The Definitive Guide to Making Pulled Pork

The best homemade pulled pork—no Southern smoke pit required.

February 11, 2022
Photo by Ty Mecham

Each week this summer, Cara Nicoletti of The Meat Hook is helping us get to know our favorite cuts a little bit better – and introducing you to a few new ones, too. Read on, study up, then hightail it to your nearest butcher.

Today: We're showing you how to make classic homemade pulled pork, no Southern smokepit required.   

Pork shoulder is no secret, especially to barbecue fanatics—so let’s talk about why you should cook it at home. While we will take shredded pork tossed in a sticky-sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce any day of the week (and we mean any day), it’s so easy to make in a Crockpot, Instant Pot, or Dutch oven at home, so why would you not? But first, the basics:

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If you want to make pulled pork at home, look for pork butt or pork shoulder in the grocery store. They’re nearly identical cuts of pork and both lend themselves quite well to pulled pork recipes. You’ll find boneless and bone-in cuts available, and there are pros and cons to each: boneless means faster cooking and a more seamless shredding experience, whereas bone-in pork will help prevent the pork from drying out.

Pork shoulder comes, obviously, from the pig's shoulder muscles. This area of the animal works hard, which means the muscles get a lot of blood flow, and are therefore packed with flavor. However, this also means that, if not cooked properly, pork shoulder can be relatively tough—it's a cut that benefits from a low, slow cook. So you can throw it on the grill or in the oven, forget about it for hours, then pull it out and wow all of your guests with pulled pork sandwiches, pulled pork macaroni and cheese, or pulled pork au naturale.

If great flavor and minimal fuss aren’t reason enough, pork shoulder is also significantly cheaper per pound than pork loin, and a big cut can easily feed a crowd (with enough for leftovers). On average, a four-pound cut of boneless pork shoulder should cost about $20 and will yield servings for at least half a dozen guests, which is why pulled pork is so often the main event for Super Bowl parties. Let's learn a little more about one of barbecue's favorite meats.

Pork shoulder is generally separated into two primal cuts: the picnic and the butt (also known as Boston butt). The latter's name derives from the method of packing and shipping pork in pre-revolutionary New England, where lesser-prized cuts like the shoulder were packed into barrels called “butts.” The name stuck and now we’re all confused, but at least we don't have to get our meat in barrels anymore. Cooks generally prefer the butt to the picnic, as it's slightly meatier and more tender. In my opinion, both work beautifully for slow-cooking—try them out and see what you think.

When buying your pork shoulder in the market, see if you can get a cut that still has the skin and the bone attached. These, along with the thick layer of fat under the skin, help to keep the meat moist through long hours of cooking—and add extra flavor to boot. If you buy fresh, well-raised pork, you'll only need to add a few ingredients to it before popping it in the oven or on the grill. I generally rub mine with a simple mixture of sugar and salt, let it hang out for a few days in the fridge, and then add on some black pepper before roasting. If you’re looking for that quintessential messy, dripping pulled pork, toss yours with homemade barbecue sauce once it's pulled.

Here's how to make tender pulled pork in your oven:

Using a sharp knife, cut the skin on your pork shoulder into a crosshatch pattern, leaving about an inch of space between the cuts. Be sure to slice through the layer of fat below the skin, but not into the meat itself. Whisk some sugar and salt together and rub the mixture all over the pork shoulder. Allow the meat to sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least 24 hours, and up to 72. Before cooking, rub black pepper all over the pork shoulder and allow it to sit out at room temperature for one hour.

Cook the pork shoulder in a 275° F oven, or on the grill over indirect heat, until the internal temperature reaches 180° F to 190° F—about 6 hours. The meat should be very tender and easily pull away from the bone. Once the shoulder is cooked, crank up the heat on your oven to 500° F and cook the pork for about 15 minutes, until the skin is golden and crispy. Remove the pork shoulder and let it rest for 20 minutes, then shred the meat from the bone with two forks. If you're feeling indulgent, remove the crackly skin, chop it roughly, and mix it with your pulled pork. Season the meat to taste, then pile it high on soft, sweet breadBarbecue sauce and coleslaw are optional, but encouraged. 

