Perfect for Super Bowl Sunday
Pulled pork takes a while to make if you do it the traditional way—12 hours or more of slow cooking with wood smoke. Plus you need to hang around outside to tend the fire. For most of us, that’s just not going to happen very often (especially when the weather turns cold, as it has right now in much of the US).
Well, good news! You can “barbecue” a pork shoulder in your oven—and get succulent pulled pork that rivals your favorite BBQ joint’s.
With the Super Bowl coming up in a couple of weeks, you may be having some friends over to watch the game. Hungry friends. Serve them this great pulled pork and you’ll be a winner—no matter how your team plays.
Recipe: Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Pulled Pork
This recipe is a riff off my Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Spare Ribs. It’s even easier though, because pork shoulder is more forgiving in terms of temperature sensitivity. And if you're interested in a similar recipe for beef brisket, check out Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Beef Brisket.)
As noted in the post on spare ribs, people often use the term “barbeque” for anything cooked outdoors on a Weber. But most of the time, what we’re actually doing is grilling—i.e., cooking meat over relatively high heat. That’s not a good method for most barbecue meats (like pork shoulder, spare ribs, and beef brisket), which have lots of connective tissues that make them tough. Cooked this way, pork shoulder will be “done” (i.e., safe to eat) at 160 degrees F, but it will be very chewy. Not what you want for pulled pork, which should be so tender that you can readily tear it apart—“pull” it—with your hands.
Barbecuing is very different from grilling. When you barbeque meat, you cook it at low heat (typically 200 to 225 degrees F) for several hours. This slow-cooking process allows the connective tissues and fat to melt away (which typically happens around 190 degrees F).
Fortunately, you can achieve the same degree of tenderness in your oven. And because you don’t have to keep a live fire going at a constant temperature, you can let the barbecue cook largely unattended. The meat will come out tender and flavorful.
For this recipe, you need pork shoulder (a/k/a pork butt or Boston butt). An entire pork shoulder typically weighs 16 pounds or more (and can take a day to slow cook). So unless you’re feeding a huge crowd, you’ll want something smaller. Most supermarkets sell cuts of pork shoulder sized anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds. You can get a bone-in or boneless cut. Either works, although I think the bone-in has a bit more flavor (but of course you’ll get a bit less meat).
This recipe uses a small amount of liquid smoke to help flavor the meat during the cooking process. Good liquid smoke is a natural product, containing nothing but water and natural smoke concentrate. But do read the label; cheaper brands include chemicals you don’t want to use. BTW, I got the idea for using liquid smoke to scent the meat from Chef John, although my method of cooking the pork differs from his. Warning: As the pork cooks, your oven will emit a wood-smoke aroma. If you’re allergic, or the idea of this smell drifting through your house doesn’t appeal, omit the liquid smoke.
For this recipe, you’ll use a “rub” to season the meat, and it’s best if you apply it the day (or night) before you plan to cook the meat. You can use your own recipe for the rub, or use my favorite—which I describe below.
Preparation time for this recipe (making the rub and applying it to the pork) is about 20 minutes. Then the rubbed pork needs to rest in the refrigerator overnight before cooking. Cooking time is about 1½ to 2 hours per pound of meat. So this recipe does take a bit of time (though most of it is unattended).
This recipe yields about 6 to 8 generous servings (~2½ servings per pound of uncooked pork shoulder—the pork loses some weight as it cooks). Leftovers store well in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few days.
For the rub:
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika)
- 2 tablespoons dried ground chipotle or ancho chile powder (ancho doesn’t have a smoky flavor, but it’s milder than chipotle)
- 1½ tablespoons garlic powder
- 1½ tablespoons onion powder
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ~3 pounds pork butt (I prefer bone-in, but boneless works fine; use more if you prefer, but it’ll take longer to cook; see Headnote)
- hot water (I usually heat it in a kettle)
- 2 teaspoons liquid smoke (optional; but it does add some extra flavor)
Steps 1 through 3 should be accomplished several hours before you plan to start cooking the pork. Ideally, the rub-coated, uncooked pork butt should rest in the fridge overnight.
- The night before you want to cook the pork, prepare the rub: Combine all ingredients, then mix thoroughly until well blended.
- Coat the pork butt: Remove the pork from its packaging (if it’s tied, untie it). With your hands, pat the rub on all sides of the pork. You’ll want to use at least ¼ cup of rub, but use more if you wish (see Notes). Reserve unused rub for another purpose.
- Place the pork butt in a heavy food-storage bag (I use freezer bags), squeeze out as much air as possible, and fasten the top. Refrigerate overnight.
- Half an hour before you want to begin cooking the pork, preheat the oven to 250 degrees F and remove the pork butt from the refrigerator to warm up. (See Notes; may increase oven temperature if you want the pork to cook faster.)
- Place a wire rack in the bottom of a roasting pan (preferably a pan that’s just large enough to hold the pork). If you don’t have a wire rack, roll a sheet or two of aluminum foil between your hands, forming a “snake” that you can place (in zig-zag configuration) in the bottom of the roasting pan. Add hot water until it’s about halfway up the legs of the rack (you don’t want the water to touch the pork, which will sit on the rack). Add the liquid smoke to the water. (Again, as the pork cooks, your oven will emit a wood-smoke aroma, so omit the liquid smoke if this doesn’t appeal to you. But do include the water—it helps keep the pork moist.)
