I love a good pulled pork sandwich. Now, my sauce preference tends toward those of the Carolinas, either mustardy (South) or vinegary (North) or—heresy!—spicy cayenne and black peppered vinegar with a heavy proportion of dried mustard in it. When it’s done right, it’s so good.
But it isn’t always done right, is it?
We all love good pulled pork. It tastes like summer and is probably the perfect food for a family BBQ. But it takes forever to cook; it’s easy to overshoot; and sometimes, it seems, there just isn’t enough flavorful bark and seasoning to go around.
We wondered if we could get pulled pork that is more flavorful with deeper smoke to the table in far less time. Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. With the Smoke X2™—and some thermal thinking—we were able to get killer pulled pork in about four hours. Let’s take a look!
Why pulled pork takes so long
Getting a pork butt to pull and shred easily is a matter of rendering out the tough, connective collagen. And while collagen dissolution is a function of both time and temperature, in general, a pork butt has had enough collagen rendering by the time it reaches 203°F (95°C). The problem, from a time perspective, is the shape of pork butt. Pork butts are roughly shaped like an oblate spheroid, or maybe like a shoebox for a heavy pair of work shoes. however you describe the shape, the point is that it’s thick and wide and there’s a lot of stuff crammed into that relatively small surface area.
Because of the way heat-transfer behaves, it takes a long time for the innermost bits of the pork butt to heat up to the pull temp. You really have to cook it low and slow, because if you cook it at a higher temp for the whole time, it will dry out the outside by the time the inside gets to where it needs to be. 12-hour cooks are common when it comes to pulled pork.
Why pulled pork can be bland
Even if you nail the temperature and texture on a pork butt, there’s still the issue of seasoning. Whenever I go to a cookout or am faced with a tray of pulled pork, I always try to sneak the bits with the most bark. After all, that’s the most flavorful part! But in the end, there’s typically not much seasoning per cubic inch of pork butt. By the time it all gets pulled and shredded, well, let’s just say that a lot of the inner meat often could be more flavorful and frequently needs that vinegar sauce!
To solve this problem, pitmasters started injecting pork with flavorful brines and mixtures, and that can go a long way toward solving the blandness problem. It’s actually a pretty dang ingenious solution. And it makes for tender, delicious interior pulled pork. But not everyone has an injector ready to go every time they smoke a pork shoulder. Might there be another path to a more savory pork butt?
Another solution to long-cooking and bland pulled pork
Our solution? Butterfly the pork butt. By cutting out the bone (or using a boneless butt) and slicing it so that the shoulder lays out flat, you end up with a longer slab of meat that is only about as thick as a rack of ribs. When the butt is rearranged like this, heat can penetrate the meat far more easily and quickly than when the butt is whole—meaning a much faster cook.
And you get much more surface area for seasoning. By unrolling the pork shoulder, we expose much of what had been the inside of the cut to our seasoning, and we also expose a greater surface to the smoke itself. As a percentage of the total meat, a butterflied butt has a lot more smoke ring than a butt cooked whole.
But bone in tastes better! Right?!?
Whether or not bone-in meats taste better is a topic of heated controversy, but in actual fact, the bone doesn’t add a lot—at least, not according to Meathead:
But bones contribute no significant flavor to meats cooked by dry cooking methods such as grilling, low and slow barbecue, oven roasting, or frying (frying is considered a dry method because there is no water). A tiny bit of marrow might escape the ends if they have been cut, and a miniscule amount may escape if the bone has been sawed open lengthwise, as it often is for T-bones and ribeyes. But the small amount of liquid in red marrow does not travel far onto or into the meat. It can influence only the meat immediately adjacent to the bone.
It is possible that some of the fat and collagen inside the marrow can exit through the pores in the bones, but again, this is a very small quantity and there is no way it can travel more than a fraction of an inch into the muscle if it can somehow get beyond the sheath surrounding the bone. Some marrow may drip onto the fire, and when it incinerates the smoke and gases might strike the surface of the meat. But this is a small amount of the total drippings, most of which is edge fat, intramuscular fat (marbling), and myoglobin (mostly water from within the muscle cells).—AmazingRibs.com
Plus, boneless butts are also easy to come by and pretty cheap at certain large-box discount-club stores of which I can think. This is a great way to use them!
How to cook butterflied pork butt
Prepare the smoker and the meat
- Preheat your smoker to 275°F (135°C). Using a Smoke X2 and a Billows™ BBQ-control fan set to your target temperature will make that easy.
- If you didn’t buy a boneless pork shoulder, debone your pork shoulder. This can be tricky business. Even though I’ve deboned several pork shoulders in my days it’s still confusing to me. Use a sharp knife and stay as close to the bone as you can.
- Once the shoulder has been boned out, or if you’re using a boneless one already, there will be a large, floppy gash in the meat. To butterfly the shoulder completely, you just need to carry that cut further. keeping your knife parallel to the cutting board, slice along the meat so that it kind of unrolls as you cut along. Some areas, especially where the bone was taken out, will be quite thin. Just try to keep it all in one piece.
- Trim off any stray bits that will burn in the smoker.
- Once the butt is butterflied, season it well with the rub of your choice. Don’t over-season it. Remember, there will be more seasoning per unit of volume here than on a whole butt. Season on both sides and be sure to get into all the nooks and crannies.
Smoke the pork
- Get the meat on the smoker. When you place the meat in the smoker, squish it together a bit in any thinner parts. This will help create a more even thickness and a more even cook.
- Insert a probe into the meat and set the high-temp alarm on your Smoke X2 for 160°F (71°C).
- Allow it to smoke until the high-temp alarm sounds. Check it occasionally to see if it is drying out in any spots. If so, spritz it with some cider vinegar.
Wrap the pork and keep smoking
- When the high-alarm sounds on your Smoke X2, check to make sure the bark has set.
- Remove the pork from the smoker. Spritz it again and wrap it well in some aluminum foil. Now it really looks like a rack of ribs!
- Put the wrapped pork back in the smoker. Probe them through the foil and set the high-temp alarm for 203°F (95°C).
- Set the fan-control temp to 325°F (163°C).
Check and rest, shred and serve
- When the alarm sounds on the pork, poke it a few times in various places with your Thermapen® Mk4 to make sure that it has reached the target temperature throughout and also to check for resistance in the meat. If it’s hot enough and feels like you’re poking warm butter with a hot poker, it’s done!
- If the meat is at the proper temperature but still offers a little resistance in a few places, allow it to rest, wrapped, on the counter for 15–30 minutes.
- Open up the wrapping and check out your pork. Grab a tiny bit from a corner and taste it. Yum.
- Shred that pork! It should be very easy to pull apart and shred
This is probably going to become my go-to method for pulled pork. It’s fast (for BBQ!), it’s easy, and because of the higher seasoning-to-meat ratio, results are better tasting than what I usually get from long-cooked whole butts. The Smoke X2 and Billows pairing makes perfect pulled pork like this something you can do almost on auto-pilot. It’s a real game-changer. Give it a try this weekend, or, heck, do it someday after work and have a late dinner!
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