Pulled-Pork Nirvana

Since this post will go against the outdoor cooking powers that be, perhaps the made up word Nerve-ana could also be considered appropriate in the title.  Speaking of nerve, when propane is allowed on the BBQ contest circuit we might well start seeing the use of gas-fired, climate-controlled portable smokehouses that are manufactured by commercial food processing equipment companies.

I was greatly heartened some years back when the home further processing of underutilized meat cuts began to dramatically gain popularity.  But, later got disappointed upon realizing that traditional frugal tough cut barbecue cooking was morphing into anything and everything that could be used to try and turn a buck in outdoor cooking.  Sadly, there’s no money to be made from giving out free altruistic wisdom.  I only do it because I have a desire to give back and can afford to in my own little way i.e. this blog.  If you are mainly motivated to make smoked pulled pork as a contest and/or as another way of keeping up with the Joneses, that’s your business.  However, if you consider making smoked pulled pork to be an economical endeavor, you might well be able to glean some worthwhile wisdom from this mega-post.

My favorite take on the definition of the word nirvana is – a state of perfect happiness.  Over time I have come to realize that my personal concept of pulled-pork nirvana entails more than just achieving a highly palatable (flavor, tenderness & juiciness) end-product; at all cost.  The roots of slowly cooking high collagen containing cuts are based in several different frugal considerations.  So, in order to achieve an old-school version of  pulled-pork nirvana materials costs, supply costs, equipment costs, labor time requirements, product storability and product versatility all have to be close to optimal; in order to be a pragmatic endeavor.

Currently, the slow cooking of the pork carcass shoulder region cuts continues to be a seemingly worldwide fad/craze.  A multitude of barbecue cooking instructors have dubbed themselves “Pit Masters;” and many have taken to the internet.   Wisely, the majority of these Pit Masters now advocate the use of science-based cookery techniques.  But, alas almost all of them also need and/or want to make money; so they can ill afford to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to their eager students.  Mostly all on-line BBQ educators have multiple advertising sponsors that promote the sale of things such as spices, grills, smoke-cooking units, different types of cooking fuel, cooking classes, BBQ competitions and at least a dozen different “must have” BBQ accessories.  Further, the definition of barbecuing has continued to be redefined into the outdoor smoke-cooking of tender cuts of meat; as well as a good many non-meat food items.  Understandably, this definition expansion facilitates more money making possibilities.  Unfortunately, even Land-Grant Universities have to be careful not to offend money contributing alumni and/or corporate donators who have financial ties to the trending BBQ industry.  In a frugal version of BBQ nirvana, all the above listed cost-prohibitive factors (expensive spice rubs etc.) have to be remediated.

Between the years 1943 and 2001 there were 14 editions of The Meat We Eat text book published.  That book was once widely considered the meat “Bible” used by virtually everyone entering the industry and by many that were continuing a meat education on their own.  If you care to learn why this 1111 page text book went out of print (Click Here).

A really cool aspect of the current upsurge in leisurely outdoor home cooking; ironically occurring in the middle of an ongoing 45 plus year convenience food  trend, is that so many more people are now interested in the how and why science behind successful meat preparation.  However, I do find it rather disingenuous that some self-appointed BBQ educators claim that evaporative cooling, which is responsible for the stall in cooking temperature increases during relatively low heat cookery, is a recently discovered phenomenon.  Commercial meat processors understandably would like to keep trade secrets out of sight and out of mind from the general public.  I can however assure you that the commercial usage of climate controlled  smokehouses (with excellent air-flow, humidity control and temperature control) dates back at least several decades.  If you want to read the technical truth about cooking, simply open another window then goggle : Alkar The Real Truth About Cooking.  Computer controlled commercial thermal processing units break down the smoke-cooking process into several sequential steps.  Further, all big further processing meat plants have Research and Development departments (R&D); that are strongly science based and work daily to implement whatever today’s meat market will bear.  In order to achieve pulled-pork nirvana one needs to implement some of the knife skills, supplies, cooking cycles, finished product texture enhancing additives and seasoning techniques routinely employed by commercial  further meat processors.

