With the 4th of July just around the corner, it’s hard for me not to think about pulled pork. The holiday weekend is the epicenter of summer, and barbecues are in full swing. When thinking about what to serve for summer cookouts, pulled pork is an easy choice to make; it’s festive, feeds a crowd pretty inexpensively, and, most importantly, it’s so damn good you’ll be in total seasonal rapture.
There are so many methods to get to an end result of pulled pork, but I have to say that smoking and slow roasting is by far my favorite. Sure, there are slow cooker methods that, technically speaking, end in pulled pork, but something about that doesn’t feel quite fitting for summer. There’s just something about this recipe that makes it feel like summer is here and warm sun drenches you at every turn. That’s not to say it can’t be made any time of year; we made it for New Years after I lost the bid for roasted lamb—the same plea that falters annually I might add—but if there ever was a time to make it, it would be now.
(Picnic roast/ham shown)
When it comes to the cut of meat, it has to be something from the shoulder of the pig; either the Boston Butt (blade of the shoulder) or picnic roast (sometimes call picnic ham). To call the two interchangeable would be almost like suggesting Parmigiano and Pecorino are—will it work? Yes. Will it taste great? Yes. Are they really the same? Not really—but for the intents and purposes of this recipe, both are acceptable. Frankly, depending on where you go, both cuts might be snubbed by barbecue aficionados that are in favor of using the whole hog, believing, and accurately so, that the varying tastes and textures of all cuts of meat yield the best pulled pork. Since I have neither the means nor the motivation to take on such a literal and figurative beast, I stick to the shoulder.
I prefer the Boston butt over the picnic roast because it has a richer, porkier flavor, and while it has a good amount of fat to keep it moist and flavorful, there’s not typically pockets of it within the meat that won’t break down and melt as there can be with a picnic roast. There’s also less bone in a Boston butt, meaning you get more meat per pound. The benefit to a picnic roast is that it does cost a bit less (though I don’t consider the butt an expensive cut) and they usually come with the skin/rind on (it does need to be removed for this recipe, but you can use it for pork cracklins, and get rendered fat from it, too—see recipe note).
Rubbing it down with a dry rub and letting it marinade gives you tons of flavor, and eventually a good crust. Smoking the pork infuses it intricately with a lingering smokiness, woven between every strand of meat. Every bite transports you to a Norman Rockwell summertime painting. Toss it with your favorite sauce, be it barbecue (and if you’re making one, save a bit of the dry rub for that); vinegar, mustard, or tomato-based; chimichuri; or simply the pan juices from slow roasting, and pile high on some good buns for the ultimate sandwich. And you don’t have to stop at sandwiches; tacos, quesadillas, mac n’ cheese, smothered over a skillet of cornbread, in dumplings or fried rice, the list goes on.
Even if you’re feeding fewer people I’d go ahead and make the full-sized shoulder—I doubt leftovers will be an issue. No matter how you celebrate summer, or how you plan to serve this, you can’t go wrong with this smoked and slow roasted pork shoulder.
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Servings: comfortably (more or less, depending on what else you're having)
Mix the dry rub ingredients together and divide evenly into two bowls. (see note)
Score the fat with a sharp paring knife, making a crisscross pattern with the lines about 1” apart. Place the butt fat-side down on a large sheet of foil. Sprinkle it with some of the dry rub from one of the bowls. Turn the butt all over in any spices that fell off. Put the pork fat-side up and press the remaining rub from the first bowl into pork, making sure you get it into the crevasses of the scored fat. Wrap it tightly in the foil, place in a roasting tray or something that it fits in snuggly and stash in the fridge for 12 – 24 hours.
After its fridge time is up remove it from the fridge. Drain any liquids that have dripped off and into the bottom of the foil packet, and pack the second batch of rub all over the pork. Let it come to room temperature for a few hours—at least 2 for a butt of this size.
Smoke in an electric smoker for approximately 3 hours with 1 tray of apple wood chips first, then 2 trays of cherry wood. (see note)
Preheat the oven to 250° and line the bottom of a roasting tray—that has a tight-fitting lid—with aluminum foil. Place a wrack in the roasting tray.
Once the pork is done smoking place it in on the wrack, pour in a little water/beer/soda/etc. into the bottom of the tray, cover with a lid and place in the oven. This needs 8 hours in oven, basting every hour or so with the spiced, porky liquid that collects in the bottom of the pan.
After 8 hours, remove the lid and set the oven to 400° and roast for another 20 – 30 minutes to help crisp that spice-crusted fat to a crackling and crunchy bark.
Remove from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes before carefully moving the whole thing to a sheet tray, where you just have to look at it hard enough for it to completely fall apart into the most fantastic pile of steaming, porky glory, kissed with smoke and tender as soft butter. Take a little of the liquid from the pan, tasting it first if you please, and sprinkle it over the pork to help keep it moist.
You can toss it all with your favorite BBQ sauce, or whatever other sauce you might want with this, or just let everyone dress their own.
If you use a bone-in picnic ham for this, keep in mind that the bone is usually much larger than the one in a Boston Butt, so count on one of the same size serving fewer people (say 8, or so). They're usually sold with the skin on, which needs to be removed: carefully run your knife horizontally between the skin and the meat. There's a layer of fat there, and I would advise leaving about half attached to the meat, and the other half attached to the skin; continue on with the recipe from there. You can also take the removed skin, score the top side (not the fatty side) or cut it into strips, set them on a wire wrack in a roasting pan, and roast in a 325° oven for about 2 - 3 hours. This way, not only do you get homemade pork rinds, but—and most important to me—you also get rendered pork fat at the bottom of the pan!
If you're making your own BBQ sauce, hold back a little bit of the spice mix/dry rub to use for flavoring our sauce later.
We smoke the pork in an electric smoker. The wood chips go into a small pan at the bottom of the smoker under a heat source that allows them to smoke and infuse the meat with their flavor. The pan probably fits 2 - 3 cups of chips, and we like the combination of 1 tray/pan-worth of apple wood, followed by 2 of cherry wood; really you can use any wood chips that you like. No need to soak them either! Be sure to check the tray every so often to make sure the wood is replenished once it's totally charred; timing depends on the size of your smoker's wood chip tray.