Minimal ingredients, simple steps and mouth-watering results. Your easy guide to the best pulled pork you have ever tasted. And it’s going to be even more effortless than you expected. You just won’t be able to stop going back for more.
Pork Shoulder (or pork butt) is the best piece of meat to start with if you are new to smoking. Not only is it affordable, but it’s difficult to mess up and super easy to make amazing. That is a winning great combination!
You are about to transform a large, normally tough, inexpensive cut of pork into a wood-smoked wonder of sweet, flavorful and tender pulled pork. While it’s a long process in terms of time, it’s only a few simple steps and almost completely hands-off.
A few things to know before we begin: You got this! Just follow the process. It might feel a bit overwhelming, but when it’s done and everyone is saying “wow, this is absolutely amazing!” it’s going to have felt so easy and worth it.
If you are new to smoking, read through the entire post and recipe first. If you feel comfortable with your smoker, you can jump right down to the full recipe.
Smoking meat can be simple or can get overly complicated pretty fast. The thing to know is that you are going to nail it. We’re going for the best outcome while keeping things as uncomplicated and as easy as possible.
You will get better with each attempt. Learn from what worked and what didn’t. Get to know your smoker and how it works. Just follow the basic formula and it’s going to be great.
What You’ll Need
- A pork shoulder or pork butt: either bone-in or boneless in any size will work, the cook time will just be different.
- Diamond Kosher salt (or your preferred salt). [***look at my rub recipe for salt content]
- Dry rub (or spices to make your own).
- Sharp knife for trimming the fat.
- Smoker: a charcoal smoker like a Big Green Egg, a pellet smoker like a traeger or any others smoker will work.
- Fuel: either charcoal & wood chunks (3 to 4 is good) for a charcoal smoker or pellets for a pellet smoker.
- Meat thermometer: A two-channel remote thermometer for remotely monitoring the internal temperature and an instant-read probe thermometer for spot checking.
- Drip pan: I prefer disposable aluminum drip pans for easy clean-up.
- Aluminum foil or butcher paper (for wrapping the pork shoulder to rest).
- Shredding tool: Pulling claws, an ice chipper or nitrile gloves over cotton gloves for shredding the pork.
A Little About Pork Shoulder
A whole pork shoulder is a primal cut from the shoulder region of the pig that is then separated into two parts. These two cuts become the upper and lower portions of the shoulder. There is the pork butt, aka Boston butt, which has nothing to do with the rear of the animal. It’s still from the front shoulder of the pig. Then there is the lower portion that is called the picnic roast or picnic ham (not the ham that we know as cured and smoked though). Yep, the naming is quite confusing.
Pork Shoulder vs Pork Butt
The pork butt (from the upper portion) has more fat marbling, which can make it more tender than the picnic shoulder roast (lower portion).
Picnic shoulder roast will sometimes be sold with the skin on, which you will want to remove as it gets very tough when cooked at low temperatures and won’t allow the smoke flavor to penetrate into the meat (it is thick skin after all!).
Bone-In vs Boneless
Either bone-in or boneless will work just fine for this recipe. The advantage of bone-in is that it is nicely held together and keeps its shape since it didn’t been cut up for the bone to be removed. This will allow the meat to cook a bit more evenly, but having the bone won’t add any flavor. If your pork butt or shoulder came with a bone, just leave it in. It will be super easy to just pull right out once the meat is fully cooked.
The advantage of boneless is that it’s all meat and you aren’t paying for bone. It will also cook slightly more quickly, but a little less evenly.
Buying a Butt or Pork Shoulder
Buying quality pork makes a difference. This is a big piece of meat that you are spending an entire day with, likely sharing with lots of people and enjoying for a week. You want it to be great. Starting with high-quality ingredients is the best way to get great results.
Look for a well-marbled cut from the upper shoulder (Boston butt) if you can find it, but either part is going to work.
Avoid pork products that have been “enhanced.” This means that the meat has been injected with a solution and pumped full of water along with other ingredients that will change the texture and it will taste salty. Those ingredients will be listed on a nutrition label on the package. Just avoid enhanced pork.
If you really want quality and want to splurge just a little, look for a premium heritage breed pork. These will usually be either Duroc or Berkshire, but there are others as well. And if you are wondering, yes, these are noticeably better but a lot more expensive.
Where to Source It:
- Your Local Butcher: Buying from your local butcher not only supports local, but you will likely get better quality and can find heritage breed pork. A lot of the time we don’t need a huge 8+ pound portion, and that’s the great thing about buying from the local butcher is they have smaller size cuts (or can cut to a size you want).
- Snake River Farms: Berkshire (Kurobuta) pork shoulder.
- Crowd Cow: bone-in or boneless heritage or pasture raised pork shoulder.
- Costco: one of the best places to buy good quality pork shoulders at the lowest prices.
Pro Tips & Tricks for Success
- Cook by temperature, not by time: Time is just an estimate where temperature is exact for your situation.
- Use a remote probe thermometer: This just makes everything easier and stress free. It allows you to remotely monitor the temperature of your smoker and the meat so you don’t have to continuously check it.
- Keep the smoker lid closed (as muich as possble): Every time you lift the lid, heat escapes and a consistent temperature is important for the best results.
- Plan ahead and start early: Long smokes often take longer than you expect they will. It’s done when it’s done, so start early (I will usually start smoking the night before).
- Don’t skimp on the rest time: The rest time is super important to allow all the juices to be reabsorbed for the juiciest pulled pork.
- Shred when it’s warm: It’s so much easier when it’s warm than letting it cool or shredding from the refrigerator.
