One of the cornerstones of traditional barbecue, pulled pork is a glorious highlight of Southern cuisine. It's sometimes made from whole hogs, but the classic version calls for just pork shoulder. Shoulder has just the right mixture of well-marbled muscle, fat and connective tissue to result in a lush, rich, flavorful end result. Whole shoulders are inconveniently large for home enthusiasts, but smaller pork butts -- cut from the shoulder -- are just the right size.
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Prepare the Pork
A bone-in pork butt typically weighs 5 to 8 pounds, though they can be larger or smaller. By the time you cook the meat, separate out the bone and discard the surplus fat, that should yield 12 to 20 generous portions of pulled pork. Pork is often sold "seasoned," meaning it's infused with brine. If yours is not, you might wish to sprinkle it with coarse salt and let it sit overnight. It will absorb the salt, flavoring the meat and helping the pork retain moisture when it's cooked. Don't do this if the pork is pre-seasoned, or it will be terribly salty. When in doubt, skip this step.
Most cooks like to rub the pork with a dry rub or wet seasoning paste before it's cooked. As the pork cooks it develops a crust -- the "bark" -- and these seasoning mixtures lend the bark a deeper, fuller flavor. Feel free to mix your own or start out by selecting a commercial mixture with a good reputation.
Getting Under Way
Smokers come in propane and natural gas versions, microprocessor-controlled electric models, and a dizzying variety of elaborate charcoal-driven rigs. Each has its advantages and its own setup procedure. If you have one, follow the manufacturer's directions to set it up for smoking. If you're working with a basic charcoal kettle -- the default starting point for many novices -- the process is straightforward.
Set your pork butt on the kettle's grate and mentally measure how much space it takes up. Your coals must be alongside the meat, not under it, so the space under the rest of the grate is how much room you have for charcoal.
Set the pork aside and lift the grate from the kettle. Fill one side of the grill with lump charcoal or "pure" charcoal briquettes -- without added petrochemicals to help them burn -- with a few pieces of hardwood layered throughout for smoke.
Start a generous handful of additional coals in a chimney-type starter and add them to the mound. Set a pan alongside the fire to catch drips from the pork as it cooks. Wait 15 to 20 minutes for the coals to establish themselves, then place the seasoned butt over the drip pan.
Fill a second pan with water and place it over the coals, to keep the air in the smoker moist.
Close the kettle's lid and adjust the vents until the cooking temperature stabilizes at 225 to 250 F.
Now, You Wait
At this point, there's little for the cook to do for the next several hours except wait and monitor the coals. A kettle usually won't hold enough charcoal to last all the way through a long "cook," so at least once or twice you'll need to start a fresh batch in your chimney starter and add them to what's left in the kettle. If you already know your kettle holds enough charcoal for 4 hours' cooking, for example, you might need to top it up once or twice before you're done.
A good rule of thumb is that your butt will need to cook 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours per pound -- say, 10 to 12 hours for an 8-pound butt -- but it can vary by several hours in either direction, often taking 14 to 16 hours. Every butt differs in its fat content and the weight of bone inside, and wind or outside temperatures can also speed or slow your cooking.
The best way to monitor your pork's doneness is with a good quality probe thermometer. The fat and connective tissue in the butt take a long time to melt and usually won't have that characteristically soft, lush pulled-pork texture until the internal temperature reaches 200 to 205 F. Even then, it pays to be sure. Remove and re-insert the probe in a few places, to make sure the whole butt has reached the correct temperature.
The butt might settle in at an internal temperature of 150 to 160 F for several hours, a frustrating interval known to enthusiasts as "the stall." It just means that all the thermal energy in the pork is taken up with melting its fat and connective tissue, which is exactly what you want. Once the temperature starts rising again, the pork will finish quickly.
Finishing and Serving
The long cooking time means you'll need to get started early in the morning for an evening get-together, but the end result is worth it. Rest the pork until it's cool enough to handle, then pull it apart into its separate large muscle groups with forks or gloved hands. Remove the bone and any large seams of fat. Chop the large muscles into smaller pieces, if you wish, then pull the pork into long shreds. The crusty exterior "bark" can be set aside for those who like it best, or mixed in with the rest of the pork to take advantage of its intense flavor and contrasting texture.
How you serve the pork is largely a matter of personal preference. It's typically mixed with a sauce and then served on soft buns, or simply in a mound on your plate.
Coleslaw is a standard side dish, because its tang and crunch make a pleasant foil for the soft and rich pork.
Your choice of sauce is more controversial. Regional variations might be based on vinegar, mustard, ketchup or even mayonnaise, and each is hotly defended by its aficionados. If you live outside the traditional pulled-pork hotbeds, feel free to try several and see which you like best. If all else fails, just pick a commercial barbecue sauce you already like.