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Have you ever wonder why you can pull pulled pork into a lot of tiny strands? Why it’s so different from a quickly grilled pork chop? Why it isn’t tough, but soft and tender (despite having been cooked for hours)? If so, you’re in the right place because we were wondering about exactly those things as well. When you come to think of it, pulled pork is pretty special, hence we’ll take a science deep dive into pulled pork.
What’s pulled pork?
Pulled pork is an American pork dish. The pork in the dish is cooked in such a way that it can be pulled apart in strands. These strands of meat are soft and succulent and can be mixed with a sauce or spices which it soaks up. It makes a very flavourful topping for a sandwich, wrap, but can also serve as a whole dinner.
Choosing a cut of meat
Not every part of a pig can be transformed into pulled pork. The meat structure has to be such that it can ultimately fall apart in those thin strands and still be soft and juicy, as opposed to dry and dense. As we’ve discussed before for beef stew as well as spare ribs, whether that happens depends on the part of the pig the meat comes from. But to understand that, let’s zoom in on some pig’s muscle structures.
Muscles, both in humans, as well as in pigs are a bunch of muscle fibers. Each fiber is a long thin strand that can contract or stretch. Each fiber is protected by some tissue. Several fibers together are bundled up again and protected by connective tissue. One muscle can easily exists of several of these groups of fibers which again contain a lot of individual fibers. One fiber isn’t strong, but the set of them together can be a strong muscle.
The size of the muscle is an indication for its strength. Some muscles need to carry a lot more weight (a head for instance) than others. But it’s not just the size that depends on its role, also the composition changes, especially the amount of connective tissue and fat.
What is connective tissue
Connective tissue helps a muscle do its job. Therefore, you can find more of it in a muscle that needs to work hard during the life of a pig. There are several types of connective tissue. Some help connect the muscles to the bone, other connective tissues sits throughout the muscles.
A lot of this internal connective tissue is made up of collagen. Collagen is a tough molecule and isn’t nice to eat, even when heated. However, you can break down collagen into gelatin by cooking it for longer periods of time.
Importance of fat
Fat can give meat a lot of flavour. Some flavour molecules dissolve better in fat than in water so they will not be present if there’s only water. When cooking fat for a longer period of time fat will also melt and become soft and part of the juices around the meat.
The muscle type that we just discussed are what you would call skeletal muscles. The muscles in the heart and other organs have a slightly different structure.
Choosing a cut of meat for pulled pork
An example of a muscle that didn’t have to work hard during a pig’s life it is the pork loin. This muscle hasn’t had to work a lot so it doesn’t contain a lot of connective tissue. As a result, it cooks quite quickly and will be moist as such. However, it won’t pull apart nicely.
Muscles that have had to work hard, a should or neck for instance (they have to hold up the head or move the legs) contain more connective tissue. Since this connective tissue sits in between those bundles of fibers, it separates the meat into fibers once its cooked. However, it does take longer for the meat to cook since the connective tissue takes time to heat and ‘melt’ away into gelatin.
Therefore, it is best to choose a cut of meat that comes from a part of the pig that had to work hard during its life. A good example of this is neck meat. In order for the pig to move its neck, move its head up and down, left to right, etc. the neck muscles had to work hard.
Why making pulled pork takes time
If you don’t cook the connective tissue properly, it will be tough and rubbery. The connective tissue has to break down and literally melt away in the meat. This takes time. but when it’s done, the meat should fall apart by itself.
Making pulled pork
Before diving in the recipes, let’s discuss the general way of working, scroll down to find the recipes themselves.
So we know that pulled pork needs to cook for a long time to become nice and tender. However, cooking meat for a long time may also result in burning or drying out the outside of the meat. When you make your pulled pork on a barbecue, grill or in the oven you tend to start hot and then continue at a lower temperature.
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Cooking at a low temperature is great for achieving doneness, however, it’s not great for flavour development. Flavour forms mostly at higher temperatures, due to the Maillard reaction. At the high temperatures the meat browns and that’s where a lot of the flavour is formed. So you start by browning of your chosen piece of pork on a high heat, to develop these flavours.
Why not do it at the end (as you do with sous vide cooking)? Remember, this meat will literally fall apart at the end. It will be really hard to brown it off and move it around at that point.
Proceed at a moderate temperature and be patient
Once your flavour is developed you want to make sure the inside of the meat has time to cook burn the outside is burned. That is why you will then ramp down the temperature.
You’ll be ok with losing some moisture at this point, but you don’t want to lose too much. Since heating can easily take hours in an oven or a barbecue you tend to wrap up the meat into aluminium foil to catch all the juices and keep it all together at the same time.
Using pressure cooking
It doesn’t have to take hours to make pulled pork. Instead, you can also make it within an hour and a half if you use a pressure cooker (e.g. an Instantpot)! so how does that work?
You also start at a high temperature to brown of your pieces of meat (you might not have place for a full neck or shoulder to fit into the pressure cooker). Once nicely browned, you add water (and/or other liquids, see recipe below for some ideas), because you need it to pressure cook.
The trick of pressure cooking is that by creating a high pressure the boiling point of water will go up. This will then increase the cooking time. Because the pressure cooker is a moist environment you won’t even run the risk of the pork drying out. At the end of the pressure cooking cycle all the meat will be soft and tender and fall apart similarly to that made on a barbecue or in the oven!