To make pulled pork in a slow-cooker, follow the same steps for scoring the fat cap and marinating the meat in a dry rub. But instead of cooking it in the oven, place it in a large slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours or high for four hours. I like to add about a cup of barbecue sauce (bottled or homemade) to the pot while the pork cooks, but you don’t need more than that, at least initially. By covering the slow-cooker with a lid, the pork will steam and create condensation, forming a looser sauce that will dilute a lot of barbecue sauce. So instead, toss the pork with the sauce after you shred the meat for the perfect sticky, saucy, sloppy mess.

Crispy Pulled Pork Shoulder

1 (5- to 6- pound) pork shoulder, bone-in and skin on
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon coarse black pepper
Barbecue Sauce (optional)

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here

What's your favorite way to eat pulled pork? Topped with coleslaw? Slathered in sauce? Au naturel? Tell us in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Cara Nicoletti is a butcher and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Cara started working in restaurants when she moved to New York in 2004, and was a baker and pastry chef for several years before following in her grandfather and great-grandfathers' footsteps and becoming a butcher. She is the writer behind the literary recipe blog,, and author of Voracious, which will be published by Little, Brown in 2015. She is currently a whole-animal butcher and sausage-making teacher at The Meat Hook in Williamsburg.


Cracker February 12, 2022
Pulled Pork brings lovely memories of family & food for me. My German Lutheran ancestors, who settled in South Carolina in the 1750s, brought their love for mustard & pork to the smoked meat & barbecue scene (I believe we credit Caribbean folks, esp slaves for that). Pulled pork using a mustard-based sauce topped w coleslaw is heaven. No darn peppers. While I do make my own, Lillie’s Of Charleston makes a wonderful low country sauce closest to my grandmother’s.
lynn S. July 2, 2019
I have a 24 lb pork butt. Thoughts on how long to cook at 275? Thanks.
Grugular February 13, 2022
I see you posted this year's ago and I gotta ask. Was it 2, 12lb shoulders and not a single 24lb'er? Sounds pretty nuts
Amy Z. July 4, 2018
Well, given I've never even seen a pork shoulder roast cooked before I hope it turns out right. .... I didn't know you were supposed to score the skin so that was left intact and I pretty much just seasoned it the way I would any other pork roast - salt pepper garlic oregano rosemary onion and a few carrots. .... Oh and a bit of honey drizzled over the top! I guess I'll see how it turns out....
Sharon July 22, 2014
I have often used Mexican peppers in my pork shoulder, slow cooker used. Lots of flavor.
Sharon July 22, 2014
I am diabetic, so what do you suggest in place of the sugar?
Steven W. February 11, 2022
You don't really need anything, in my experience.
Theresa July 22, 2014
I have a 3.25 lb pork bone-in shoulder (farm-raised), how long should I cook it? I've tried this in the crock pot and oven before and it's turned out dry. I'm making this for extended family and I want to be sure it's right. Thanks!
Vicki July 20, 2014
I do understand that this is not a BBQ pork. I think CC and many Southerners at least, associate pulled pork with BBQ, because this cut would dry-rubbed and smoked in an open pit on a bed of hickory or other wood, and basted with BBQ sauce as it cooked. Your version sounds juicy and interesting, because we can add whatever "taste" suits us, once it's done..
Alan D. July 20, 2014
An easy, nonpurist, afterwork feasible version for this who don't et pork ( along w a link to a more complicated slightly tastier on):
CC July 19, 2014
it's probably better to Col de easy pulled pork and classic pulled pork if you're not using smoke. I hate to be a purist, but this isn't BBQ.
Cara N. July 19, 2014
Not sure I understand, this recipe doesn't state that this is BBQ
Doug H. July 20, 2014
It's pretty obvious cc dosent read well...when does slow cooked mean BBQ....
Krehman July 18, 2014
Do you think putting the pork butt in a slow cooker would have similar results?
Cara N. July 18, 2014
Slow cooker pork shoulder is delicious! you won't get the crispy skin from the slow cooker so I would recommend removing the skin. It usually helps to use a liquid in a slow-cooker, try this recipe!