Pulled pork is a classic American barbecue dish made by cooking pork shoulder low and slow until the meat is fall-apart tender and can be easily pulled or shredded. To make authentic pulled pork, pork shoulder is rubbed with spices, smoked or braised for hours, then shredded or “pulled” by hand into delicious bite-size pieces perfect for sandwiches and tacos.
One question that often comes up when making pulled pork is whether or not you need to trim the fat cap and excess fat from the pork shoulder before cooking it. The fat cap is the thick layer of fat on one side of the pork shoulder. While some cooks insist on trimming all visible fat before cooking pulled pork, others argue that leaving some or all of the fat intact helps keep the pork moist and flavorful as it cooks.
So should you trim pork shoulder before making pulled pork? Here is a thorough look at the pros and cons of trimming versus not trimming pork shoulder for pulled pork.
Reasons to Trim Pork Shoulder
There are a few reasons why some pitmasters and barbecue experts recommend trimming excess fat off pork shoulder before cooking pulled pork:
Prevents greasy pulled pork: Leaving all the fat on can sometimes result in pulled pork that seems overly greasy or oily after cooking for hours. Trimming some of the thick fat cap and excess fat can help prevent this.
Reduces cooking time: A big fat cap and thick layers of fat can shield the meat from absorbing smoke and spice flavors. Removing some of the fat allows the meat to cook more efficiently.
Avoids fat globs: When pork shoulder cooks for long periods, the fat can melt and break down into unappealing globs and puddles in the finished pulled pork. Trimming some fat helps avoid this.
Makes serving easier: Pulled pork with big chunks and pieces of fat mixed in can be messier and harder to serve onto sandwiches and tacos neatly. Trimming fat can result in nicer looking pulled pork.
How much to trim?
Experts vary in exactly how much fat to trim off. Some remove just the really thick fat cap on the top of the shoulder. Others trim off nearly all visible fat, leaving at most 1/4 inch. Trimming too much can cause the pork to dry out. Leaving 1/8 to 1/4 inch of fat intact provides sufficient moisture.
Reasons Not to Trim Pork Shoulder
On the other hand, there are also good reasons why many top pitmasters and barbecue restaurants smoke pork shoulder for pulled pork with the fat left on:
Protects meat during cooking: The fat cap forms a protective barrier that keeps the meat of the pork shoulder moist and tender as it cooks for hours.
Infuses flavor: As the fat renders, it bastes the meat and infuses it with pork fat flavor.
Avoids drying out: Removing too much fat can cause the pulled pork to end up dry rather than moist and juicy.
Adds rich taste: The melted fat mingles with the meat fibers adding a rich, unctuous mouthfeel when you bite into the pulled pork.
Easy to remove later: Once cooked, excess fat is easy to drain off or blot away before serving if needed.
How to leave the fat on
When leaving the fat on, it’s still a good idea to trim away any really loose dangling pieces of fat but keep the main fat cap intact. Score the fat cap in a crisscross pattern which helps it render evenly. Cook fat side up to protect the meat. After cooking, let the pork rest in its juices then skim off and discard as much excess grease as desired before pulling.
Conclusion: To Trim or Not to Trim?
So in the end, should you trim the fat off pork shoulder before cooking pulled pork or leave it on? The answer comes down to personal preference. Here are some guidelines to help decide:
– If you don’t like excess greasiness, trim some fat, but leave at least 1/4 inch.
– For maximum flavor and moisture, leave the fat cap on.
– For easier serving, trim more fat. For best texture, leave some fat.
– Try it both ways and see which version you prefer! Trends lean toward leaving more fat on.
– Compromise by scoring and partially trimming the fat cap to render while keeping protection.
To summarize the pro’s and con’s:
|Trim Fat Off||Leave Fat On|
|Less greasy||More flavorful|
|Faster cooking||Keeps meat moist|
|No fat globs||Bastes and bastes meat|
|Easier serving||Keeps pork juicy|
While opinions differ, most competition pitmasters and barbecue experts today recommend keeping most or all of the fat cap when smoking pork shoulder for pulled pork in order to get the most flavorful, moist and tender results. Trimming a little fat is fine, but too much risks drying out the pork. The fat protects the meat, bastes it with flavor, and adds a signature richness to authentic pulled pork.
