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Smoked pulled pork is a staple in the BBQ world and is a great piece of meat for beginner smokers to start with. Pork shoulders are cheap, have lots of fat, and are very forgiving making pork shoulders extremely popular. When I first got my charcoal smoker, I picked up a 10 lbs. pork shoulder and spent an entire Saturday learning how to smoke it.
It turned out absolutely fantastic, but over time I have tried new recipes and changed my methods, trying to figure out how to make the best pulled pork. If you are looking for how to smoke a pork shoulder/butt (they are essentially the same cut of meat) on a charcoal smoker, follow these steps and you will have your guests begging for more.
Preparing Your Pork Shoulder
How Big Of A Pork Shoulder To Buy?
My first time smoking a pork butt, I thought the bigger the better and picked out a 10 lbs. pork butt. I do not recommend you smoking a pork butt that large for two reasons.
First, the larger pork butt you get, the longer its going to take to smoke. Second, I really love a good bark on the outside of my meat, and I have found that when you smoke a large pork butt, you do not get a good bark to meat ratio when you pull it.
I have found the best size pork butt to smoke is around 5lbs. This gives you a really good bark to meat ratio and cooks relatively quick. A 5 lbs. pork butt can feed 5-7 people but if you are cooking for a larger group, you can use the following formula to determine how many pounds you need to buy.
(Number of Guests * 1/3) * 2.
Experts generally recommend preparing 1/3 lbs. of pork per person, so to see how many lbs. of pork we need, simply take the number of guests, and divide it by three. For example, if you are planning to cook for 21 guests, you would need 7 lbs. of cooked pork to ensure every one got 1/3 lbs.
It is also important to note that pork, when cooked, loses about half its weight so we need to multiply by 2. In this example we need 7 lbs. of cooked pork so we should look to buy 14 lbs. of uncooked pork.
Get Your Fire Going
Before preparing our pork shoulder, we want to get our fire going and heat up our smoker. For this I recommend using a chimney starter (link to amazon) and some nontoxic fire starters. I use weber fire starter cubes, also found on Amazon or in stores.
These two accessories, while not necessary, will make it so much easier to get your fire started. For beginners, I always recommend using charcoal briquettes as they are much easier to maintain a low and steady fire. For more information, be sure to check out my latest article on choosing the right charcoal for smoking meat.
For pork shoulders, I prefer to use the minion method because it allows for the charcoal to slowly catch fire making for a long a sustained smoke. Fill up your chimney halfway with charcoal briquettes and set them over a couple fire starter cubes.
Light the fire starter cubes and allow your charcoal to catch fire and ember over. Once the charcoal turns white, your charcoal is ready to be placed in your smoker. For more information, you can read my beginners guide to using a charcoal smoker.
If you are not using a dedicated charcoal smoker, you are still able to smoke a pork shoulder. When smoking a pork shoulder on a charcoal grill, you will want to use what is known as 2 zone cooking. Place your charcoal on one half of the grill and place a water pan on the other half of the grill.
When you go to place your pork shoulder on the grill, we want to place it above the water pan as far away from the charcoal as possible. This will allow us to indirectly cook our pork shoulder preventing it from burning. When using the 2-zone method for smoking meat, your heat is going to be coming from one side. Be sure to rotate your pork shoulder every hour to promote even cooking.
Getting Your Pork Shoulder Ready.
- Set your pork shoulder in the sink and rinse it off with cold water.
- Using paper towels, pat your pork shoulder dry making sure to get into any crevasses.
- Now it is time to trim up our pork shoulder. Using a sharp knife, remove the fat cap, any excess fat or cartilage to expose the meat (the video below is a great resource on how to properly trim your pork shoulder).
- Next, we want to apply our rub. You can create your own rub or use a store-bought rub. The key here is to use something you like and to taste test it before putting it on. To get the rub to adhere to the meat, you will need a binder. Mustard is most commonly used (Do not worry it burns off and you cannot taste it). Apply a thin layer of mustard to each side of the meat before applying a liberal amount of rub.
- Now your meat is ready to be put on the smoker!
What Temperature To Smoke A Pork Shoulder At?
You should smoke your pork shoulder between 225° F to 275° F. I prefer to smoke my pork shoulders at 250° F as I feel it is a good middle ground and gives me a buffer zone for temperature fluctuations. If you want to speed up the cooking process, smoke it at 275° F.
When maintaining your smoker’s temperature, it helps to invest in a Bluetooth meat thermometer. The heat inside the cooking chamber is going to vary at different areas. Many of the temperature gauges on smokers and grills are reading temperatures at the top of the cooking chamber which can vary up to 50° F from the cooking grate.
