Spiced Pulled Pork Shoulder and Barbecue Sauce

Pulled Pork Taco MealThe time has come for us to get in touch with our carnivorous side. (Sorry, veggies, this one’s for flesh-eaters.) Brontosauruses step aside, it’s T-Rex time.

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.

One Comment

  1. Kimberly says:

    Yum yum! Pork shoulder! We do own a crockpot (we moved to the Middle, and it’s part of the residency requirements here) so I tend to cook mine that way. I have to say, I’m intrigued by your ingredients! We cook ours with water, orange and lemon halves, bay leaves, and an onion or two and let it all simmer at least 4 hours and sometimes 6 or more. I also cut it up into fourish inches chunks as I think it cooks faster that way.

    I’m loving your site!

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