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The Science of Pulled Pork

The Science of Pulled Pork

What is the perfect cooking time for pulled pork? The best meat to use? Discover the secrets behind this seriously delicious dish.

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If there is one dish sure to please all serial grillers, it has to be pulled pork. However, if you ask various people for the recipe, you will find that no two versions are ever the same. Is there a recipe to suit all tastes? One that is simple to prepare. And what is the perfect pulled pork cooking time? The answer to all these questions is yes, if you let chemistry and physics lend a helping hand. 

What is pulled pork

Essentially, it is a piece of pork cooked at a medium temperature for a long time, until it is possible to pull apart with a fork. The “strands” of pork, however, need to remain moist, tender, soft, juciy and flavoursome -  something very hard to achieve, even for expert grillers. 

Best meat for pulled pork

First of all, you have to choose the right cut of meat. Contrary to what most people believe, pulled pork requires a less expensive cut, that is to say, one that comes from a part of the animal endowed with a muscle and rich in connective tissue, a high fat content is also important. This description corresponds perfectly to neck and shoulder cuts, which are considered to be the best cuts for cooking a pulled pork. 

The high content of connective tissue is necessary to keep our strands of meat tender, without making them too rubbery and unpleasant to chew. Connective tissue, as you will most certainly already know, needs to be cooked for a long time before breaking down. Any meat rich in connective tissue always follows the same rule: it should either be cooked very little or a very long. 

Since the former is not advisable in the case of pork, we have no choice but to opt for the latter. To prevent it from becoming too dry (a mishap that often befalls even pulled pork experts!), choose one large cut of meat. The secret, in this case, is to reduce the amount of meat surface exposed to the heat, which is the part most prone to dryness, while preserving the moisture within. If you choose two smaller pieces, instead of one, the exposed surface area would be doubled: this is why the connoisseurs of pulled pork whack enormous pieces of meat on their barbecues!

How to cook pulled pork

On this subject, the eternal question is: BBQ or oven? Based on the assumption that the BBQ continues to be the best choice, owing to the aromas it adds to the meat, it must also be said that science adopts the cynical view that heat is heat, no matter where it comes from, so an oven may also lend itself well to this operation.

Technique is quite another matter. Studies have shown that a piece of pork shoulder weighing approximately 3 kilos, cooked at about 110°C, reaches an internal temperature of about 65°C in a couple of hours, and remains stable for the following six hours, only to rise brusquely afterwards to 85-90°C. Consequently, to ensure that the meat is cooked evenly without becoming dry, many prefer to wrap the piece of meat in tinfoil after a couple of hours, having basted it with a liquid (such as beer, wine, apple or blackcurrant juice). In this way, the cooking time will last for around 10-11 hours, compared to the 12-14 hours. I prefer the more classical approach because I also love the outer crust of pulled pork which inevitably will not form using the “accelerated” method.

The pulled pork recipe

How should our marvellous pulled pork be cooked? With a piece of pork weighing about three kilos and two hundred grams of “rub”, made to your own taste. For instance, cooking salt, brown sugar, paprika, garlic, onion – ether dried or in powder form - and pepper. After drying the meat, rub it all over with the mix you have prepared and cook it using one of the two methods described.

When cooked, leave it to rest for ten minutes and then, using a fork, start to pull it off in strands. Serve accompanied with a barbecue sauce or a light mayonnaise and a side dish of cabbage.

If you are looking for some tasty ideas, check out our recipe section: what about a pulled pork burger?

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