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You’ve spent all day smoking your pork butt and you are finally excited to dig in and eat! But as you go to pull it, you notice it’s still tough and hard to pull apart. How could it still be tough after cooking all day! I’ve been there, and I would say anyone that say they haven’t made tough pulled pork that wasn’t as tender as they wanted, is lying.
But there is no need to worry, tough pulled pork is a very simple fix. Learn from my mistakes and your next pulled pork will pull apart with ease. Over the past few years of smoking pork butt, experimenting with different techniques, and talking with others, tough pulled pork always comes down to one main reason.
Why Did My Pulled Pork Come Out Tough?
Pulled pork comes out tough and hard to pull is because it was undercooked. Pork butt has a lot of intramuscular fat and connective tissue making it a tough cut of meat. To properly render the fat and connective tissues making it tender enough to fall off the bone, you need to cook your pork butt to an internal temperature of 205° Fahrenheit.
Why Does Pulled Pork Take So Long To Cook?
To better understand why pulled pork comes out tough and hard to pull, you need to understand what pork butt is and how it cooks. Pork butt, also known as Boston butt, or pork shoulder, comes from the shoulder region of the pig.
As a result, pork butt contains a butt load (yes pun intended) of intramuscular fat and connective tissue. It is the rendering of this fat at connective tissue that gives pork butt its incredible tenderness. To properly break down the fat and connective tissue, it takes low and consistent temperatures for long periods time.
This is why pork butt, and other commonly smoked meats like brisket, need to be cooked on a slow cooker.
Why Won’t My Pulled Pork Pull?
The simple answer, you didn’t cook the pork long enough for the Intramuscular fat to render!
As we know from above, pulled pork gets its tenderness from the breaking down and rendering of intramuscular fat. And while pork is considered safe to eat at an internal temperature of 145° Fahrenheit, the rendering of this intramuscular fat doesn’t even start to occur until it reaches an internal temperature of 160° Fahrenheit.
But even then, it still isn’t ready. That’s just when it begins! The intramuscular fat doesn’t completely render until it reaches 200-205° Fahrenheit. If you are not cooking your pork to those internal temperatures, you are going to end up with tough pulled pork or pulled pork that’s not as tender as you would’ve hoped.
I highly recommend getting a Bluetooth BBQ thermometer so you can monitor your internal temperatures from your phone. That way you can be sure you are reaching the proper temperature for tender pulled pork. I use the Chugod Bluetooth (affiliate link) thermometer found on Amazon.
Is Pulled Pork Done At 190°
I throw this in here because I see this all the time. Yes, technically you can pull pork off at 190° and it will be fine to eat; however, at 190° F your pork butt hasn’t had enough time to completely render that intramuscular fat.
Simply put, cooking your pork butt to 190° Fahrenheit will not get the fall of the bone tenderness you are looking for.
Cook Pork Butt To Feel Not Internal Temperature.
I know what you’re thinking, I just told you to cook to an internal temperature of 205° Fahrenheit and now you’re telling me to not cook based on internal temperature.
The 200-205° is very important number, and you SHOULD use it as a guide, but at the end of the day each pork butt is going to cook different and the best way to tell if your pork butt is done is from feel.
When you stick a probe in it, it should feel like sticking a hot knife through butter. If there is resistance, its not done. Use the 200-205° F range as an indicator to start checking your pork butt for doneness by feel.
Just last weekend, my pork butt hit 205° so I went to go check It for doneness. Upon probing it, where I had placed my thermometer was perfectly tender, but the other side was still tough. Once I put my thermometer in that part, it read 198°. I put it back in to cook a little longer.
Had I relied on the initial temperature, I would have had half a pork butt that was tender and half that was still tough. Additionally, it is quite common for temperature probes can go bad and give false readings.
So long story short, it is great to use internal temperature as a guide but use feel and common sense to make sure it is done. If you probe it and its still tough, let is keep cooking! I have a whole article on how to tell when your pork butt is done here.