Since X-ray equipment (Foreign Object Detection or FOD) technology is not financially feasible for small scale pulled-pork makers, a few good knives are essential for both pork shoulder butt blade bone removal and the fatting-down of heavy external fat.  I fully realize that most backyard barbecuers prefer to measure a successful cook by pulling out a cooked clean blade bone, but nirvana grade pulled-pork also calls for a diligent attempt at removing tooth hazard bone-fragments; which were generated during the high-speed sawing of  blade bones during pork sub-primal cut fabrication.  Further, heavy external fat and bone removal make for the more uniform cooking of casing stuffed pork chunks.  The uniform diameter of large fibrous casings also provides more consistent cooking outcomes, plus provides increased meat surface area for forming a delicious – somewhat chewy smoked protein skin.  If you want to learn more about the case for casings (Click Here).

By far, the best economic attributes of a Wolfer style Smoke-Cooking unit are its relatively high product volume capacity (60 pounds), low cooking labor inputs, its ability to efficiently & effectively accomplish the smoke-cooking phase and the low cost of unit fabrication.  If you want to read more about Wolfer Smoke-Cooker attributes (Click Here).  If you want to know all about Wolfer Smoke-Cooker cooking mechanisms (Click Here).  If you wish to build your own comparatively low cost Smoke-Cooker; out of readily available new materials for around $240 (Click Here).

A lot of people likely don’t have the time or the will to learn a bunch of meat and cooking science.  The good news for those of that inclination is that one can still fairly easily obtain frugal pulled-pork nirvana.  Case in point, meat plants are chocked-full of largely meat illiterate line workers that successfully do as directed on a routine basis.  Simply follow the step-by step pictorial below then practice on your own, in order to satisfy personal taste and texture preferences.  I’m not selling anything and out of pocket costs to follow these recommended practices will be very low compared to mainstream BBQ how-to pushers.

Over the last 5 plus years I have intermittently preached that the amount of pulled-pork generated from a wholesale carton of fresh pork butts is a good workable poundage for caterers, small restaurants and delis.  However, due to the high quality retention of properly packaged precooked meat items, putting a butt case worth of pulled-pork up in home freezer storage is also a financially sound practice.  Doing a case size batch at home accomplishes some economies of scale cost benefits, plus it takes about as long to cook & clean up after making a big batch as it does from the mess of a small volume.  Frozen pulled-pork is nice to have conveniently on hand because it rapidly microwave tempers, is very versatile in different recipe applications and it’s good to have enough of it premade to serve at unexpected family and friends gatherings.

Pictured are my tools of choice for pork shoulder butt fatting-down and blade bone removal.  A butcher’s steel can merely realign the cutting edge on an already sharp knife whenever it become noticeably distorted (dull).  The broader bladed boning knife on the left is well suited for trimming down external butt fat to approximately 1/16 of an inch thickness.  Other than removing unwanted heavy fat, fatting-down can also remove any bone-fragments that may have become embedded in roast surface fat as butts traveled down the pork plant cut fabrication interlinking belt.  Rub your bare fingers over the fat prior to removing it; especially if you intend to use this exterior fat for formulating sausage.  This time around I saved just over 5 pounds of pork trim fat to grind & mix with Choice beef sirloin tips.  Some time in the future I’ll be posting  how that worked out for us.  Due to fat and bone’s similar coloration, I can feel bone-chips easier than see them.  So, I go barehanded and work the butts up slow.  Also, check the lean side for the cartilage tips off neck bones that might have been left on butt roasts.  Back when I started pursuing pulled-pork nirvana I removed a lot of the heavy seam fat from between individual muscles.  But, with more experience I came to realize that there was still some seam fat left to remove when I was pulling the cooked product; so I was essentially doing double work by practicing raw seam fat removal.  Further, seam fat helps retain cooked product moisture and enhances end-product flavor; as it partially renders out during cooking.  The thin, stiff bladed knife on the right is optimal for blade bone removal.  Blade bone removal from raw butts is recommended so that one is able to do a good job of feeling for and removing loose bone-chips that are often found around such rapidly sawed bones.  Bone removal also facilitates pork butts being cut into boneless large chunks for stuffing into casings, and jagged bone edges are no longer present to rip fibrous casings.  There are dozens of YouTube videos on pork shoulder blade removal, however as with many things found on the internet some are of questionable reliability.  Watch several videos until you find some where a boning knife similar to the one on the right is being used.  Further, watching several videos provides one with somewhat of a consensus about what to believe.  If you aren’t up to boning butts, but otherwise like what is being discussed here (Click Here) for a less labor intensive pulled-pork making alternative.  Or, depending upon your circumstances, buying boneless butts might be a viable option.  A lymph node naturally occurs in each pork shoulder butt.  Lymph nodes are normally harvest plant removed from “retail trimmed butts.”  Remove and discard any lymph nodes, bruises, blood clots, bone-skin (often found on meat near where the cartilage tip was sawed off) and any thin – loose seam fat.  It may take you a while to be able to pull clean – raw blade bones; so just trim off most of any still attached meat then mix it in with the lean pork chunks.

