the connective tissue. The meat needs to hold an internal temperature of around 195°-200°F (90°-95°C) for an hour to allow the collagen to break down. It's the desolving collagen that gives the meat a moist, succulent texture and keeps it from drying out over the long cooking time. Outdoor smokers can maintain a low cooking temperature for long periods, which is difficult to replicate with an indoor oven. Cooking the shoulder at 300°F (150°C) in your oven is your best bet.
Time: The key phrase in traditional barbecue is "low and slow." It takes time to reach the appropriate internal temperature for the collagen to break down and longer still to develop a nice bark on the meat. You need a total cooking time of 4½ hours to achieve good pulled pork. Indoor ovens are designed to exhaust moisture whereas outdoor smokers retain it to produce moist meat. Adding a small amount of liquid to the roasting pan, like ½ cup of apple juice, will help kick start a moist environment. For the first 3 hours, cook the meat with the roasting pan tightly covered with foil to trap all the moisture. Uncover and cook the remaining 1½ hour to develop nice bark and colour on the surface of the meat.
Smoke: If you like the smoky flavour that comes from outdoor smoking, you will find it difficult to achieve indoors. There are many indoor smoke boxes available on the market, but using them can be hit or miss in terms of the amount of smoke flavour they impart. Additionally, some people aren't keen on their entire house smelling like a smoke pit. One simple way to add smoke flavour is to stir a few drops of liquid smoke into your mustard before you rub your meat. Liquid smoke is an all-natural product made by condensing water over wood smoke. It's very strong so a little goes a long way! Another trick is to add some smoked paprika to your barbecue rub. Pimenton (red peppers) are smoked over oak fires and ground to make paprika. It's a great way to achieve nice colour on the meat, as well.
Pulling: The pork is done when the meat twists easily with a fork. If it is bone-in, the bone should pull out with ease. Remove the pork from the oven, tent the roasting pan with foil, and allow the meat to rest and cool enough to handle it (approx. 30 mins.). Pull the meat apart with tongs, forks, and your hands. Some folks like it naked and others prefer it tossed with barbecue sauce. Either way, pile it high on a bun. The classic presentation is to top the pulled pork with tangy cabbage slaw, which lends nice crunch and helps cut through the richness of the meat.
Recap (allow 6 hours):
- Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C).
- Mix a dash of liquid smoke with yellow mustard. Rub it all over the pork shoulder. Add smoked paprika to your favourite barbecue rub and sprinkle evenly over all surfaces of the meat.
- Place the shoulder in a roasting pan along with ½ cup apple juice. Cover tightly with foil.
- Roast for 3 hours with the foil on.
- Remove foil and continue to cook for 1½ hour, or until a fork twists the meat easily.
- Remove from the oven and tent the roasting pan with foil, allowing the meat to rest for at least 30 mins.
- Place the shoulder on a cutting board and pull or shred with tongs, forks, and fingers.
- Leave some plain. Toss some with a little barbecue sauce. Serve with buns, coleslaw, and more barbecue sauce on the side.
Pulled pork is also great on nachos, in enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas, so save the leftovers! It freezes and reheats really well. If you have a vaccum sealer, place enough pulled pork for a single bun or an entire meal in each bag and seal tightly. Drop the bag of frozen pork in a pot of boiling water and reheat for about 15 - 20 mins. Voila!