This weekend, two months before our wedding, and in the midst of a never-ending list of house projects, my fiancé and I decided to throw a backyard party for 100 people. We wanted it to be simple and not fraught with symbolism—unlike our wedding—but we of course wanted it to be successful.
My idea of a successful summer party always, always includes pulled pork. Lots of it. The process of slow-smoking a whole pork shoulder for an entire day is a beautiful thing. You watch the outside of the roast go from bright pink to red to brown to almost black. The smells of the meat and the spice rub slowly transform from one dimension to 500 dimensions. You baste the meat every hour and each time you open the lid your clothes and your hair become infused with the scent of fat and smoke. And then, after waiting and smelling and basting and watching and wondering if that roast is ever going to be ready, suddenly, the meat is soft and supple and it nearly falls apart at the touch of your finger. The process of slow-smoking a pork shoulder is so simple, really, but it always seems like magic to me every time I do it.
You can produce pulled pork out of any quantity of pork shoulder, but whenever I make it, I like to make large quantities. I know a farmer who calls me up when he’s got an older female pig whose time as a mother is over—meaning, once a mother stops being a good mother, she can be a liability to a pig farmer. When this happens, I agree to buy a good portion of the meat from the farmer. Where I studied butchery in France pigs are grown for a much longer period of time and have a lot more intramuscular fat running through their muscles. In my opinion, in America, we grow our meat animals too fast and harvest them too early, the result being that the meat we eat here is mild in flavor and somewhat watery. The muscles just haven’t been used enough to give the meat much in the way of interesting flavor, and they haven’t developed enough to be firm and have that intramuscular fat that makes meat taste so good. So when I can get meat from an older pig in the States, I jump at the chance.
Just so happens this farmer sold me 80 pounds of older pig shoulder a few weeks back. So, early last week I took it out of the freezer and slowly coaxed it out of its frozen state. It had already been boned out, so all I needed to do was cut it into smaller roasts that I would tie and then slow smoke on the barbecue. However, when I set to work on it, I realized they had given me the back leg, and not the front shoulder. Now, any pit master will tell you that the shoulder, specifically the Boston Butt (the top part of a pork shoulder), is the only part of the pig you should use to make pulled pork. It has the perfect ratio of fat to meat and there’s not a lot of tough sinew to contend with. I didn’t have time to thaw out another shoulder, so I had to run with the leg, so to speak. Plus, this pig was old enough and ate well enough that there was enough fat just about everywhere.
I separated it into the top round and bottom round, leaving a few smaller muscle groups attached to each. I then rubbed a mixture of brown sugar, salt, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, and a little celery salt onto the muscle groups and placed it in a plastic tub in the fridge overnight.
Early the next morning, I started my coals in two standard Weber grills. I placed hot coals on each side of the grill with a drip pan in the middle and tossed hickory wood chips that had soaked in water for an hour over the hot coals. I placed the tied and spiced roasts onto the grill directly over the drip pans and every hour basted the roasts with a mixture of cider vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and sliced onion. The only real trick to this entire process is regulating the heat. You don’t want the coals to burn too hot and fast, but you also don’t want them to go out. So, I tried to find a balance by opening the heat vents about halfway.
After about six hours, two of my roasts had reached 195 degrees and seemed to have reached the right amount of softness to make the pulling process easy. But the other one, slightly larger, wouldn’t seem to budge past 165 degrees. I had a dinner to go to and I didn’t want to leave it, so I tossed it into my crockpot along with drippings from the drip pan. When I got home, two hours later, it had reached falling-apart sublimity.
At the party the next day, we served a North Carolina style version—apple cider based—and a Kansas City—ketchup based—version. I don’t think anyone noticed I’d used a pork leg instead of a shoulder. All 45 pounds were gone by the end of the evening. I even caught one person spooning the last of the sauce into his mouth for dessert.
Follow these directions, buy yourself a lot of buns and a lot of beer, and you can have the easiest and most perfect summer hoedown around.
How to Make Pulled Pork
This mouth-watering pulled pork recipe is perfect for a summer barbecue. The instructions below will show you how to make most of your ingredients from scratch, but if you want to cut-down on prep time, you can easily find these items pre-made in your local grocery store.
- 1 bone-in pork shoulder roast (typically about 5 pounds), rolled and tied
- 4-5 tbsp Pork Rub (see recipe)
- 1 cup Basting Sauce (see recipe)
- 3 cups Barbecue Sauce (see recipes)
- 10 hamburger buns
- 3 cups of your favorite coleslaw
Rub pork rub mixture all over the roast.
Place roast in a non-reactive container and place uncovered in the fridge for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours.
Prepare the Grill:
Soak several cups of wood chips in water for one hour.
Fill a chimney starter with charcoal and light it. When the coals have just started to turn white, pour half the coals on one side of the grill and half on the other, leaving space in the middle for a drip pan.
Place drip pan in the middle. Place ½ cup of drained wood chips on each mound of coals.
Place roast on the grill over drip pan. Cover with the barbecue lid, and close vents about halfway. Add fresh (soaked) wood chips every hour.
Baste with the basting sauce every hour.
The meat will likely take 4 to 6 hours, but once it reaches 195 degrees on a meat thermometer, it should be ready. You can also tell by sticking a knife into the middle. If there is resistance, it isn’t ready. If it slides in and the meat seems as though it would fall apart easily, then it’s ready. It will be normal for the outer skin to be black by the time the roast is done.
Pull the Pork:
Take the meat off the grill when it is ready, and let it cool at room temperature for a half hour.
Use either your hands or two forks to pull the pork. If you use your hands, wear plastic gloves to keep them from getting burned.
Pull off the burnt skin with your hands or using two forks. If there are bones, pull those out first. Pull large chunks of meat out. Then, use your fingers or the tines of the forks to tear the meat into shredded pieces.
Place the pork in a roasting pan and cover it with barbeque sauce. Mix the barbeque sauce together with the shredded pork.
Serve on buns with your favorite coleslaw.