How do you turn a smoked pork butt or shoulder into those perfect shreds of meat so beloved by BBQ enthusiasts?
- 1 How to Pull Pork
- 2 Shredding Pulled Pork
- 3 Methods for Shredding Pork
- 4 After You Pull Your Pork, What’s Next?
How to Pull Pork
Initially, I thought it was a bit much to devote a whole article to pulling pork. After all, most recipes cover this step in a single line, something like “Pull meat into shreds and add the sauce.” Is there really more to say about shredding smoked pork?
There is no wrong way to pull pork, not really. As long as your hands and implements are clean and your pork is rested, you’ll have edible results no matter how you choose to shred it.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realize there ARE a few tricks to getting the best texture from your pulled pork. After a long chat with a group of BBQ novices, I set out to write the ultimate guide to pulling pork.
Fine Shreds of Pork, or Chunky?
First, you have to decide what texture you want from your pulled pork. Do you like fine strands of meat or a mix of thin and chunky bites?
I often leave some of my pork in bigger chunks when serving it on its own, but for sliders and sandwiches, I prefer a finer shred. I find the flavor of the sauce comes through better when the pork is shredded into thin strands of meat. This helps a pulled pork slider really pop with flavor too!
To some extent, the texture of your shreds will depend on the cut of meat you’re smoking. Both pork butt and pork shoulder have a lot of delicious fat that helps keep things moist and tender as they cook. If you’ve tried to smoke a leaner cut, like a tenderloin, your meat may not shred very well.
Then there is the question of the meat bark. Many folks just love the bark from the outside of your smoked meat! If you’re serving your pulled pork for a party or gathering, you might want to save a pile of bark to the side for folks to nibble on.
Otherwise, you can mix the bark into your shredded pile of porky goodness and enjoy the crunchy bits of flavor.
Warm and Rested
The best time to pull your pork is when it is still nice and warm from the smoker, but after it has rested for a good 20 to 30 minutes.
This gives the meat time to reach it’s ideal final temperature and allows the juices to absorb back into the pork. It also cools the meat down enough that you won’t get burned while handling it.
Remove the Bones and Gristle
Before you get into the business of shredding your pork, you need to remove any bones and gristle from the slab. These parts can get mixed into your pulled pork shreds, leaving inedible bits behind that your guests won’t much care for.
Once your pork has rested, you’ll need to carefully separate the meat from the bones and discard them to the side. Toss any gristle you come across onto the discard pile as well. Once you have a pile of bone-free meat you can start pulling your pork into shreds.
As I shred my pork, I keep an eye out for big chunks of fat or gristle, or any smaller bones I may have missed. These can go on your discard pile too. When you’re done, you’ll have a perfect pile of pulled pork, ready for some sauce and sides!
Shred it All or Save Some for Later?
Should you shred the entire pork butt or shoulder at once? Or save some of it to shred later?
It depends. For a party, I usually shred the whole thing. If I’m planning on leftovers I’ll save some chunks of pork to shred another time.
You’ll get the best texture if you shred your meat while it is still warm. As your meat cools, the shreds congeal together. If you’re planning on eating your pulled pork over several days, you might want to save some of the chunks to shred later.
It’s a lot easier to reheat a slab of smoked pork and pull it fresh, right before you serve it. Reheating shredded pork leaves the meat mushier like it’s been slow-cooked rather than smoked. It will still taste great but the texture will suffer a bit.
If you’re planning on freezing your smoked pork you should definitely leave it in chunks. Debone and vacuum-seal the meat, freeze for up to 3 months and then shred it after you defrost and reheat it.
It will taste so good you’ll think you just removed your pulled pork from the smoker!
Shredding Pulled Pork
Pulling smoked pork into perfect shreds is not hard but it does take a bit of time and patience.
While you can shred pork quickly once you’ve prepped your area and removed the bones and gristle, you should not rush the introductory steps. Nothing ruins a BBQ like breaking a tooth on a bone-scrap in a pulled pork slider!
Set Up the Area and Grab Your Equipment
Before you debone and shred your rested pork meat, get everything else you need and set up an area for the pulling.
You’ll want a nice big table with plenty of room. Grab a few bowls big enough for your discard pile, your shredded pork and another for the bark if you’re separating that out for your guests.
You can cover the table with butcher paper and use it to shred your meat on, or you can use a rimmed sheet pan or cutting board instead. The rim will catch any delicious drippings so you can add them back to your pulled pork.
Grab your shredding implements – your forks, claws or devices – and have them handy on the table. If you prefer to shred entirely by hand, I recommend wearing a pair of disposable gloves.
As always, give your hands a good wash with soap and water before you start pulling your pork. Debone your pork meat and start shredding.
Step-by-Step Guide to Pulling Pork
- Take a chunk of your rested, warm deboned pork and lay it on your shredding station.
- Pick up your shredding implements (or use your hands) and break the chunk of meat apart into workable segments. The meat should naturally separate along the grain of the meat fibers.
