Pulled-Pork Processes

Rubbing bone-in pork shoulder butts with expensive spices & salt; then later watching much of it drip off the roast’s exterior along with cooking purge is likely the procedure that most often comes to mind when one thinks of home pulled-pork production.  In that scenario, raw meat prep is simple because most modern retail pork butts have already been injected with at least a salt-water containing solution (aids in finished product moisture retention) and external fat has been closely (retail) trimmed.  Pulling a blade bone out whole after cooking completion is often looked upon with pride; so a sharp knife and good knife skills are  not required.  However, blade bones can cause somewhat uneven cooking by way of the increased heat transfer through it.  I never hear about bone-chip fragments, that originated from the high-speed sawing of blade bones, being a tooth hazard in this type of finished pulled-pork.  Low product volume, lack of end-product consistency, too smoky and too much external char are some possible downsides here.  And it does take extended cook times to achieve easily shredable pork shoulder meat; luckily barbecue sauce is a great innovation for adding some juiciness and flavor back to overly dehydrated meat.

A commercial practice for producing institutional quality pulled-pork is to place previously frozen boneless pork shoulder picnics in tank size metal baskets then use an overhead electric chain hoist to lower them into steam heated water tanks.  End-product characteristics of this style of product are somewhat similar to home crock-pot cookery.  Live steam is most often used in commercial size tanks; so cooking time is only about 4 hours.  In both crockpots and commercial tanks, cooking meat submerged in liquid increases heat transfer to aid in shortening collagen gelling times; at any given cooking temperature.  Abundant moisture also helps to solubilize collagen protein.  One of the benefits of using salt is that it increases finished meat product moisture retention by way of swelling salt-soluble muscle proteins.  But unless you are cooking in liquid containing a high salt concentration (which is not advisable), salt in meat will equalize with what it is bathing in.  As a result, liquid cooked meat products tend to be quite dry and tasteless.  That tasteless factor develops in large part because meat contains water soluble proteins, vitamins and minerals.  Therefore, a lot of the “good stuff” is thrown out with the bathwater.  As with less-than-masterfully smoke-cooked pork butts (which is way too labor intensive), BBQ sauces as-well-as other commercial additives are used to acceptably bring back the palatability characteristics of flavor and juiciness.  Tenderness is not an issue in these two scenarios.

Pork butts and picnics are two different parts of the pork shoulder; with the butt portion being more desirable for retail sales.  Picnics are harder to bone-out and are most often used as either a lean component of commercially  made sausages or in institutional pulled-pork production.  However, some barbecue pit masters do use intact pork shoulders for making relatively low volumes of smoke-cooked pulled-pork.  As with barbecued pork butts, raw product boning is not an issue when picnics are slow cooked to the point where meat releases from bone.  Uneven cooking product dimensions and varying bone content both contribute to different degrees of cooked meat dehydration.

Commercially, one large lean muscle is often gleaned from picnics at the time of bone removal.  This “cushion meat” is very useful to grind and blend with fat pork trimmings; so that more fat can be utilized to make sausage products of an acceptable fat percentage.  After boneless, normally boxed & frozen, picnics are cooked in liquid the meat has to be picked through while still warm (usually on a slow moving plastic or metal link slow moving conveyor) in an effort to remove any large hunks of fat, skin, bone fragments or any other objectionable material.  Bone-chips and metal contamination in finished pre-cooked meat products are both a tooth-hazard liability. Therefore, at least in-line metal detectors are employed.  Some commercial producers use X-ray equipment called FOD (foreign object detection); which will also remove wood and bone fragments.  However, I don’t think even FOD will eject plastic.  It’s important to note here that bone-chip collectors attached to grinder heads are a great help in removing unwanted objects from ground meat products.  The smaller the plate hole size, the more hard objects that will be ejected.  In the production of mechanically deboned meat, starting product is ground bones and all then pressed through fine sieves in order to achieve boneless meat pulp (meat pulp does contain a slightly higher calcium content than intact meat).  But when it comes to shredded meat, large pieces of fat and some other undesirable meat originating elements have to be removed by hand.

 Currently, high-end commercial pull-pork production practices are a blend of the above methods; plus employ other meat processing technology’s.

One technology is large fibrous casings.  To read the case for casings blog post (click here).

Large volume commercial process for retail grade pulled-pork:

High quality end-product starts with high quality starting product so pork shoulder butts are often used.  Remove the blade bone from butts and any heavy external fat, blood clots, lymph nodes, heavy connective tissue etc..  Multi stich pump boneless butts with water, salt, sodium phosphate and desired soluble seasonings.  Pumping gets soluble ingredients in to where they can react with all meat, plus adds moisture.  Stuff boneless meat into fibrous ham casings; with more than one per casing.  Hang and spread out cased meat on smoke house trucks, trees or cages.  Smoke-cook in climate controlled thermal processing units at relatively low cooking temps until meat shreds easily (about 190F internal).  Chill cooked product overnight while still encased and hanging.  Strip from casings. Mechanically shred meat.  Convey it through FOD equipment.  Human line inspection on the FOD conveyor belt is helpful to remove any large pieces of fat or to spot anything else that consumers might object to.  Package mechanically then freeze immediately.


I have adapted the high-quality commercial process to be a great benefit to caterers, small BBQ restaurants and  other retail establishments; where the workers know how to use sharp knives.  Such businesses have a retail exemption from further processing meat inspection; local boards of health having jurisdiction.  Each of the drum-smokers pictured above can smoke 6 ten pound (bologna size) chubs at a time.  I soak “cleaned-up” pork shoulder butt chunks instead of pumping whole boneless butts.  Chubs are smoked at around 210F for 8 hours then finish cooked in large covered roasting pans, at 220F, in an oven.  When finish cooking in large roasters, chubs sit on a rack in order to hold them up out of  cooking purge. Hand shredding medium size chunks of cooked pork is easy and the removal of nearly all objectionable materials was done during the boning & cubing process.  There are several how to post about this subject in the Artisan Meat Processing topic section of this blog.

Written by George Wolfer

George Wolfer

Been associated with the meat industry pretty much since starting at a Vocational High school Meat Processing program in 1974. Like to learn and teach interesting and worthwhile livestock production, meat processing and marketing practices.

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