Using a Bluetooth meat thermometer, you can leave a probe at grate level to get a more accurate reading. It also allows you to monitor your meat’s internal temperature.
What Wood Is Best For Smoking Pork Shoulder?
While charcoal will provide a little bit of smoke flavor, when smoking meat, we rely on wood to give us most of our smoke flavor. A great thing about pork is you are able to use most kinds of woods when smoking it.
Normally pork is smoked with a fruit wood such as apple, but it can also stand up to the stronger woods such as oak and hickory; however, you should stay away from using the strongest woods, such as mesquite, as it will quickly overpower your meat.
Choosing the right type of wood for smoking is really an experiment. Each type of wood gives a unique flavor and there are many different combinations to choose from. I prefer to use a combination of cherry and hickory when I smoke my pork shoulders. It is best to just start smoking to test different woods to see which flavor profiles you like best. Apple wood is a great place to start as it is a mild wood and will add a bit of sweetness to your pork.
During The Cook
What Temperature Do You Smoke A Pork Shoulder To?
For pulled pork, smoke your pork shoulder to an internal temperature of 205° Fahrenheit at the thickest part of the meat. This will allow the fat and connective tissues to render making it tender and easy to pull. At 205° F, the bone should pull out with no resistance.
How Long Will It Take To Smoke A Pork Shoulder?
When smoking pork shoulder from 250° F to 275° F, you can expect it to take anywhere from 60-90 minutes per pound. When smoking pork shoulder from 225° F to 250° F, you can expect your pork shoulder to take anywhere from 90-120 minutes per pound.
When smoking meat, it is best to give your self plenty of time to smoke as no two pieces of meat will cook the same. This is also why it is so crucial to cook to temperature and not time.
On top of that, there are many factors that will affect how long the cooking process takes such as weather, size of your pork shoulder, how well insulated your smoker is, type of charcoal you are using, etc. You cannot rush the process, so it is easier to give yourself plenty of time. If you finish early, it is really easy to hold the meat until it is ready to serve.
If you are using a meat thermometer, you will notice that your meat’s internal temperature will stop rising and come to a standstill, almost as if it has stopped cooking. This is known as “The Stall” and happens between 150°F and 170°F.
According to the USDA, meat is comprised of approximately 75% water. Once a piece of meat reaches a certain temperature, the water inside the meat begins to evaporate. Just as humans sweat to cool ourselves down, the water evaporating from the meat subsequently cools the meat preventing the internal temperature from rising.
Depending on the size and content of the meat, the stall can last hours. There is no need to worry however as your meat is still cooking. Once the water has evaporated, the internal temperature will resume rising. If you want to speed up the stall, you can do so by wrapping your pork shoulder.
Should You Wrap A Pork Shoulder When Smoking?
Wrapping your pork shoulder will help it cook faster and retain more heat; however, it will break down your bark and can reduce the amount of smoke flavor you get. If you are looking for faster cook times and more moisture, you should wrap your pork shoulder. If you want a better bark and more smoke flavor, leave your pork shoulder unwrapped. I love a good bark, so I personally like to leave my pork shoulder unwrapped.
There are a few reasons you might want to consider wrapping your pork shoulder.
- Faster Cook Times: When you wrap your meat, it helps hold the heat tightly allowing it to cook faster and get through the stall faster. This will reduce the overall amount of time it takes to cook. If you are in a rush or do not have the time to wait the stall out, wrapping might be a good option for you.
- Retains Moisture: When you wrap your pork shoulder, the water and juices that come out of the meat during the cooking process have nowhere to go and remain trapped inside. They then evaporate and creating a more humid environment for the meat to cook in. This results in a juicer pork shoulder. Adding apple juice or other liquids inside the foil can also help add flavor to the pork.
- To Prevent Burning: If you are using a dedicated smoker or indirect heat to cook your pork shoulder then this is something you do not have to worry about; however, if you notice your meat is starting to burn, you can wrap it to protect the meat.
As mentioned above, I personally prefer to leave my pork shoulders unwrapped. While I will wrap every now and again when I don’t have the time for a longer cook, personally I think the longer cook time is worth the good bark.
I also have smoked pork shoulders both ways and the difference in juiciness between the two methods isn’t enough to steer me away from not wrapping it. Pork is such a fatty piece of meat and even though wrapping will make it juicer, leaving it unwrapped will still create a delicious pulled pork.
You will find people on both sides that tell you one way is better than the other, but in reality it all comes down to personal preference. Whether you wrap it or not, you are still going to make great pulled pork. If you have the time to wait out the stall and don’t mind the longer cook time, leave it unwrapped.
