This Carolina-style Smoked Pulled Pork recipe is made with a pork shoulder (aka Boston butt) in a wood smoker or pellet grill using a homemade, easy barbecue spice rub made from pantry ingredients you already have on hand. Smoked low and slow with apple, cherry, or hickory wood, and slathered with Carolina mustard BBQ sauce, this recipe makes the best pulled pork sandwiches ever!
Smoked Pulled Pork
When it comes to barbecue in our family, we love it all, but I am definitely all about smoked brisket and pulled pork. They are easily, no question, my two top choices every time. Paul and Clara are bigger baby back rib fans, and Rose seems to like barbecued chicken or grilled salmon best, but nobody will turn down a juicy pulled pork sandwich!
The name of the game when it comes to making the best smoked pulled pork is low and slow. You will want to smoke your pork roast at 225°F to 250°F until it reaches an internal temperature that is between 195°F to 205°F. This long, slow cooking process breaks down the connective tissues of the pork shoulder and melts (or “renders”) the fat, leaving you with super moist, tender strands of pork the will just pull apart with a couple of forks.
While you can definitely make pulled pork in the slow cooker using the exact same spice rub, smoking it on the smoker is a totally different experience with so much smoky flavor and an even better texture in the end.
Pile this smoked pulled pork high on buttered, toasted buns and pour some of your favorite barbecue sauce over it and it is heaven on a bun! My favorite BBQ sauce to serve with pulled pork is a mustard and vinegar based sauce that is specific to South Carolina known as Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce (also sometimes called Carolina Gold BBQ Sauce). It’s a shocking yellow/gold color and it tastes different from the tomato-based sauces of Kansas City barbecue, but I just love the tanginess of it.
In North Carolina, they have another vinegar-based sauce that is the gold standard for pulled pork, so you will find that your pulled pork is a little different depending on where you go and how they approach it.
House of Nash MEATS
For several years now, Paul and I have enjoyed smoking meats on our Traeger smoker. A few months ago, Paul had a great idea and recommended I do a series devoted to the meats we smoke, called House of Nash MEATS!
What cut of meat is best for pulled pork?
Choosing the right cut of meat is important when making smoked pulled pork. The most popular, and my personal favorite, is the pork butt, which is not actually from the butt of the pig but half of a pork shoulder (confusing, right? I don’t know how it got the name pork butt, but if somebody knows, please tell me!). Most barbecue places use whole pork shoulders, but you usually can’t find them in regular grocery stores. If you DO find one, I definitely recommend getting it and using it!
When you are looking for pork butt, it is sometimes labeled by other names like Boston butt, shoulder butt, shoulder roast, or shoulder blade roast. They are all the same cut of meat. Pork butt is awesome because as long as you cook it low and slow, it’s almost a foolproof cut of meat and a great place to learn how to use a smoker.
Look for a bone-in pork shoulder that is around 6 to 8 pounds. I have also done boneless pork shoulders and those definitely turn out delicious too, but I prefer the bone-in cut if it’s available.
How long does it take to cook pulled pork?
We always cook our pulled pork low and slow on the smoker, which is always an all-day process that requires somebody getting up early to start the smoker and get the pork going so that it will be done in time for dinner. You can plan on around 1 1/2 to 2 hours per pound of meat when cooked at around 225°F to 250°F. But some pieces of meat will smoke faster and others will take longer. That’ just kind of the way it is with pork butt and there’s no rushing things.
For an 8 pound pork butt, plan on smoking it for 12 hours at a minimum, then add in an extra hour to the front and 1-2 hours at the end to let the meat rest. My advice, if you are worried about having the meat done at a specific time for a party or something, is to start smoking the meat so that it will be done a full 2-3 hours before you expect anybody to arrive. You can always wrap it up in a towel and let it rest longer without shredding it and it will stay hot. But it’s the worst when the meat is not done and people are waiting around for it to finish.
How do you know when pulled pork is done?
Like always, I recommend using a good digital meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat in order to know when it is done. For pulled pork, you want it to reach an internal temperature of 195°F to 205°F before you know it’s done.
