Pulled Pork Science

Cooking and food preparation in general are super personal. Everyone has slightly different tastes and preferences. Not only that, some believe their way truly is the only way of doing it because of a certain magic step that happens somewhere in between. One field within cooking where that is especially common seems to be grilling and barbecuing.

The type of coals, the type of barbecue, the rub, the seasoning, talk to 5 barbecue experts and you’ll probably get five different answers as to what is best. A steel barbecue or a ceramic one, using coals or gas, etc. The same will probably go up for this barbecue pulled pork method and recipe. There’s a lot of ways to make it, and all will give a delicious end result, the one just slightly different than the other!

Good thing though: the science will more or less stay the same. More or less indeed, because a slightly different cut of meat or way of making it, will also change the way chemical and physical reactions change the product.

What’s pulled pork?

Pulled pork is a type of pork meat that 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 to make a very flavourful topping for a sandwich, wrap, or just as a snack.

Choosing a meat type for pulled pork

Not every piece of pork can be transformed into pulled pork. The meat structure has to be such that it can ultimately fall apart in 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. Pieces of meat that come from muscles that haven’t yet to work hard generally aren’t very suitable for pulled pork. These pieces of meat consist of mostly muscle which becomes tough and dry when cooked for too long. Also, it doesn’t have any tissue in between the meat strands that helps the meat fall apart.

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. This is why muscle meat doesn’t just contain the muscle. Instead, it also contains a lot of connective tissue which helped the muscle do its work as well as some fat as an energy storage. It’s the connective tissue that will help the pork fall apart when pulled and it’s also this connective tissue (together with the fat) that gives the pulled pork its flavour and juiciness.

pork neck with rub, ready for barbecue

Why making pulled pork takes time

That said, 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. During this process collagen is transformed into gelatin. This takes time. Whereas searing off a piece of meat, or simply cooking it into the center go pretty fast, breaking down this connective tissue takes time. All the collagen and other supporting molecules have to melt and break down.

When you cook a loin you might want to leave it slightly pink in the middle. This will give a juicy texture. When making pulled pork though you definitely do not want this. Instead, you want to completely cook the meat into the center, allowing all the connective tissue to break down. At this point the meat should fall apart by itself.

Last but not least, you do not want your pulled pork to dry out. This is why you don’t want to cook a lot of small pieces on the barbecue. If you cook a lot of small pieces you will have a lot of surface area through which moisture can escape, causing the meat to dry out. This is one of the reasons you will often find recipes for pulled pork using pretty large cuts of meat, as you can see on the photo below.

pork neck lying on the barbcue ready to become pulled pork

A pulled pork recipe

Now that you know what’s supposed to happen when making pulled pork, let’s look at one of many ways of making pulled pork. This pulled pork has been made on a charcoal barbecue, but making it in the oven or on a gas barbecue is fully possible as well of course. When making the pulled prok we used the instructions from a Dutch blog (BBQ helden), and modified/simplified it slightly

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pulling the pulled pork

Pulled Pork Science

  • Author: Science Chef
  • Prep Time: 10 hours
  • Cook Time: 5 hours
  • Total Time: 15 hours
  • Yield: 20 portions
  • Category: Meat

Ingredients

  • 3kg of pork neck (with little fat on the outside)
  • 100g of spice rub (or enough to coat the entire piece of meat with a good amount of rub), you can choose any type of spice rub, see below for a suggestion

Spice rub suggestion

  • 40g brown sugar
  • 35g salt
  • 25g paprika powder
  • 2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsb onion powder
  • 2/3 tsp cayenne pepper

Optional

  • Barbecue sauce & coleslaw for serving

Instructions

  1. Take your piece of meat and assure it’s been completely thawed if previously frozen.
  2. Cover the whole piece of meat with plenty spice rub. See photo in the post, be generous.
  3. Leave the meat to rest for at least 2-4 hours, we left it overnight. This isn’t done necessarily for flavour but for moisture extraction. It helps to dry the meat.
  4. Light your barbecue to a moderate high heat (200-250C) when using charcoal (the actual temperature will easily be 40 degrees lower, this is fine, even better). Charcoal will cool down overtime, so it’s worthwhile to start at a higher heat to prevent having to refill all the time.
  5. Place the meat on a hot spot on the barbecue and roast on both sides for 3-8 minutes until a nice dark brown, almost black colour.
  6. Move the meat to a cooler place on the barbecue. Close the lid and let it cook more slowly for the next few hours. Regularly (every 30 minutes or so), check the internal temperature of the meat.
  7. Once the internal temperature has reached 65-70C, carefully take the meat from the barbecue and wrap in aluminium foil. Wrap it well, such that any moisture cannot leave the meat and will stay within the aluminium foil.
  8. Take the meat from the barbecue again once it’s around 85C. Carefully take it off, there will be a lot of moisture within the aluminium foil, it can burn you easily.
  9. Place the pork in a tray and open the aluminium foil. Let all the moisture out and save it in the tray.
  10. The meat will be noticeably softer than it was at the start now. Place it back on the barbecue, keep the aluminium foil at the bottom but leave the top and sides open. The pork has to dehydrate again.
  11. Once the meat has reached an internal temperature of 90-92C you can take it from the barbecue. The meat should be soft and you should be able to pull it apart with two forks. If not, place it back on the barbecue, it will need more time.
  12. Before actually pulling, leave the meat to rest for at least 30 minutes.
  13. Pull the pork apart and pour back most of the moisture you caught in the aluminium foil. This will rehydrate the pork slightly, while keeping the crunchy bits.
  14. Serve with coleslaw, barbecue sauce or any other combination you’d prefer.

 

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