Spiced Pulled Pork Shoulder and Barbecue Sauce
Meat. It can be confusing, daunting, and contentious. Lots of people like it and eat it, but many avoid cooking it at home because they aren’t sure of how to prepare it, are afraid of “ruining” it, or think it’s too expensive or just too big to commit to. There are a lot of different parts and names that can be confusing, and variations in desired temperatures and cooking times depending on the animal and the cut and the current phase of the moon. Some people just think it feels weird. All legitimate reasons to avoid the stuff, but what a shame to have to steer clear of something so tasty and good for us! Never fear, I’m here with my machete to bushwhack through the tangle of potential hang-ups coming between you and a great preparation of a delicious hunk of pork.
Truth be told, I’ve learned much of what I know about meat from my own mediocre results, experiencing other cooks’ errors, and from reading The Joy of Cooking. I also have a crack team of meat gurus, one of whom hails from the low country of Savannah, Georgia, which has its own delicious brand of barbecue. He’s pretty used to fielding calls from me at odd hours with random inquiries about meats and sauces, which he bears with great patience. Meat can be tricky, and sometimes doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, but with a little bit of research and experience, the results can be very rewarding. In the case of pulled pork, precision is not important, and the copious amounts of succulent meat you reap will go a long way.
Now let’s talk about this moniker “pulled pork”. This name is strange and misleading. Nowhere in the recipe will I direct you to “pull” anything, it’s really more about the meat being cooked until it shreds easily. Furthermore, it is made from a cut of meat commonly called a Boston Butt, even though it is from a shoulder section of the hog, and does not have rear-quarter origins. I blame Boston. (Just kidding. Boston, I love you, your baked beans, and your cream pie.) But here’s the great news: this cut is very inexpensive. I get all of my pork from my favorite hog-part purveyor at the farmer’s market, and you can do the same, or find it at any meat counter where you trust their sources. Just ask for a Boston Butt or a shoulder roast (FYI, “picnic shoulder” is a different cut, usually used for ham). It can come with or without the bone, and either way will work fine. If you do end up with a bone-in piece, the meat will fall right off it in the end, so it doesn’t complicate anything. It will likely weigh somewhere between four and nine pounds (depending on whether the bone is in or not).
Cooking a pork shoulder is amazingly simple. The main necessity is time. Yes, it takes a good set of hours, and this cannot be diminished significantly by using a higher heat or a smaller piece of meat (this would reduce it some, but not a lot). The fact is, this particular part of the pig needs a long, slow, low cooking time in order to break down the materials in the meat that could make it tough (i.e. connective tissue and fat). Fortunately, these are the things that, once melted and turned to pork juice, make the whole concoction magically good and tender. Another reason time is a factor is because this recipe has you slather the meat in mustard and spices and refrigerate it overnight, so it does require some advance planning. (The mustard tenderizes the meat a little before cooking and does not affect the flavor as much as you would think. Even if you don’t like yellow mustard, give this method a chance.)
No special equipment is required for this preparation. I have neither a smoker nor the patience required to maintain a low, constant heat for several hours on my wee Weber charcoal grill (which is another way you can smoke meat), so I choose the oven method. I’ve heard credible success stories involving slow cookers, but I do not have one of these contraptions at present, so oven it is! Tools? Roasting pan and foil. Easy. A baster can help, too, but a spoon or ladle can stand in for that. And an instant-read thermometer is always helpful, but really, when you’re cooking meat this darned long, it’s unlikely that it will be undercooked.
After the pork recipe you will find my Savannah native friend’s recipe for barbecue sauce, which I use faithfully. The classic way to eat this meat is mixed in with sauce, on a nice, spongy white hamburger bun topped with a couple of spoonfuls of coleslaw. I got a little Mexican on my pork and put it in warmed corn tortillas with a drizzle of sauce, a squeeze of lime, and some slaw. No need to be fenced in by tradition. Let the pork be your guide.
