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What is Pulled Pork?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pulled pork is a form of pork barbecue which involves cooking over low heat for an extended period of time, slowly softening the connective tissue of the meat so that it can be pulled apart by hand. Several culinary traditions have a history of this dish, and many people associate this barbecue style specifically with the American South, where it has been refined to an art form. In the South, many barbecue establishments offer pulled pork, and it is also a common dish at parties and celebrations. Making this dish at home is time-consuming and it requires a smoker, ideally, although some people use slow cookers or even prepare it in their ovens.

The defining point of pulled pork is the softness of the meat once it has finished cooking, but the dish can be prepared with a wide range of sauces and rubs. Depending on the region, you may see pulled pork with spicy sauces, sweet mellow sauces, or tangy sauces inspired by regionally available spices. The pork can be eaten plain with a side of vegetables, shredded and included in sandwiches, or used in a variety of other ways, depending on personal taste.

In the South, pulled pork is cooked over a smoky fire on low heat. The slow cooking at a low temperature encourages the connective tissue to gently dissolve, creating a tender finished product. The smoke from the fire adds a rich, smoky flavor. It can take hours to prepare pork in this way, not including the time required to marinate the meat in a sauce of choice. Some cooks prefer to use slow cookers or even ovens on low settings to prepare pulled pork, since these requires less attention as the meat cooks.

The cut traditionally used for pulled pork is pork shoulder, sometimes called pork butt or Boston butt in a reference to the large barrels that meat was once packed in for storage and transport; “butt” is another term for barrel. This cut often includes the shoulder blade of the pig, and it tends to be extremely flavorful. In addition to Southern cuisine, pulled pork also shows up in Polynesia, many parts of the Caribbean, and parts of Southeast Asia, thanks to abundant pig populations in these regions.

Because raw pork comes with a risk of food borne illness, it is important to make sure that all of the meat reaches a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius) during the cooking process. Most cooks also allow the meat to rest for around half an hour after cooking; during this resting period, the internal temperature of the meat can rise significantly, ensuring that it will be safe to eat.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By mrwormy — On Sep 22, 2014

I live in an area known for its barbecue, and I try to eat at least one pulled pork sandwich every week. One good thing about using Boston butt as a pulled pork roast is that it's a very inexpensive cut of meat. It may have a fair amount of fat, but most of that is rendered off during the slow cooking process. I like to slather a good amount of pulled pork rub all over the Boston butt roast, then pour some liquid smoke in the pan and wrap it all with aluminum foil.

If you can't find a good commercial pulled pork rub, then you can use seasoned salt, dry oregano, dry basil, garlic powder and black pepper. My suggestion is to be very generous with the rub, since it needs to work its way past the fat layer and into the meat.

By Reminiscence — On Sep 22, 2014

When I worked in a well-known local barbecue restaurant, we had to process hundreds of pounds of smoked pulled pork every week. The night shift would season the pork shoulders and put them in the smoker around 10 pm, just after the doors closed for the night. They cooked low and slow for at least 10 hours, then we would pull them out of the smoker and shred the meat.

One thing the article didn't mention was how the pork gets pulled apart. Home cooks can use two forks to shred the meat, but we had special metal claws held in both hands. One person could shred an entire pulled pork roast in ten minutes or so. If you plan on doing a lot of barbecue pulled pork, finding a pair of those industrial-strength shredding forks would be a good idea.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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