A wholesale case of 8 butts weighed 68.63 pounds.  I started work by checking the lean side of butts for neck bone cartilage tips, then fatted-down the subcutaneous fat.

The thin outside muscle is pulled next, there will be some fat on both sides of it and that’s OK.  Just throw it in with meat to be marinated.  If present (depending on the trim spec of the butts you bought), the lymph node will be under one end of that thin muscle.

With the roast still fat side up, take your knife from the outside bone edge and up the ridge of the scapula (blade bone).  Cut that piece of meat free, feel for bone fragments, cut it in half and then throw it in the meat chunk bin.

Ride the knife tightly down the other side of the ridge then etch around the blade bone with the knife tip.

To finish blade bone removal, turn the roast over and cut across the flat back of the bone.

Separate the roast along the major muscle seams then chunk all meat.  Don’t forget to keep feeling for bone-chips the entire time.

Fat, bone, objectionable material removal plus bag purge brought the meat batch weight down to 59 pounds.  Pictured is a marinate mix for 60 pounds of modern retail pork (plant pumped).  4 TBSP. roast sodium phosphate (if it was not previously pumped into your starting raw product), 2 cups of water, 8 cups of beer, 25 cloves of crushed garlic, 5 TBSP. leaf marjoram, 4 TBSP coarse ground black pepper and 7 TBSP purified salt.  A best practice is to boil everything listed here ahead of time, except the sodium phosphate and purified salt.  Boiling alcohol off marinates is recommended by some chefs, heat sterilizing spices/herbs is a good thing and flavors will blend as that mixture chills overnight.  Stir in sodium phosphate, then salt just prior to mixing the marinate in with the pork shoulder butt chunks.

Marinate was worked into the meat by hand then the batch was divided into two separate containers for a day and a half of refrigerator storage.

Just over 5 pounds of fat trimmings also went in refrigeration for future use.  If you want to see how these trimmings were utilized (Click Here).

The important considerations determining average pork chunk size are the desired length of finished product shreds, ease of hand stuffing them into casings and adequate meat surface area creation so that marinate will absorb throughout all meat in about 36 hours.  Experience has taught me to aim for about 2 1/2 to 3 inch cubes and not to worry about any off-size meat inadvertently generated.  A little variation in cooked meat shred length is not a finished product quality issue.