- Place the pork butt on the wire rack (again, make sure it doesn’t touch the water). Tent the pork and the rack with a sheet of aluminum foil, crimping around the edges to keep steam from escaping. Place the roasting pan in the oven and set a timer for 3 hours.
- At the 3-hour mark, remove the foil. Insert the probe of an instant-read thermometer to determine how the pork is coming along (you want it to reach 190 - 200 degrees F). If the pork is not done yet, return it to the oven until it reaches the appropriate temperature (leaving the foil off).
- Timing note: Total cooking time is usually 1½ to 2 hours per pound. If the pork is taking too long to cook, you can increase the oven temperature to 300 - 325 degrees F to hurry things along. In some cases, pork butt will cook a bit faster than you expect it to. If that happens, turn the oven down to 225 (or even 200) degrees F.
- Once the pork is done, if you need to wait before serving it, remove it from the oven and wrap it in aluminum foil. You can hold the cooked pork in a 180-degree F oven for up to 3 hours.
- When ready to proceed, remove the cooked pork from the oven and let it cool at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Then pull the pork: Many people use their hands—but be careful not to burn your fingers. Alternatively, use a pair of large forks, pulling the meat into shreds.
- Serve the pulled pork with your favorite barbeque sauce (you might want to try our Tangy Barbecue Sauce). You can serve the pork as a meat dish or use it to make sandwiches (which is what I usually do). For sandwiches, plain white buns are the traditional choice. Popular garnishes include dill pickle slices and onions. Many people like to top their sandwiches with coleslaw, too.
- The rub I use in this recipe contains both pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) and dried chipotle chile powder (made from smoked and dried jalapeño peppers). The naturally smoky flavor of these ingredients helps flavor the pork.
- The recipe for the rub makes way more than you’ll use for this pulled pork. You can store the rest in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple of weeks. It will keep even longer if you refrigerate or freeze it.
- I tend to use a lot of rub—about half a cup for a 3-pound pork butt. It adds a nice, spicy crust.
- You should use an instant-read thermometer when slow-cooking pork shoulder (or any barbecue meat) because you really need to know what is going on temperature-wise. I like the (rather pricey) Thermapen—its temperature sensor is at the tip of the probe, so you can position it accurately, and it records a temperature within 3 seconds. It’s also exceptionally accurate (within about one degree). I received one of these as a gift several years ago, and find it indispensable. BTW, I have no connection with the makers of Thermapen, nor do I gain financially (or in any other way) from mentioning it; I’m just an extremely happy user of their product.
- When pork shoulder is barbequed the traditional way, it cooks at 200 - 225 degrees F, which is a lower temperature than I specify. You can cook it at this temperature if you want—and you may get slightly better flavor. But the difference really is small, and you’ll increase cooking time quite a bit.
- Step 8 mentions that you can finish cooking pork shoulder at 300 or 325 degrees F if it’s taking too long to cook and you want to hurry things along. You can also cook it from the start at either of those temperatures, and it’ll take less time. (Melissa Clark of the New York Times has published a recipe for cooking pulled pork at 300 degrees F.) If you go this route, I suggest taking the aluminum foil off of the pork shoulder (Step 7) after 2 hours rather than 3.
- When barbecuing pork shoulder over a fire, many people use a mopping sauce to keep the meat moist. This isn’t necessary when you prepare pork in the oven, though it adds extra flavor—so do this if you want. Start mopping after you remove the aluminum foil in Step 7.
- BTW, barbecue sauce generally does not make a good mopping sauce. Barbecue sauces usually contain sugar and/or tomato, which tends to caramelize and char when exposed to heat. So use a different sauce for mopping, and add barbecue sauce at table when you serve the pulled pork.
Resolved: Eat More Pulled Pork
“Ummm, nothing like pulled pork,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, biting into her sandwich.
“Yeah, and this will be perfect for the Super Bowl,” I said, adding more Tangy Barbecue Sauce and sliced onion to my sandwich. “Going to watch any of the game this year?”
“I’m not much of a football fan,” said Mrs K R, helping herself to some Mayonnaise Potato Salad.
“But I know you like the commercials,” I said. “Gee, I can’t decide whether this Garlic Coleslaw is better as a side dish, or as a garnish on my sandwich.”
“Well, those commercials are all online the next day,” said Mrs K R, dishing up some Baked Beans with Bacon. “So I can just watch the best ones.”
“Meaning the funny ones?” I asked.
“And the ones with Clydesdales!” said Mrs K R.
“Yeah, can’t have too many of those,” I agreed.
“Or too many pulled pork sandwiches,” said Mrs K R.
“Is that a hint that I should be making more Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Pulled Pork?”
“Well, it’s not too late for New Year’s resolutions,” she said.
Hey, finally a resolution I can keep!
You may also enjoy reading about:
Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Beef Brisket
Tangy KC-Style Barbecue Sauce
Barbecued Pork Steaks
Jalapeño Coleslaw with Pimentón
Creamy Cole Slaw
German Potato Salad with Bacon
Mustard Potato Salad
French Potato Salad
American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad
Potato Salad Basics
Or check out the index for more recipes