Our Beginner's Guide To Making Pulled Pork
©2002, 2021 The Naked Whiz

Figure 1. This photo shows our first ever 8.5 pound pork butt, seconds after lifting the lid.
The butt was cooked for 19 hours, 54 minutes and 53 seconds and the lid wasn't lifted
once during the entire cook. As it was our very first butt, we used no rub, but read the rest
of the guide for more information about that.


Update (06/26/21): When we first wrote this article, we were indeed pork butt beginners and so this article was intended to help fellow pork butt beginners. Since then, we have obviously cooked a few butts with great success and decided to rewrite the article to add a bit of (but not too much) sophistication and to bring it all up to date. But we also realize that more advanced readers will find this a bit too simple. If you are not a beginner at this, you might like to also read our page on Elder Ward's North Carolina Style Pulled Pork.


Part 0 - Introduction
We were certainly no expert on cooking a butt low and slow when we first wrote this article, having done it just once at that time. However, everything went just as smooth as silk, so we decided to write up what we did with the hopes that other first timers will feel emboldened enough to do their first also. In keeping with our "It's gotta be fun, it's gotta be thimple, it's gotta be tasty" theme (which we borrowed from Jamie Oliver), we didn't use any rubs or mustard, just your basic thimple 8.5 pound pork butt. That's what you see in the photo above. Since then we have decided that fun, thimple and tasty includes rubbing the butt with cheap yellow mustard and then covering the butt with a liberal dose of rub.


Part I - Building The Fire
Keeping a fire going for 20 hours probably benefits from adequate preparation. Some folks will disagree on how to build the fire, but here is how we do it. First of all, clear out your cooker. Get rid of any old lump and clean out the ashes that might already be in the cooker. We don't take the firebox out and clean around the edges, but we do clear out the bottom of the firebox.

Dump your lump into a bin so you can see what you are putting into your cooker. We don't advocate dumping a pile of lump in from a bag as small chips of charcoal and charcoal dust will block the pathway for the air to makes its way up through the fire. Find several large pieces and place them in the bottom of your cooker in the center. Then basically, what we do is start placing the largest pieces in the cooker, evenly distributing them. Then just keep tossing in the largest piece you have left, keeping the lump level as you pile it up. When you get to the top of the firebox, distribute some pieces of hickory on top of the lump (or whatever wood you want to use to smoke with) then continue piling on the largest pieces of lump from the bin.

When you have reached about half-way up the fire ring you are ready to start your fire, assuming everything else is ready.


Part II - Starting The Fire
First of all, you need to realize that a butt cooked at 220°F will take around 2 hours per pound. Do the math. An 8 pound butt will take 16-18 hours. You have to start the night before you want to eat it! Ready? Our 8.5 pound butt cooked at 220°F and took 19 hours, 54 minutes and 53 seconds. Those 53 seconds are important, huh? (Yes, we know that you can do turbo butts at higher temperatures. We haven't done a turbo butt, so we'll leave you to find information about that elsewhere on the web. We tend to cook our butts around the 225°F to 250°F range.)

We use a Weber starter chimney. Place the chimney in your cooker on top of the lump. Put enough lump in the chimney so that when you dump it into your cooker and spread it out, you will have a single layer of burning coals on top of the bed you prepared earlier. Light a sheet of newspaper under it, and then wait until the lump is burning red hot. Dump this lump carefully onto your bed of charcoal. Place a fist-sized piece of hickory (or whatever) on top of the burning lump and push it down in.

We then close the cooker up and shut down the air vents to almost closed. The cooker gets up to around 400°F when we dump the lump in from the starter, so we want to calm things down a bit. Meanwhile, we go take the butt out of the fridge and bring it out to the cooker along with a drip pan. (We used to put water in the drip pan under the mistaken impression that it would keep the meat moist, but that's a myth. Water is used in metal smokers to help regulate the heat, not to keep the meat moist. Some folks put sand in their water pan because it doesn't evaporate. You don't need to add moisture in a kamado-style cooker nor do you need to add a heat sink to aid with temperature regulation.) We used to place the butt on a V-rack, but now we just place it on the cooking grid.

For our first butt, we didn't use any rub, deciding to just let things play out see what we got. Nowadays, we are big fans of slathering the butt in cheap yellow mustard followed by a generous coating of Dizzy Pig Coarse Gring Barbecue Run. There are million rubs out there, so we'll leave that choice up to you. However you have prepared your butt, bring it out ready to place in the cooker.

When ready to start cooking, open the cooker and put a plate setter upside down on top of the fire ring. Place a drip pan on the plate setter underneath the butt in order to catch drippings and keep things a little neater. Place the grid on the plate setter's legs over the drip pan and finally your butt on top of the grid. Insert your temperature probe, making sure not to let it near the bone (if you are using a bone-in butt, of course). If you feel the need, you can protect your thermometer probe's cable by placing a layer of foil beneath it where it might be exposed to direct heat from the fire. Then close your coooker.