Spiced Pulled Pork Shoulder
Makes a lot; leftovers freeze well in large plastic zip freezer bags for later consumption
1 large Boston Butt pork shoulder, bone in or out (4-9 lbs.)
approximately 1/2 cup yellow mustard
- 2 T kosher or coarse sea salt
- 1 T sugar
- 1 T brown sugar
- 2 T chili powder
- 2 T ground cumin
- 1 T ground coriander
- 2 T freshly ground black pepper
- 1 T cayenne pepper
- 1/4 c paprika
1 c apple cider or apple juice
2 T spiced rum, plain rum, or whiskey (optional)
roasting pan big enough to fit your roast with some room to spare
baster or ladle
instant-read thermometer (optional)
The day before you plan on roasting the meat:
Mix all ingredients of the spice blend in a small bowl.
Rinse the meat in cool water, pat dry with paper towels, and set the roast on a large platter or tray. Using as much mustard as you need to cover the entire piece of meat, slather it liberally, using your bare hands for best effect. Make sure to get it inside any crevices and crannies. Once it’s well-mustarded, sprinkle the spice blend to cover the whole roast on all sides and rub it in a little with your spare hand.
Wrap the mustarded-and-spiced meat well in plastic wrap and set it on a plate in your refrigerator to marinate overnight.
On roasting day:
Take the roast out of the fridge an hour or so before you plan on starting to cook it in order to bring it to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Unwrap the roast and place it in your roasting pan with the fattiest side up. Put it in the oven, uncovered, for an hour and a half to two hours (longer for larger piece of meat). Mix together the juice and booze in a measuring cup. Remove the roast from the oven, pour the liquid over the roast, and cover the meat with a piece of foil, so that it loosely fits around the meat (no need to cover the whole pan with it, just around the roast).
Place the roast with its new juices back into the oven and set your timer for one hour. At the one hour mark, pull your roast out, remove the foil, and use your baster or ladle to pull juices from the bottom of the pan and pour them over the meat. Make sure you get it nice and moist everywhere. Replace the foil and put it back in the oven for another hour.
Repeat this process every hour until the meat is tender enough to be shredded easily with a fork (internal temperature should be between 195° and 205°F, if you’re using your thermometer). Generally you’ll need an hour and a quarter (-ish) per pound. When in doubt, cook it a little longer, and add more juice/booze mix if the juices start to dry up in the latter hours of roasting.
When you’ve deemed the roast finished, take the pan out of the oven and move the roast to a platter. Keep it covered in foil and let rest for a half hour or more.
Shred the entire roast using a meat fork and a knife, or a couple of forks (it doesn’t shred well once it’s been refrigerated) and mix with the pan juices.
Serving suggestions: with barbecue sauce on a bun, in tortillas, or just on your plate! Cole slaw makes a good accompaniment for a fresh taste that cuts the intense flavors of the meat and sauce. Here are a few good, simple slaw recipes that would work well!
Ways to Get Fancy
- Play with the herbs and spices in the rub blend and cater to your personal preferences or adventurous whims.
- Toss a can of green chiles or salsa verde over the roast at the beginning of the cooking time. It gives the meat a spicy kick.
Stuff to do with the Leftovers
- More pulled pork sandwiches or tacos.
- Freeze in plastic zip bags and reheat in a foil packet (half hour at about 325-350°F) for a quick lunch or dinner solution.
- Serve atop a bowl of rice and beans with salsa on the side.
- As a side to your eggs and toast for breakfast.
Patterson Pork Sauce
Makes just over 1 cup of sauce
1/2 c yellow mustard
1/4 c + 1 T apple cider vinegar
1 T brown sugar
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/4 c ketchup
1 t garlic powder
1 t smoked paprika (if you don’t have this, skip it, or add ½ t liquid smoke for smokey flavor)
6 shakes Tabasco sauce
1/4 t kosher salt
ground black pepper to taste
Directions? Stir everything together in a small bowl. Taste and alter as your tongue advises. Too spicy? Add a touch more sugar. Too sweet? Add a touch more mustard and/or vinegar. Too mustardy? Add a touch more ketchup and/or vinegar. You get me. I tend to like mine more vinegar-y and less sweet.
Make this sauce while the pork is cooking. The longer it sits and the flavors meld, the tastier it will be.