A major money saving advantage of chunking and stuffing butts is that neither expensive pre-blended or from scratch, spice rubs are part of that process.  I have always strongly opposed using BBQ rubs because of their high cost, they do not absorb throughout all meat (they season only near the roast surface; fat & muscle sheaths can further inhibit absorption), they often burn up on the outside of roast’s surfaces or they largely drip away along with cooking purge.  You normally won’t hear anything unfavorable about rubs because spice is big business.  Food contact container plastic and aluminum foil (in lieu of fibrous casings) are in that same type of “not open to discussion” realm.  When considering advice, always be cognizant of where the best money is being made, “follow the money.”  Unlike rubs, pumping can be expected to get water soluble additives in direct contact with all meat, where it can react with it to produce desired outcomes (flavor, finished product moisture retention etc.).  Marinates containing non-soluble spices can work well too; if mixed in with moderately sized meat chunks displaying a good bit of surface area to promote flavor absorption.  In the marinate mix I, use some specks of coarse ground black pepper, leaf marjoram and maybe even some crushed garlic will end up in the finished pulled-pork.  One should choose their marinate ingredients wisely and well.   Start by acknowledging that fresh pork labeled “Natural” has been pork plant pumped with salt-water and an organic acid microbial inhibitor.  Since added water and salt have been officially deemed to be natural they are not required to be listed as added ingredients.  The organic acid is a microbial inhibiting intervention; that’s required for food safety after needle pumping breached the relatively sterile interior of sub-primal meat cuts.  Roast surfaces quickly reach bacteria killing temps during cooking, but their interior does not.  So pushing holes in fresh meat creates a food safety concern requiring an anti-microbial intervention.  Too much water in a cooked chunked muscle end-product is not possible (self-limiting as to how much water will be bound), but too much water in a marinate will overly dilute other additives.  I recommend just enough liquid marinate to initially cover about half the meat chunks in an appropriate size container; then overhaul (turn) meat chunks a couple – three different times during marination by using a long handled wooden spoon.  Most of the liquid will be absorbed within about 36 hours.  Too much salt can render a finished item unpalatable.  Virtually all the pork available at supermarkets or wholesale club stores today has been pumped to enhance finished product palatability and to sell some water at meat prices.  As a rule of thumb I cut the recipe called-for amount of salt in half when processing store bought fresh pork.  If you have to error, do it on the side of lower salt.  A small amount of salt will still provide finished product moisture retention benefits and some salt-soluble meat protein extraction (for protein-skin development).  Further, more salt can always be added at the table in order to accommodate individual tastes.  Next, I recommend the usage of food-grade sodium phosphate that has been formulated specifically for roasts.  Some retail fresh pork already contains the permissible concentration of sodium phosphate; so always read fresh pork ingredient statements.  Pretty much any pork not labeled “Natural” will now-a-days contain sodium phosphate.  Two major reasons of adding sodium phosphate are that it increases finished product moisture retention and it inhibits fat oxidation, that can rapidly lead to warmed-over-flavor (WOF) in precooked meat products.  Increased finished product moisture retention is achieved by way of sodium phosphate raising the pH level in raw meat.  Interestingly, moister dark meat naturally has a higher pH than white meat.  If you want to learn more about food-grade sodium phosphate (Click Here).  Added flavors  in your marinate are a matter of personal preference.  If you want to see how I make a pulled-pork marinate (Click Here) then look down through the post for listed marinate ingredients & amounts.  For an easy way to adjust ingredients in a recipe to any given meat batch size (Click Here).

Set the smoke-cooker up and fill the water pan the night before.

One end of large fibrous casings can be tied tightly shut in advance.  I use cotton roast string, but a hog-ring clipper may work as well.

Soak casings in warm water for about half an hour prior to stuffing.

Large (bologna chub size) fibrous casings cost me around $1.50 a piece and are readily available from online home sausage making or wild game processing supply catalog companies.  Soak fibrous casings in warm water for about 1/2 hour before hand-stuffing them with marinated chunks of pork shoulder butt.  I used to add vinegar and liquid smoke to the soak solution, and even turned casings inside out during soaking in an effort to facilitate meat protein skin formation along interior casing walls.  Protein-skin can aid in peeling off of casing from cooked product and it adds some desirable semi-chewy dark pieces to a pulled-pork batch.  You will achieve a narrow smoke-ring on meat contacting the exterior casing wall using this method.  And, if a more pronounced smoke is desired just add 1 teaspoon of Prague  Powder #1 to the water that the large fibrous casings are soaked in.  Today I advocate finishing pulled-pork in a conventional oven; so casings are no longer sticking at all because they are stripped before the end of cooking; also protein skin formation seems to be nearly optimal to produce appealing texture differences in the finished pulled-pork.