By the time you have done all this, your cooker should have dropped down below 200°F. Open the lower vent about an inch and the daisy wheel open, meaning the sliding lid is closed, but the rotating part is open. When the temperature reaches 210, shut the lower vent to about 1/4 inch and the the daisy top to about 1/2 open. Now, it's just basic temperature control. You want to get the cooker to 220-250°F.


Part III - The Cook
This next part shouldn't be too hard. When you are convinced you have your cooker stabilized between 220° and 250°F, go to bed. Ok, you can check it a couple of times before you go to bed to ensure the temperature is stable, but THEN go to bed. If you have built a good fire, it won't go out. If you have stabilized the temperature, it won't run away from you. That said, we are huge advocates of using temperature control devices like the BBQ Guru, SMOBOT and Flame Boss controllers. They work like a charm and give you peace of mind. So, if you have 'em, use 'em.

When you wake up, your cooker should still be at the temperature that you left it. The meat should be in the 160's. Leave it alone. Be a good boy or girl and don't open your cooker until the meat hits 200°F and it's time to eat. That means don't open it even once. (If you are having guests over, you can impress them by waiting for the time to take the butt out of the cooker and telling that you haven't opened the cooker since the night before when you first put the meat in the cooker. Tell them you have no idea what you will find when you lift the lid. They should be impressed when you do lift the lid.)

The meat will hit a plateau at anywhere from 160° to 180°F. It will stay in this range for a very long time while all the fat renders, collagen in the meat is converted to gelatin, and evaporative cooling takes place. We hit the plateau in the night, so when we wake up the butt's temperature is usually slowly climbing. Once you get through the plateau, it should slowly climb to 200°F. If you do find yourself, or rather the meat, stuck in the plateau and dinner time fast approaching, go ahead and raise the temperature of your cooker up to 300°F or even 350°F to get it going again. But regardless of how it gets there, when your thermometer says 200°F, open the cooker, impress the women, take photographs, shake hands, pop the cork on the champagne, and take the butt indoors and cover with foil until it's showtime. If the butt gets done before you are really ready, you can wrap it in a couple layers of foil and then wrap it in towels (you may wish to have a set of dedicated inexpensive towels for this). Place this in a cooler and you should be able to safely keep your butt warm for five or more hours.

One more word about the plateau. Some people feel the need to wrap their butt in foil or peach paper (pink butcher paper) when the butt hits the plateau in order to minimize the plateau and keep the meat moist. While it will indeed shorten the plateau, we have never found the need to wrap butts to keep them moist. Wrapping with foil will soften the bark that forms on the outer surface of the butt and we like nice bits of crunchy bark in our pulled pork. We are never in a hurry, so we don't worry about rushing through the plateau. It's up to you. The one reason we might wrap in a pinch would be if we didn't have over night to do the cook. In that case, we'd wrap in peach paper which will not affect the bark as much.

Figure 2. This photo shows the amount of lump left in our cooker after
smoking the pork butt for 20 hours at 220°F. The left side of the cooker
shows the starting level of the lump, about halfway up the fire ring.


Part IV - Pulling The Pork
This is best done when the pork is hot, or at least warm, so that the meat will separate easily. We just put our butt in a large baking pan to catch grease and stuff, and pull the pork with a couple of forks. We prefer coarsely pulled pork versus chopped pork, so for the most part, pulling with the forks is enough. Some pieces you pull off the butt may be larger than you want, so we keep a cleaver handy to give an occasional chop. We also use the cleaver to chop up the tasty bark into smaller pieces that get mixed in with the rest of the pork.

Once you have pulled it, what you do with it is your business. We give it a taste and if necessary, we might add a bit more of the rub we used and stir it all in. Also, we prefer to give a light sprinkling of our Western North Carolina Barbeque Sauce. We just squirt on enough to give some sweet tanginess, but not too much. If the diner's want to drown their pulled pork in sauce, they can add more themselves.

We do have one observation, though. The traditional way to eat a barbecue sandwich, at least here in North Carolina, is to have it on a a cheap white hamburger bun. Well, we hate cheap white hamburger buns, but damn if it isn't the best way to eat pulled pork! The bread isn't there to impress your palate. It's there to hold the pulled pork. A nice soft cheap white hamburger bun doesn't get in the way of the pulled pork; it keeps your fingers dry. A more substantial or fancy roll gets in the way. It's too much bread and when you eat a pulled pork sandwich, bread should not be foremost on your mind. So even we, haters of cheap white hamburger buns, will put pride aside when it comes to eating a barbecue sandwich. You are advised to do the same.


Conclusion
So there you have it, our Beginner's Guide To Making Pulled Pork. We hope this inspires you to get out there and smoke a butt or two. There really is nothing like a smoked pulled pork sandwich. Follow our guide and then as you get more experience, feel free to branch out in different directions with different rubs and sauces. You can try different cooking temperatures and try wrapping your butts if you like. In any event, we hope you eat some mighty fine pulled pork!


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