Just like with smoked brisket, pulled pork usually has a period in the middle of smoking it known as the “‘stall”. This is where the internal temperature of the meat levels off, usually around 145°F, and takes forever to go up any higher than that. There is nothing to worry about, just let the pork butt keep on smoking, and eventually, even though it will seem to take forever, the temperature of the pork butt will climb up to 165°F and then start climbing a more of a normal pace again until it reaches 195°F to 205°F, which is when you can pull it off the smoker and wrap it to rest for 1-2 hours before shredding.
Some people choose to wrap their pork butt in butcher paper or tin foil when it hits the stall between 145°F and 165°F (a technique known as the Texas Crutch, which I talk more about in my brisket post), but we never do this when making smoked pulled pork. I feel like it interferes with forming the really dark bark on the outside of the pork butt that is one of my favorite parts about really good pulled pork.
Speaking of that dark bark, some people might be scared that the pork looks almost burnt, but I promise it won’t taste that way. There will also be a pink ring around the inside, which is common when smoking meats.
What wood is best for smoking pulled pork?
Smoke is a really important ingredient in this recipe because it adds so much flavor to the pulled pork. Our favorite woods for making smoked pulled pork are hickory, apple, or cherry. You can even mix more than one type of wood to get a custom smoke blend, if you want.
These woods give a fairly mild smoke, which is perfect for pork. I do not recommend stronger wood smoke like pecan when smoking pork butt.
Our favorite pork rub is easy to make with spices that are already in your pantry. It’s just a matter of combining the ingredients, then using the rub to generously coat the pork butt. This will help the pulled pork develop an amazing crusty bark on the outside.
For this pork rub, you will need the following ingredients:
- brown sugar
- garlic powder
- onion powder
- chili powder
- ground pepper
- smoked paprika
- cayenne pepper
- dry mustard
Just combine them all in a bowl with a lid and stir or shake them up really well and your pork rub is ready to go!
This rub, or subtle variations of it, are what I use on almost all our smoked and grilled pork, but it’s also excellent on chicken as well. It’s got just a little sweetness and a little kick to it, but you can leave out the cayenne pepper if you don’t want any spice to it.
Should you use a brine for pulled pork?
Some people say this step is unnecessary, but we like to brine our pork butt overnight before smoking it. It adds flavor and results in better pulled pork, in our opinion.
For this brine, you will use water, apple juice or apple cider, kosher salt, dark brown sugar, some of the pork dry rub, and bay leaves. You can replace the apple juice or apple cider with water, if you don’t happen to have the former on hand. I think the apple juice adds flavor, but it’s not hugely noticeable so I don’t worry about it if we don’t happen to have any.
Just stir all the brine ingredients together well in a large pot or 2 gallon size ziploc bag, then add the pork butt, making sure it is completely covered in the brine and cover or seal, then stick it in the fridge for 12 to 24 hours before smoking it.
How to make Smoked Pulled Pork
- Make the rub: This is super easy. Just combine all of the rub ingredients in a bowl and stir them until evenly distributed.
- Brine the pork butt: Combine the brine ingredients (including 3 tablespoons of the dry rub you just made) in a large pot or an extra large ziploc bag. Whisk or stir for a minute to help the sugar and salt dissolve, then add the pork butt and seal well. Refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. You may also want to reserve 2-3 tablespoons of rub for tossing with the pulled pork later after it is smoked.
- Rub the meat: Remove the pork from the brine and pat dry. Sprinkle the pork butt generously with the rub, massaging it into the meat. Let it sit for about 30 to 60 minutes to take some of the chill off before sticking the rubbed meat on the smoker.
- Smoke: Prepare your smoker by getting the smoke going and heating the smoker to 225°F to 250°F. Smoke for around 1 1/2 hours per pound until the internal temperature of the pork butt reaches 195°F to 205°F. You can spritz the pork with apple juice from a spray bottle once an hour as it is smoking if it’s looking dry on the outside, but it’s usually not something we feel is necessary.
- Let it rest: Letting the smoked pork butt rest allows it to redistribute the juices, resulting in easier shredding and much juicier pulled pork. We pull it off the smoker and wrap it in foil, then wrap it with towels and stick it in a cooler to rest. It’s a big piece of meat, so it’s going to need to rest for an hour or two before shredding, and it can go even longer, like 3-4 hours, and still be piping hot when you go to shred it if you’ve got it wrapped in towels in a cooler like this.