In my opinion it not wrapping gives off a slightly better flavor; however, if you want to shorten the cook time or find that unwrapped isn’t juicy enough, go ahead and wrap your pork shoulder.
How To Wrap A Pork Shoulder?
If you have decided to wrap your pork shoulder, there are two ways to do it. You can use either tin foil or pink butcher paper. In both cases, you want to wait to wrap your pork shoulder until you get the bark you are looking for.
Looking online you will see a lot of people telling you to wrap once you hit the stall around 160°, and I used to do this, but I found that I was not getting as good of a smoke flavor and my bark didn’t have time to fully develop. When I do wrap now, instead of wrapping at the stall, I wait until I get a nice dark and firm bark. This will help preserve more of the bark when you wrap it and give it more time to take on the smoke flavor.
- Lay a couple sheets of tin foil or butcher paper out on the counter horizontally and make sure they are overlapping. You will want to have enough tin foil or butcher paper so that you can completely wrap around the pork shoulder.
- Next, create a nice bed of brown sugar to put your pork butt on in the middle of your tin foil/butcher paper.
- Place the pork butt on top of the bed of brown sugar.
- Drizzle a light coat of honey on top of your pork shoulder (maple syrup is a great alternative).
- Wrap tightly and return to heat to finish cooking.
This is my favorite way to wrap a pork shoulder. The brown sugar and honey help add a bit of sweetness to the pork, and it turns out oh so good. Once you get more comfortable smoking pork shoulders, you can have some fun and start to experiment with new things.
Many people will add apple juice, apple cider vinegar, butter, etc. and many people don’t add anything when they wrap. There is no right way to cook, just your favorite way, but you cannot go wrong with the above method.
Tin Foil Vs. Butcher Paper
Any time you wrap your pork shoulder, you are going to sacrifice some of your bark. When you wrap a pork shoulder, you are trapping the moisture inside with the meat creating a steam room of sorts, which will eventually start to break down your bark formation. If you want to preserve some of your bark when wrapping, use butcher paper.
Butcher paper is porous and allows more of the moisture to escape. While using butcher paper will not speed up the cooking process as much as tin foil, it will help keep more of the bark intact. I like to think of it as a spectrum like this.
|Unwrapped||Wrapped With Butcher Paper||Wrapped With Tin Foil|
|Longest cook time||Middle ground||Shortest cook time|
|Least Juicy||Middle ground||Moist juicy|
|Best bark||Middle ground||Less bark|
|Most smoke flavor||Slightly less smoke flavor||Slightly less smoke flavor|
Resting Your Pork Shoulder:
Once your pork shoulder has reached an internal temperature of 205° F, you are ready to pull it off; however, it is not ready to eat yet! You will need to allow your meat to rest for minimum of 1 hour, though 2 hours is preferred. Resting your pork butt is crucial to creating great BBQ.
This can be done by using a faux Cambro. If your pork shoulder is not already wrapped with butcher paper or tin foil, you should wrap it at this time. Once it is wrapped, wrap it again in a towel before placing it in a small cooler. Resting your pork shoulder will allow the meat to relax and help to redistribute the juices throughout the meat. Using this faux Cambro, you should be able to hold your pork shoulder for up to 5 hours or until the internal temperature drops below 140°.
Commonly Asked Questions:
How Do You Keep A Pork Shoulder Moist When Smoking?
The best way to keep a pork shoulder moist when smoking is to wrap it in tin foil once once you have the bark formation you desire. This keeps the moisture that would otherwise evaporate, inside the tin foil. Additionally, you can add apple juice when you wrap to add more moisture to the pork shoulder.
Can You Smoke A Pork Shoulder Too Long?
Yes, while it is really hard to overcook a pork shoulder, it is possible. Pork shoulders are done around 205° Fahrenheit and cooking it too far past that temperature will start to dry your pork shoulder out. Once your pork shoulder reaches 205° Fahrenheit, you should pull it off and allow it to rest.
Why Did My Pulled Pork Come Out Tough?
The most common reason your pork shoulder came out tough is from undercooking it. Pork shoulder requires an internal temperature of 205° to easily pull apart. Without smoking to this temperature, you are not allowing the connective tissue and fat to break down thus resulting in a tough piece of meat. Likewise, cooking your pork shoulder above 300° F can also result in a tough piece of meat.
How long can you rest pork shoulder in cooler?
According to the USDA, you can hold meat as long as it stays above 140° Fahrenheit. Using tin foil, a blanket, and a cooler, you can create a faux cambro to hold your pork shoulder above 140° for approximately 5 hours. Once your pork shoulder’s internal temperature drops below 140°, it should be refrigerated.