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Pulled pork is one of my favorite foods. I’ve made pulled pork BBQ numerous times, but not real pulled pork BBQ. I’ve made it in the braiser, dutch oven, and slow cooker, but that’s not really BBQ – that’s just braised or slow cooked pulled pork (with BBQ sauce). If you want an informative read about BBQ, I recommend A History of South Caroline Barbeque. I read it with my Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription.
Recently, my Instacart shopper asked if it was OK to substitute a 9 lb. bone-in pork shoulder for the 3 lb. boneless one I requested. I approved the substitution thinking it would be great to finally smoke a pork butt and make legit BBQ. Having never smoked meat before, I started researching. These were the primary sources I used to guide me through my pork smoking journey:
- Smoked Pork Shoulder by Salt Pepper Skillet
- Simple Smoked Pork Butt by Hey Grill Hey
- How to Smoke a Pork Butt by Meater
- BBQ 101: An Introduction to Smoked Meat by ThermoWorks
- How To: Smoking by Kingsford
- How To: Heat Control by Kingsford
- Probe Safety: A Guide for BBQ Smokers by ThermoWorks
I also talked to one of my coworkers who competitively smokes meat. He gave me a lot of good takeaways, especially the one about not adding wood chips the entire time. He also assured me that pork butt can be a very forgiving cut of meat in case I didn’t do everything perfectly right. My boyfriend was incredibly patient as I talked about this pork and potential smoking methods for about a week before finally thawing and cooking it. Below are key takeaways from my research online, my chat with my expert acquaintance, tips from my boyfriend, and what I learned while actually making the pork.
- While the cooking method is “low and slow,” this is actually a pretty active cooking method that requires ongoing maintenance.
- Plan ahead and start early. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. I’m not a morning person, but was up at 6:00 to start this. Turns out, that was a good decision.
- The cooking time is about 60 to 90 minutes per pound of pork.
- The temperature of the grill should stay between 225-250 degrees (Fahrenheit). You want to keep the temperature as even as you can.
- The meat should cook until its interior temperature is between 195-205 degrees, then it should rest for about an hour.
- Think about the layout of your grill and how you will gain access to add coals and wood chips with minimal loss of heat. Also plan in advance where the wire of your meat thermometer can run safely (more on that from ThermoWorks).
- Always soak wood chips before adding them to the coals.
- Don’t add wood chips after the pork has reached about 120 degrees or it could end up too smoky, and with a bitter flavor on the outside.
- If you’re using new thermometers, check their accuracy before using them.
- Resist the urge to open the lid and look! I don’t know how I resisted temptation, but I didn’t open the lid for 10 whole hours.
A Budget-Friendly Choice
While a big chunk of pork can seem like a lot of money, it yields a lot of meat, which can be used for so many different things. Pulled pork also freezes very well. Bone-in pork shoulder runs about $1.59 per pound at my local grocery store. That’s about $15 for 9.5 lb. A bone-in pork butt will lose about 40% of its weight after it’s cooked and shredded (according to to a post from Barbecue Bible). With a serving of about a third to half pound per person, my 9.5 lb. cut of pork would yield enough for 12 or more servings. That’s $1.25 per serving (not counting the other ingredients needed). If you’re on a tight budget, cooking up a pork shoulder and freezing the meat for later use is a great way to save money. If you’re cooking for one, you could get 12 meals out of this. For a family of 4, you could make 3 meals.
After eating the pork for dinner, I use the leftovers to make this Pulled Pork BBQ Naan Flatbread and Pulled Pork Quesadillas. Pulled Pork Tortilla Soup is also a solid choice for leftovers, especially if you freeze the pork.
Butt vs. Shoulder
Butt and shoulder are often used synonymously. The Boston butt is from the upper part of the shoulder, whereas a picnic shoulder is the lower part of the shoulder. For more on the butt vs. shoulder topic, see How to Buy Pork Shoulder (from Barbecue Bible) and The Difference Between Pork Butt and Pork Shoulder (from Cook’s Illustrated).
What kind of grill?
I have a Kingsford barrel grill that I got for under $200 at Home Depot. I think it was actually between $100 and $150. I like that it has an adjustable shelf for the charcoal. The tray to capture the ashes is easy to remove, and best of all, it fits into a standard kitchen trash bag (hello easy clean up!) I just slide the tray into the trash bag on the ground and then stand it up to dump the ashes out. I also like that there is a door on the front for easy access to add charcoal when needed. My grill didn’t come with a thermometer, so I bought one and drilled a hole to install. I installed the thermometer a tad higher than I wanted to, but it still gives me a reasonable estimate. Unfortunately, I can’t find my grill online anymore, even though I just got it last year. But this grill has held up well and I think it was a great value for the price I paid!
You can smoke meat on other types of charcoal grills. There are lots of resources available about smoking on other types of charcoal grills, including the traditional Weber kettle (see this post by Weber).
Smoked Pork Butt
- Charcoal grill
- Aluminum foil pan
- Wood chips
- Meat thermometer
- 9½ lb bone-in pork butt
- BBQ sauce sauce of your choice
- Combine ingredients to make the dry rub. Rub the dry rub over all sides of the pork. Do this the night before, if possible, and return the pork to the refrigerator overnight. (Don't worry if you have to do this the morning of!)
- Arrange your grill. Make sure you have easy access to add more coals and wood chips. Place a large aluminum foil pan filled with a bit of water below where you will place the pork (add just enough water to coat the bottom of the pan). Ensure your meat thermometer wire will not be sitting above hot coals.
- Start the coals. Meanwhile, soak 2 handfuls of wood chips.
- Place the wood chips on top of the coals once the coals are ready.
- Place the pork above the pan of water. Connect the meat thermometer. Close the lid.
- Monitor your grill temperature. I checked mine every 30 minutes. The grill temperature should range between 225° to 250°. As the temperature drops, add carefully add more unlit coals. I added between 8 and 12 pieces each time. Add a handful of soaked wood chips each time you add coals, but don't add more wood chips after the meat reaches about 120°.
- Continue monitoring the grill and meat temperature until the meat reaches 195° to 205°. Do not open the lid of the grill unless you absolutely have to.
- Once the meat reaches the proper temperature, transfer it to a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan. Wrap it in foal and let it rest for about an hour. (I let mine rest in the oven, with the oven off. You can also let it rest in an empty cooler.)
- Remove the foil and pull the meat. Serve with BBQ sauce of your choice, if desired.