Most marinate is absorbed after about a day and a half.  Meat was moved around (overhauled), using a wooden spoon, twice during the marination period.

Use your fist to push down on meat chunks when hand-stuffing the marinated pork into 4 1/2 inch diameter fibrous casings.  I hold onto the open end with my left hand and fist down hard with my right.  These casings are pretty dang tough.  Tie the casing ends tightly closed with cotton butcher’s twine or use a hog-ring clipper.  Depending upon the weight of a starting wholesale case of pork butts, you may end up with too much marinated meat to fit into 6 casings.  In that case oven cook the extra in a covered roasting pan while smoking is underway.  Such oven cooked pork can be eaten immediately and/or shredded and later mixed in with the entire finished batch.  Or, if the cooker isn’t being ran at full capacity – unstuffed chunks can be placed in the smoke-cooker in a hand fashioned aluminum foil cup.

Place three butt chubs on each of the smoke-cookers two racks.  All romantic outdoor cooking thoughts aside, all that really needs to be accomplished in this phase is to get the desired type and amount of smoke on the meat chubs; while at the same time getting the cooking process started.  Hardwood is nearly universally recommended for cooking smoke generation, the type of hardwood is personal preference.  Black locust is an example of one hardwood that’s too pungent for most folk’s liking.  If the Wolfer style smoke-cooker is fired-off and refueled as directed, it will easily remain within a 210 to 240F cooking range.  And, there are no dampers to try and adjust (play with).  Admittedly, when using this unit in cold weather (such as pictured above), refueling will have to be done more often because the thin metal drum rapidly radiate heat into a cold atmosphere.

Since all the pork was out of the refrigerator during this stage of the process, and since the smoke-cooker does not require much attention – I went out, bought a case of sirloin tips, worked it up and put some convenience beef items in the freezer.

When using this smoke-cooking technique there’s no need to burn wood down to coals in  an effort to lessen smoke accumulation on meat surfaces.  Semi-permeable casings, lessen smoke accumulation, hold adequate moisture around cooking product and filter out soot/fly-ash that could contain some potentially harmful compounds that are generated during hardwood combustion.  For this cook start-up I simply split up cherry wood and placed a layer of it on top of two charcoal chimney loads of generic briquettes that had been partially lit.

The meat on the bottom rack was pulled from the smoke-cooker after 7 hours of running at an average interior unit temperature in the 220F range.  Chub exteriors are rinsed off and meat is stripped from them.  These 3 chubs; that were closer to the heat source in the smoke-cooker were further along than those on the top smoker rack.  Past history shows that after 7 hours the bottom rack chubs will be holding around 155F internal.  Meat plant added microbial inhibitors, salt, garlic and maybe even some alcohol all help to inhibit microbial growth.  Still we don’t want to allow the top rack chubs to linger too long in the 40 to 140F danger zone for microbial growth.  Eventually internal meat temps will reach and hold well above bacterial kill levels, but I try to avoid them growing in the first place.  And, I believe that any toxins potentially generated from mid-cook bacterial growth are not heat stable.  I would welcome more microbiology input on this situation; that no doubt plays out a lot in non-cured – low cooking temperature meat cooking (think anaerobic sous vide cookery).  The top rack continued to smoke-cook while the bottom rack chubs spent 4 hours lightly steam cooking at 220F to just over 180F internal.  In the future I plan on bumping  the oven temp to 230F or somewhat higher to move things along better.  Since I recently learned that more gelled collagen may offset increased product dehydration, I’m going to try cooking up to 195F internal next time.  An interesting side note is that a heavy smoke environment can allow anaerobic bacteria to grow; if given enough time at favorable temperatures.

