I grew up in North Alabama, where I believe traditional pulled pork barbecue is at its very best. A special night out at a restaurant didn't mean going to a fine steak house or even to a nice seafood place. It meant going to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, where the sweet aroma of hickory smoke was in the air.
After leaving home to go to college in Nashville, I quickly became homesick for the barbecue that I grew up eating. Eventually, my frustrations produced a determination to learn how to prepare delicious smoked meat at home. There had to be a way, but there was just so much I didn't know. What cut of meat did they use? How should it cook? At what temperature? After much research, some long Saturdays by the smoker, and many mistakes, I got it right. Now I enjoy succulent pulled pork on a regular basis, and with these easy instructions, you can too.
Low-and-Slow Pulled Pork
Start with the right cut of meat. Most barbecue restaurants use whole pork shoulders, but they're rarely available in grocery stores. If you find a whole shoulder, use it. Otherwise, we recommend a Boston butt, which is half of the shoulder, the other half being the picnic shoulder. If needed, trim the fat back to about 1/8 inch thick. Sprinkle meat generously with rub, massaging it into the meat. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and chill overnight in the refrigerator.
Smoking a large piece of meat takes a long time, so you'll need to get an early start. Prepare your smoker or grill until the temperature reaches 250°. Take the meat out of the refrigerator, and let it sit for about 30 to 45 minutes. Having the pork at room temperature is very important, because if you put it on the smoker cold, the outer portion will burn.
Smoke is one of the main ingredients of good barbecue. Soak hickory wood chips (or any other hardwood chips used for barbecuing) in water overnight. This prevents them from burning. The chips smolder, producing smoke that flavors the meat during the cooking process. The smoke also lends a pink color to the outer inch or so of the flesh, creating what is called a "smoke ring." A handful of wood chips should be added to the fire every 30 minutes or so. The more you add, the stronger flavor of smoke you get.
Place meat on the smoker fat side down. After two hours, turn the meat over so it is fat side up. Total cook time will be 1 1/2 hours per pound. Maintain the temperature in the smoker between 225° and 250°. Use a pit thermometer for an accurate reading. If the smoker temperature is hotter than 250°, the meat will cook too quickly; any lower than 225°, and the meat will not get done. Every time wood chips or charcoal is added, spritz the meat with apple juice from a spray bottle. This will add moisture and a fruity background flavor during cooking.
Remove the meat from the smoker with two hours remaining, and place on heavy-duty aluminum foil. Spritz generously with apple juice, and tightly seal foil around pork. Place meat back on the smoker, and cook for two hours more. Using an instant-read meat thermometer, check the internal temperature of the thickest part of the meat, being careful not to touch bone with the tip of the thermometer. When the internal temperature reaches 195°, the pork is ready. Cooking the meat beyond the USDA guideline of 160° renders out the fat and tenderizes the meat.
Remove the meat from the smoker, and let it cool for 15 to 30 minutes. Remove foil after it has cooled enough to handle. Remove the bones, which will easily pull away. Begin pulling, or shredding, the meat with two large forks, and place in a large baking dish or pan. Remove and discard any remaining fat.
Add the vinegar-based sauce of your choice to pulled pork, and toss. This is a popular way to serve pulled pork in most regions. If you prefer, serve with additional sauce. That's how it's done at my house.