- Speed up the cook (when needed): Some situations require you to speed up the cook. Wrap the meat once the bark is formed and it reaches an internal temp around 165° F. Then either increase the smoker temperature to 275° F or place in the same temperature oven until it reaches the desired finished temp.
- Take notes from your cook so you can remember the steps you took and can improve each time.
Prepping the Pork Shoulder
There’s nothing really technical about prepping a pork shoulder for smoking, but a few simple things do make a difference. It’s really just about cleaning it up a bit (which is totally optional) and seasoning with plenty of salt and a nice dry rub.
Trimming: While the pork is cold, use a very sharp knife to trim excess fat and any hanging pieces that can burn during the cook. Trim the fat cap down to about ¼” if needed and score the fat cap cutting 1″ slits in a crosshatch pattern, being careful not to slice into the flesh. This will help hold the spice rub and promote crispy rendered fat that is oh so delicious and great for presentation.
Seasoning: Season early if possible (24 hours ahead is great). This will allow the salt to penetrate all the way through, bringing out tons of flavor and helping to tenderize the meat. If you can’t season that far ahead, just be sure to do it at least an hour before the cook.
It’s all about the salt! Salt is super important. It’s the only ingredient (besides the smoke) that will actually penetrate all the way through the meat to add flavor.
Important: If your dry rub already contains salt, then be cautious about adding too much more. If it’s not in the rub, then it should be added separately.
Use 1 teaspoon of Diamond kosher salt per pound or ½ teaspoon of Morton kosher salt per pound of pork shoulder.
The dry rub ingredients in this recipe consist of smoked paprika, dark chili powder, cumin, dark brown sugar, dried oregano, granulated sugar, ground black pepper and celery seeds. It isn’t spicy, but it adds great color and helps create a delicious “bark,” which is a super flavorful crust on the outside of the meat. If you want to make it a little spicier, you can add cayenne or use a spicy sauce when serving.
Temper the Meat Before Smoking
Tempering is the process of allowing the temperature of the meat to rise closer to room temperature before cooking it. This will allow the meat to cook more evenly and will reduce the overall cook time. Remove the meat from the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter for 1 hour (or even 2) before placing it in the smoker.
The starting temperature of the meat is one of the big variables that change the cook time from what a recipe might have said and your exact situation. If the meat starts off at a cold refrigerator temperature (~34° F), then it’s going to take extra time for it to come up to temperature in the smoker.
The Importance of a Drip Pan (With Water)
A drip pan with water helps create a humid environment inside the smoker. It is important for keeping the meat moist, promoting smoke penetration, and to catch drippings, which help keep your smoker clean and prevent flare-ups.
Fill the drip pan up about halfway with warm water, so the smoker doesn’t cool down while it heats up the water. Keep your eye on the water level throughout the cook and add more when it gets low, which is likely to happen during a long smoke like this.
Be Prepared for the Stall
The stall is when the internal temperature of meat rises to somewhere between 150° and 170° F then suddenly ceases to climb and can sometimes even drop in temperature. It can seem like an eternity and can go on for hours at a time.
Something must be wrong, right? Nope! Don’t worry, this is just the “stall.” The scientific reason for this is fairly complicated to explain, but basically, the meat is sweating and is losing moisture as it cooks, which cools itself down. Once this moisture has evaporated, the internal temperature of the meat will resume climbing once again and it’s a big sigh of relief.
To help push through the stall, you can wrap the meat once a nice bark formed and it has absorbed a lot of smoke, which will be around 165° F internal. Wrapping is something I will do for brisket, but usually not for pork shoulder.
After the Cook
Once the pork is smoked and has reached an internal temperature between 195-205°F (the higher the more tender it will be), it’s time to rest it, shred it and serve it.
The rest is a crucial step, and should not be skipped. Rest the smoked pork shoulder for at least 1 hour, but longer is fine too. I recommend wrapping it with foil and storing it in a cooler lined with a towel (obviously no ice in the cooler). This will keep it insulated and slow the decrease in temperature.
I would rather take the meat out of the smoker a few degrees before it’s ready rather than skip the rest time. If you are in a rush and need to serve it ASAP, rest it tented with aluminum foil with a few vent holes on a large cutting board.
Shredding for Pulled Pork
Now comes the fun part! Shredding (or pulling the meat apart) is much much easier to do when the meat is warm, yet cooled down enough to handle. There are a number of tools to do the trick. From meat claws to using an ice chipper to a simple large fork. A pair of cotton gloves covered with nitrile gloves is a great way to shred the pork without burning your hands or while keeping your hands and gloves clean.
Use your tool of choice and shred along the grain to maintain that amazing texture.
Saucing for Pulled Pork
While sauce is definitely not required since this pulled pork will already be so juicy and flavorful, there’s just something about a little sweet & tangy BBQ sauce that can kick it up another level. You will need around 1 to 2 cups of sauce for the whole shoulder.
Error on the side of under-saucing rather than oversaucing, as people can always add more if they prefer. Combine the shredded pork with sauce in a large bowl, pot or crockpot on low to keep it warm for serving.
Best Ways to Utilize The Meat
The uses for the smoked pork butt are endless. Serve it on a Hawaiian bun with a fresh slaw as a pulled pork sandwich. Use it in delicious crispy carnitas tacos with avocado-lime crema and quick pickled onions. Use it to make a comforting ragu, add it to delicate omelets for breakfast, on pizza, salads, or crunchy nachos. Just about anything goes.
Sides that Make the Meal
- Baked Beans
- BBQ Sauce
This recipe was originally published on 04/25/2018 but has been updated in January 2022 with new useful information and instructions.
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- Texas Style Smoked Brisket
- Smoked St. Louis Style Spare Ribs
- Smoked Pork Belly
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