Pork is the glory of most barbecue in Dixie. Southerners slow smoke whole hogs, ribs, shoulders and hams, just about every part of the pig but the trotters and the tail. At a booth in Atlanta’s municipal market, you can order a pig ear sandwich. But here in Texas, birthplace of the American cattle industry, pork has been a rare commodity in barbecue pits until fairly recently. Now, pulled pork is found on most barbecue menus.
Boston butt from the front shoulder of the animal is the preferred cut for most cooks, but whole pigs and mixed cuts are smoked as well. The idea, much like Texas brisket, is to take a cut of meat that is generally tough, and cook it long and slow until it is so tender that it can be pulled apart with a pair of forks.
This style and cut is popular well beyond the boundaries of the USA. Mexican carnitas from the state of Michoacán are an example as are cochinita pibil, puerco pibil, and cochinita con achiote from Yucatán. The cuisines of the Philippines, South African, and China also have variations on the pulled pork theme.
The web abounds with recipes for pulled pork. Every food blogger worth his wooden spoon has chimed in with ideas, and almost all of them will produce a tasty produce. In addition to the traditional long, slow smoke, there are recipes for pulled pork in a slow cooker, an Instant Pot, oven roasted, and braised, but are they the real thing? All will produce a tender cut of juicy pork, but the essential element that can only be derived from sublime smoke is going to be missing. So, if you want to try your hand at a more authentic version, here are some suggestions from Aaron Vogel, the prize-winning pit master from Cackle & Oink in Sherman.
Preparation: Vogel recommends cooking pork shoulder or Boston butt with the bone in.
“First, you need a good injection and a dry rub and a wet rub,” he said. “The injection will keep the inside moist, and dry rub and wet rub will help build the bark. A good bark with crystallize the sugar and will help hold in the moisture.”
For the brine, Vogel recommends a simple solution of salt, sugar, and water. Apple juice or pineapple juice can replace the water if desired.
The dry rub goes on first, and Vogel said to be liberal with it.
“You can’t use too much,” he said.
Then apply the wet rub.
“Some people use mustard, some use some sort of dressing or a slurry, but basically you’re making a paste,” he said. “While you’re cooking it, you spritz it occasionally.”
After applying the rubs, Vogel lets the should sit in the refrigerator for at least two days.
“If we season it on Tuesday, we don’t cook it until Thursday or Friday night,” he explained.
Smoke: Does the wood that provides the smoke make a difference? Vogel thinks it does.
“I recommend using your favorite fruit wood and your favorite hard wood,” he said. “With pork butts we use a little bit of apple and a little bit of pecan. You need the hard wood because with the larger cuts, the fruit woods don’t always reach the smokiness you’re looking for. Hickory, pecan, or oak will give you that smokier taste, if that’s what you want.”
Cooking: The operable phrase is “low and slow.” Cackle & Oink’s shoulder goes on the smoker for at least 16 hours at no higher than 225 F. At a higher temperature, the outside will be done before the inside is ready. Overall time on the smoker can depend on the size of the cut.
“You don’t take it off until that blade bone jiggles,” he said. “Boston butt will go from very floppy at its raw stage to really stiff when it is cooking. Once the internal fat starts breaking down, it will get jiggly again, sort of like when it was raw, but the difference is the blade bone. When it’s done, you could slip that bone right out if you wanted to.”
Resting: Once the Boston butt is cooked through, it comes off the smoker, it is wrapped in aluminum foil and allowed to rest for at least two hours to give the meat time to re-absorb the juices. After the rest, remove the blade bone and pull the pork in to shreds using a pair of forks.
Storing: Leftovers are not a problem in the restaurant business, and the pulled pork that is not sold that day, is used for flavoring in the side dishes and beans.
“If we have a whole butt, one that we never broke down, we put in the refrigerator and reheat it, wrapped, for two hours at 215 F,” Vogel said.
For the home cook, Vogel recommends putting up the leftover pulled pork in a vacuum seal bag or at least in a zip lock bag with as much of the air removed as possible. When needed, it can be reheated in a pot of boiling water.
Sauce: Pork, no matter how you cook it, has less inherent flavor than beef. That is why sauce is so important with pulled pork. The possibilities are endless. Traditional tomato based sauces work well, and can be on the sweet side or the spicy side, and if you like it hot, an extra shot of hot sauce or Tabasco can kick things up.
The many variations of the North Carolina vinegar based sauce find favor with many pork advocates. Tart and peppery, the right vinegar sauce really brings out the flavor of the meat. The Carolina coasts serve a mustard based sauce that their fans swear by. Finding one you like is a matter of experimentation, and there are recipes by the score on the web.
Another Southern add on is cole slaw. A big scoop of cole slaw makes a fine topping for a monumental pulled pork sandwich.
Texas will always be brisket country, but cooks are discovering there are other things as well, and pork, Boston butt, ribs, thick pork chops, and other cuts can provide a nice variation on the usual menus.
Edward Southerland is a feature writer for Best of Texoma. For more information, visit BestofTexoma.com or www.facebook.com/BestOfTexoma.