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Pulled Pork: The Meat

Slow Smoked Pork Shoulder, properly seasoned

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Pulled Pork: The Meat
Ernesto Andrade/Flickr

There remains an ongoing feud in the Southern United States over which part of the hog is best for making pulled pork. Typically, this debate is over using the entire hog or just the shoulder. Of course this debate is something of an apple and orange argument. A whole hog is prepared very differently from the shoulder and largely for other reasons besides pulled pork sandwiches. My main focus here is with the shoulder. If you are interested in going whole hog there is an entirely different process for you.

Starting Out: Pulled pork is a great place to start when learning about smoking and barbecue. Pork shoulders and related cuts, are relatively inexpensive and the meat itself is very forgiving. Under cook it (within the limits of safety) and it might be slightly tough, but it will still taste good. Over cook it and you can still serve it with a smile. Because of the fat marbling, pork shoulder won't dry out like other pieces of meat. You can skip all the traditional rubs, mops and sauces and it will stand alone on the flavor of the meat and smoke. Pork allows you to practice and still be able to eat your mistakes. Brisket and ribs are not as forgiving.

Which Cut: The pork shoulder is the entire front leg and shoulder of a hog. In your grocery store you will usually find this divided into two cuts, the Boston butt and the Picnic. Contrary to what most of us believe, the butt comes from the upper part of the front shoulder. A pork shoulder should weigh between 12 and 16 pounds. It will have a bone and joint plus a good helping of fat and collagen. The fat is good. During the long hours of smoking the fat will melt away, keeping the meat moist. Some experts will tell you that this is how to determine when it is done. When most of the fat is gone and before the meat starts to dry out, it is the time to get it out of the smoker. Collagen is the connective tissue in meat. The process of smoking causes collagen to breakdown into simple sugars making the meat sweet and tender.

Butt or Picnic: As I said the pork shoulder is frequently cut into the Boston butt and the picnic. The Boston butt has less bone than the picnic and both cuts will weigh about 6 to 8 pounds. If you can't find a whole pork shoulder at your local store you can get either or both of these cuts and have just what you need. The picnic can come with or without the bone. Experts generally say that meat nearest the bone is the sweetest and will opt for bone in. The picnic is more similar to an unprepared ham than the Boston butt, but both work well for pulled pork. In competitions you are more likely to see the use of butts over picnics.

Preparing for the Smoker: The meat you choose should have a good quantity of fat and preparing it for smoking is really easy. You can simply put it in the smoker right out of the wrapping, however, you should check it first for loose pieces of fat or skin and trim them off. You can apply a rub to add flavor. I have several rub recipes for you to choose from. If you do choose a rub, apply it the night before you smoke to let the flavors sink into the meat. In the morning, take the meat out of the refrigerator an hour before you put it in the smoker to let it reach room temperature before starting.

Rubbing: If you choose to add a rub, do so liberally. Remember that you are trying to flavor a large piece of meat. To apply, take the pork shoulder or section, trim unnecessary fat and skin, rinse with cool water and pat dry. Take the rub and work it into the meat. Make sure that every part is evenly covered. Pork shoulders can have a very uneven surface with lots of folds and indentations so work it over well.

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