Other Reasons Your Pork Butt Was Tough
While the most likely cause your pork butt came out tough was from undercooking it, there are two other factors that could cause a tough pork butt.
I have smoked many pork butts/ pork shoulders that varied in size. Anything from just over 10 pounds to less than 5 pounds. In all my experimenting, I have found that the smaller pork shoulders aren’t as tender. While you can still smoke smaller pork shoulders (I usually prefer it), my test subjects and myself have concluded that the larger pork butts tend to be slightly more tender.
Additionally to support this claim, in an attempt to get even more bark and cook faster, I separated a 5-pound pork shoulder into 2 chunks about 2 ½ pounds each. While the flavor was there, the tenderness was disappointing and nowhere near my usual pork butt tenderness.
I don’t have any scientific data to back this up, this is just notes taken from my years of smoking pork. I believe it has something to do with time under heat. The smaller pieces just cook too fast. And while they reach the final temperature I am looking for, I don’t think they spend enough time under heat to properly render all the fat.
I have found that the smallest pork shoulder I will smoke is 5 pounds. Anything smaller and you risk it coming out tough.
Cooking Too Hot & Fast:
You can smoke a pork butt hot and fast; however, smoking too hot and fast can cause you to burn the outside and leave you with a tough pork butt. When smoking pork butt, you typically want to smoke between 225° and 275° Fahrenheit; however, it is becoming increasingly popular to hot smoke it. Hot smoking is done from 275° to 300° Fahrenheit.
As long as you keep your smoker under 300°, you don’t have to worry about smoking too hot. Anything over 300° and you risk burning the ends and creating a crusty bark. Additionally, smoking your pork over 300° runs into the same issue as above. The pork butt will cook too fast to completely render the fat
From my experience, patience is key. A low and consistent heat is going to produce a much more tender final product than trying to cook it fast. Spend the extra time smoking it and it will pay off in tenderness.
Does Pulled Pork Get More Tender The Longer You Cook It?
Pork butt is an incredibly fatty piece of meat that benefits from longer cook times. Pork butt requires long and steady cooks to properly render down all the fat leaving you with a very tender finished product. The longer you cook pork butt, the more time the pork butt has to render the fat.
However, you have to be careful not to overcook pork butt. For pulled pork, you are aiming for a final internal temperature of 205° Fahrenheit. Anything over 210° F and you risk overcooking and drying your pork butt out.
This is why smoking meat typically occurs between 225° and 275° F. These low temperatures allow the pork butt to cook slow keeping it under that final internal temperature for longer. From my experience, smoking pork butt low and slow always produces more tender pulled pork than hot and fast.
How Do You Fix Tough Pulled Pork?
If your pulled pork comes out tough, you don’t have many options. Tough pulled pork is almost always the result of not cooking it long enough. Use a thermometer to check the internal temperature. If you determine that it hasn’t reached the proper internal temperature, you need to let it cook longer.
Bringing the internal temperature up to 205° Fahrenheit is key for a completely tender pork butt. If you haven’t already, wrapping your pork butt in aluminum foil or butcher paper (affiliate link) can help speed up this process. It will help retain meat and moisture and essentially steam your pork butt.
If you don’t have the time to let your pork cook longer, or you determine your tough pulled pork isn’t the result of it being undercooked, there isn’t much you can do to fix it. The most viable option is to repurpose it.
I would recommend using a knife to dice it up into smaller pieces. Then use it for tacos or in chili. This will help mask the tenderness while still letting you taste the smoke flavor.
Do You Let Pork Rest Before Shredding?
Resting your pork butt before shredding is recommended; however, resting is not going to make a tough pork butt more tender. While resting does have its benefits, tenderness comes from the rendering of the intramuscular fat. This is done through low and steady heat, not resting.
With that said, you should aim to rest all your meat before digging in!
Want more helpful information on smoking pork? Check out my complete guide to smoking pork butt!