How to Cook a Pork Shoulder in an Electric Smoker

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Pulled pork fresh from the smoker.
Pulled pork fresh from the smoker. (Image: Blissful Glutton, Cabelas, The Grill Store, Rival/Walmart)

If you're planning on feeding a group, pork shoulder is a great budget-stretching option. They average 7-9 lbs. before cooking and can be used for classic North Carolina-style pulled pork for sandwiches and other dishes. Slow cooking the pork shoulder in an electric smoker will give you a moist, flavorful entrée for a reasonable price and, because electric smokers take little supervision once they're plugged in, it is an easy technique even for beginners with no smoking experience. It takes a little advanced planning because smoking is a slow process, but it's well worth the wait.

Things You'll Need

  • Electric smoker big enough for a 9 lb. roast
  • Grounded power supply
  • Hickory chips
  • Water
  • 7-9 lb. pork shoulder roast (butt portion preferred over picnic by grill masters)
  • Rub
  • North Carolina-style barbecue sauce
  • Sauce brush
  • Meat thermometer
  • Foil
  • Two forks to shred the roast
  • Hamburger buns

Make the rub. 2 tbsp. half-sharp (mildly spicy) paprika 2 tsp. garlic powder 2 tsp. dry mustard powder 2 tbsp. packed brown sugar 1 tbsp. kosher salt flakes 1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper

Blend the paprika, cumin, garlic, mustard, sugar, salt, and black pepper, being sure to break up any lumps of sugar. Seal in a jar until ready to use.

Make the North Carolina-style barbecue sauce. 1 cup cider vinegar 2 tbsp. prepared yellow mustard 1 tbsp. kosher salt flakes 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper 1 tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes 2 tbsp. packed brown sugar

Put all the ingredients in a jar with a lid. Put the lid on and shake until the sugar is dissolved. Keep refrigerated until ready to use.

A professional-style smoker for a crowd.
A professional-style smoker for a crowd.

Take the pork shoulder out of its wrappings about 24 hours before serving time. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle generously with the seasoning rub. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours.

Soak the hickory chips in a pan of water for 30 minutes. How much you will need depends on the size and capacity of your smoker. Follow the manufacturer's recommendation.

A table-top smoker
A table-top smoker

Prepare the smoker 18 hours before you want to serve. Start by reading all the instructions that came with your model. Drain the soaked hickory chips and load them into the basket of your smoker. Fill the smoker's water pan. Plug it in and set the temperature to 225 degrees (if your model has a temperature control feature.)

Load the pork shoulder into the smoker, skin side down, thermometer facing up. For a 9 lb. roast, it will take 16-17 hours to reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees, ideal for falling-off-the-bone pulled pork. If you plan to slice the pork like a traditional roast, cook it until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Put more hickory chips on to soak. Check the smoker occasionally and refill the water pan and chips as needed. The more often you check, however, the more heat you will lose and the longer it will take to cook the meat. Follow the manufacturer's directions and suggestions for best results.

Brush the North Carolina-style barbecue sauce onto the pork shoulder during the last 30 minutes of smoking.

Remove the pork shoulder carefully from the smoker when the roast has reached an internal temperature of 180 degrees. It will be tender and falling off the bones. Cover the roast with foil and allow it to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before pulling the pork off the bones and shredding it with two forks. Serve on hamburger buns with Southern-style side dishes.

Small, economical smoker
Small, economical smoker

Tips & Warnings

  • Use good quality, cured wood for your smoker chips. Green wood, wood with paint or other finishes, and treated lumber will produce a bitter, acrid smoke that will give your food the same flavor, and could leave a dangerous chemical residue on your food. Creosote, a normal byproduct of burning wood, will deposit on your food if the smoke is not circulating properly. Follow the manufacturer's directions for making sure there is adequate air flow to prevent this.
  • Read the manual before using your smoker, and follow all the directions. Depending on your model, the outside surfaces of smokers can be hot and cause serious burns. Place your smoker in an area that is away from children and curious pets. Always use sound food-handling practices to avoid causing food-borne illness: keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Use appropriate safety gear around the hot smoker. Your smoker might require cleaning and curing before using to take away any chemical residue left from the manufacturing process. Consult your owner's manual for details.

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