Bottom smoker rack chubs stripped and heading into the oven.

Low level steam generation inside tightly covered pans facilitates the gelling collagen protein, but we don’t want to submerge meat because it would then take on some washed-out/water-cooked flavor  & texture characteristics.  Take caution to tilt roaster lids away from your hands when opening them just out of the oven, that initial cloud of steam will burn you.

Bottom smoker meat rack after 4 hours of covered roaster steam cooking.

Top rack after 11 hours in smoke-cooker.  As stated earlier, casings are rinsed off prior to stripping them.  This pic gives you a good idea of how much fly-ash/soot you eat on unfiltered BBQ roasts.  If there’s any spice rub left on exposed roasts it will come in handy to cover some of the exterior’s ash flavor.

Fire grate of my little smoker the following morning.  The cast iron water pan is hard to see here.

Top smoker rack chubs after 15 hours combined smoker/oven cooking time.

Use two forks to sample for average meat pull-ability.  Easy pulling pork is a breeze, but slightly harder to pull pork retains a bit more moisture.  You make that call.  Once you are satisfied with pull-ability, let the cooked meat sit out uncovered until the meat cools enough to start pulling.  There’s really no call for resting and wrapping heroics.

All pulled-pork in the wholesale case size batch mixed together.

This is about half of the batch during pack out.

If you get too tired after a long cooking day, thoroughly chill covered pulled-pork overnight before tightly packing it off for freezer storage the following day. By compressing shredded pork, as zip-lock plastic bags are sealed, a nearly vacuum like primary container packaging is achieved.   If you want to know more about the proper freezer storage of meat (Click Here).

When it comes time to reheat a large amount of precooked pulled-pork I water down a little barbecue sauce, place that mixture in a 14 inch diameter cast iron skillet and stir as it all heats.  While skillet warming the pork I start a crockpot on its warm setting.  Transfer skillet warmed pork into the crockpot set on its warm setting about an hour for serving time.  Or, use the pulled-pork in many other recipe applications.  We like to make up all the side fixings to eat a lot of Chipotle restaurant like meals.  I have even had good success with fine dicing packages of pulled-pork from the partially frozen state to use for making smoky Goetta.


Comparative summary:

Ease of raw butt prep goes to conventional whole butt method.  However, if slightly dryer end-product is acceptable, picnic cushion meat needs no fat trimming at all and is boneless.

Better bone-fragment removal and uniform marinate distribution goes to chubs.

Lower spice cost goes to chubs.

Lower cost of cooking fuel and hardwood chunks is likely a near draw.

Cost of an optimal, relatively high volume smoke-cooking unit goes to chubs.

Not wasting smoker space on a lot of fat and bone that will not be consumed goes to chubs.

Uniform cooking product type (fat & bone) and uniform cooking product dimensions goes to chubs.

Larger amounts of optimal smoky protein skin formation goes to chubs.

Price of foil tenting and large fibrous casings cost are likely a wash.

Less cooking monitoring and labor time goes big to chubs.

No need for constant temperature monitoring equipment or other gadgetry goes to chubs.

Not doing extended cooked product rest periods and roast wrapping goes to chubs.


I wish that someone would have presented me this type of solid actionable information back when I was still young & ambitious enough to financially profit from it in a small business.  There are several other post on this blog site which are closely relate to this subject and all are there for the taking.  “There ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”

Eat wisely and well; without an unnecessary amount of expense and effort, my friends.  Your money and time can both be better spent by not following the commercialized herd.  If you doubt any of this discussion, all you have to do is ask for further clarification(s).

A few large fibrous casing suppliers:  lemproducts.com, thesausagemaker.com, butcher-packer.com.  Butcher-packer also has sausage sodium phosphate (sold under the name of special binder), plus good prices on bulk spices and hog casings.  One word of caution, many of the items that the non-commercial catalog companies offer for sale are not worth buying.

The only retail roast sodium phosphate I have found is from theingredientstore.com and it sells under the name of Amesphos.