- Shred: You can pull or shred the smoked pork by hand, with forks, or using meat claws, if you have them. Be sure to pull out any large chunks of fat that remain. If you have any leftover or reserved pork rub, I like to sprinkle a little over the pork after its shredded and give it a toss for even more flavor. Some people also like to add some of the barbecue sauce they plan on using and tossing the pork in it, but I personally prefer serving it only on the side to add as much or as little as you want.
- Serve! I love serving pulled pork on buttered and toasted buns, but it’s excellent all on its own with some wonderful, classic sides.
Tips for the best pulled pork
- You might need to trim the fat on your cut of pork to about 1/8-inch thick. You don’t really want it any thicker than that.
- Be sure to let the smoked pork rest for at least 1 hour before pulling or shredding it. It’s so tempting to just start clawing away at the meat, but it really does make a difference to give it that time to let the juices redistribute.
- Reheat leftovers in the oven by covering them with foil and warming in a 250°F oven for 30 minutes until hot all the way through.
Ways for using leftover pulled pork
Since this is a large cut of meat, there are always leftovers, which is perfect for easy meals the rest of the week. You can reheat and serve pulled pork sandwiches again, of course, but here are some of our favorite ways of using leftover smoked pulled pork:
- quesadillas (especially with roasted red peppers and caramelized onions)
- in macaroni & cheese
- on baked potatoes
What to serve with smoked pulled pork
Any of your summer side dish favorites will go well with smoked pulled pork, but these are some of the ones we like best.
- Mac & Cheese
- baked beans
- BLT Pasta Salad
- Perfect Cornbread
- Summer Fruit Salad with honey lime poppy seed dressing
- Grilled Corn Salad
- Cottage Cheese Jello Salad
More Barbecue Recipes You’ll Love
- Alabama White BBQ Sauce Grilled Chicken
- Santa Maria Tri-Tip
- How to Make a Brined and Smoked Turkey
- Perfect Grilled Pork Chops with Sweet BBQ Pork Rub
- Texas Smoked Brisket
- 5-8 pounds pork butt (aka Boston butt, pork shoulder, country roast, etc.)
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tablespoon dry mustard
- 8 Cups Water
- 1/2 Cup Kosher Salt
- 1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
- 3 Heaping Tablespoons Dry Rub
- 2 Bay Leaves
- Combine all of the rub ingredients in a bowl and stir until evenly distributed.
- In a large pot or extra large ziploc bag, combine the brine ingredients (including 3 tablespoons of the dry rub you just made), whisking or stirring for a minute to help the sugar and salt dissolve, then add the pork butt and seal well. Refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. Reserve an additional 2-3 tablespoons of spice rub for sprinkling over the finished pulled pork, if desired.
- Remove the pork butt from the brine and pat dry. Sprinkle generously with the rub massaging it into the meat. Let the pork butt sit for 30 to 60 minutes to take some of the chill off before placing on the smoker.
- Prepare the smoker by heating it and getting the smoke going until the temperature is between 225°F to 250°F. Smoke for around 1 1/2 hours per pound until the internal temperature of the pork butt reaches 195°F to 205°F. You can spritz the pork with apple juice from a spray bottle once an hour as it is smoking if it's looking dry on the outside, but it's not absolutely necessary.
- Once the pork has finished smoking, remove it from the smoker and let it rest for 1-2 hours to redistribute the juices. You can wrap it in foil, then in towels and place it in a cooler to rest.
- Pull or shred the smoked pork by hand, with forks, or using meat claws. Remove any large chunks of fat. If you have any leftover or reserved pork rub, I like to sprinkle a little over the pulled pork and give it a toss for even more flavor. You can also toss the pulled pork with some barbecue sauce, if desired, before serving.
- Serve pulled pork on buttered and toasted buns, or all on its own with your favorite barbecue sides.
Adapted from my Sweet & Spicy Slow Cooker Pulled Pork.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 1110 Total Fat: 72g Saturated Fat: 27g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 38g Cholesterol: 330mg Sodium: 6585mg Carbohydrates: 21g Fiber: 1g Sugar: 18g Protein: 89g
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