- You can remove the delicious pork bark during this step and save it to the side, or you can mix it in with the rest of your pulled pork. Once you have a nice pile of meat chunks it’s time to shred.
- Using one of the methods outlined below, start pulling the chunks of meat into fine strands. Pull along the grain of your meat, in opposite directions with each hand. Keep pulling until your pile of meat is shredded evenly (or not, if you prefer a mix of fine and chunky bites).
- When the meat is shredded to your desired texture, add it to your pulled pork bowl and cover to keep warm. Discard any bones, gristle of big chunks of fat into your trash bowl.
- Grab the next chunk of pork and continue the process until you have a big bowl of pulled pork. You can shred it all at once or save some chunks to reheat and shred later.
- Once your pork is shredded to perfection, you can mix it with juice, a vinegar mixture or BBQ sauce and serve!
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Methods for Shredding Pork
There are a bunch of methods for pulling pork that I’ve run across on the Internet, but they really all break down to the same 4 methods in the end.
What’s the best way to shred pulled pork? I prefer using a pair of forks or bear claws myself. But you can certainly break out your stand mixer or power drill if you really want to.
Use a Fork
You don’t need to spend a fortune on fancy devices to make a great pulled pork. As long as you have a pair of forks handy this is no problem.
Take a fork in each hand, with the tines facing down. Starting in the middle of a chunk of smoked pork, pull the forks in opposite directions along the grain of the meat. The fork tines will split the shreds apart as you pull, leaving a nice pile of thin shreds behind.
If your shreds are still chunkier than you prefer, you can go over them with your forks until they reach your desired texture.
The only disadvantage to using a pair of forks is that you can’t shred a lot of meat at once. The typical dinner fork is only about an inch wide, limiting how much meat you can shred on each pass.
How to Pull Pork with Bear Claws
If you like the whole fork idea but want something faster, then you should consider investing in a pair of meat-shredding bear claws.
These implements look kind of like a pair of spiked brass knuckles. But instead of fitting over the top of your fingers, you hold them in your fists. They function just like a pair of forks but are a lot wider. They can shred about 3-4 times the amount of meat at once than a pair of forks.
For speed-shredding your pulled pork, nothing works as well as a pair of bear claws.
Use Your Hands
You can always break the meat fibers apart with your hands. You can’t really shred the meat finely using your fingers, however.
The hands-on method is perfect for quickly reducing a pile of pork into thicker shreds or chunks. I often use my hands for the initial steps of shredding pulled pork and then finish with a pair of forks or bear claws.
If you plan to chop or mince your shredded pork (see below) then starting with your hands might be the easiest way to go.
Get Technical with Pulling Pork
Some folks use a heavy-duty stand mixer to beat their pulled pork into shreds. They fill the bowl with their rested, deboned pork about halfway and use the paddle attachment on a low-to-medium setting.
I’m not a fan of this method myself. Sure, it’s fast and easy. But you still have to break your pork into chunks first, and the pork is really beaten into submission rather than pulled. I prefer the texture of hand-shredded meat myself.
Another option is to use a pulled pork drill bit along with your power drill. These are fast for sure, and I suppose some folks get a kick out of using them. Personally, I still find the texture uneven and lacking, for all that it is a speedy way to reduce a pile of pork into shreds.
My biggest problem with both of these methods, beyond the uneven shredded texture of the meat, is they can leave bone shards and bits of gristle behind. You won’t be able to scout for these discards as you shred your meat by hand.
If you are serving a lot of people at a large BBQ, though, these powered shredding options might be just the thing you need to get your pulled pork on the table in a hurry.
Chopped Pork – A Variation on Pulled Pork
In addition to pulled pork, some people really love chopped pork, especially for sandwiches and sliders. If you live outside the Southern regions of the US you may not have seen chopped pork on a menu. But it is some really good eats!
As I mentioned above, when your meat is finely shredded or chopped the flavor of the sauce will really stand out. Each bit of meat gets well coated in your vinegar or BBQ sauce. This keeps the sandwich from tasting too bready and gives the meat it’s chance to shine.
To make chopped pork, you should pull your meat into even strands first. It’s ok if the strands are a bit chunky, so you don’t have to work too hard.
Then chop or mince your meat until it has the texture you prefer. You can leave it in bigger pieces for a porkier sandwich or mince into a fine pile. I use a pair of butcher knives and chop my pile roughly with both hands when I make chopped pork.
After You Pull Your Pork, What’s Next?
Once your smoked pork meat is shredded, it’s time to serve! You can dress the meat any way you like and add a sauce or some meat juice to keep it moist. Pulled pork is great on its own and makes a tasty filling for sandwiches, but don’t stop there!
You can use your leftover pulled pork in a stew, or for pulled pork tacos. I love to stuff the meat in a breakfast omelet or roll it in rice paper for a pulled pork salad roll. The possibilities are endless.