Any unwanted grease can be drained off or blotted after cooking and before shredding and serving. Leaving the fat on during the long, slow cooking helps ensure tender, fall-apart pulled pork that is infused with smoky, fatty pork flavor. So unless you have an aversion to fat, go ahead and cook your pork shoulder with the fat cap on next time. Your patience will be rewarded with the best pulled pork you’ve ever tasted!
More About Making Pulled Pork
Now that the question of trimming fat for pulled pork is covered, here is some additional helpful information for anyone interested in mastering how to make perfect pulled pork at home.
Choosing the Right Cut of Pork
The best cut of pork for pulled pork is pork shoulder, also called Boston butt. Pork shoulder has the right amount of fat and connective tissue to break down into tender, shredable pulled pork after hours of low heat smoking or cooking. Other good options are a whole pork picnic shoulder or pork butt roast. Avoid lean cuts like pork loin or tenderloin which will dry out.
Flavoring the pork shoulder with a dry rub before cooking is key. A good barbecue rub will include salt, sugar, chili powder, paprika, garlic and onion powders, ground cumin, mustard powder, and other spices. The spices form a flavorful, textured bark on the exterior of the cooked pork.
Low and Slow Cooking Method
Ideal cooking temperature for pulled pork is 225-275°F. Cooking ‘low and slow’ for 8-12 hours breaks down tough collagen into gelatin and makes the pork incredibly tender. Use a smoker, offset smoker, or slow cooker/crockpot to get the right effect. Wood smoke adds great flavor.
Know When It’s Done
Use a meat thermometer to check internal temperature, which should reach 200-205°F when done. The pork should be very tender and starting to fall apart when poked and prodded.
Rest, Pull, and Serve
Let the pork rest for 30-60 minutes before ‘pulling’ or shredding it using two forks. This allows juices to redistribute. Serve the juicy pulled pork on buns with barbecue sauce, over cornbread, stuffed into tacos, topped with coleslaw, or any way that sounds good!
With the right cut, seasoning, smoking, and some patience, you’ll be rewarded with the most mouthwatering, flavorful pulled pork that your family and friends will devour.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions about prepping and cooking pork shoulder for pulled pork:
Should I brine the pork shoulder first?
Brining by soaking the pork in a saltwater solution for several hours before cooking can help keep it moist and well seasoned. But brining is not strictly necessary, especially if using a rub with sufficient salt.
Do I need to inject the pork shoulder?
Injecting the pork with a marinade or seasoning liquid before cooking ensures deep flavor distribution. But again, injecting is not essential if you use a flavorful dry rub.
What type of wood is best for smoking?
Hickory and apple wood are classic choices that provide a robust, smoky flavor. Oak, cherry, pecan, and mesquite woods are also good options. Use wood chips, chunks, or logs.
Can I cook pulled pork in the oven instead?
Yes, you can cook pork shoulder low and slow in a regular oven or smoker box attachment. Cook for 8-12 hours at 225-275°F until it reaches 200-205°F internally.
How much pork shoulder should I cook per person?
Plan for about 1⁄2 pound of raw pork shoulder per person. Around 5 pounds will feed 10 people with leftovers. The meat will shrink and lighten during cooking.
Should I wrap the pork shoulder in foil or paper?
Wrapping or braising partway through locks in moisture. But too much time wrapped dilutes the smoke flavor. A compromise is to wrap for just 1-2 hours midway through cooking.
What sides go well with pulled pork?
Classic sides include cornbread, coleslaw, baked beans, mac and cheese, potato salad, collard greens, and vinegar-based sauces or barbecue sauce.
How long does pulled pork last in the fridge?
Store pulled pork in an airtight container for 3-4 days. The flavors continue to meld, making awesome leftovers! Freeze for longer term storage.
I hope these guidelines help you achieve competition-worthy pulled pork right off your own smoker. Let me know if you have any other pulled pork questions!
Whether to trim the fat off pork shoulder before cooking pulled pork is a debated topic. While some trimming helps reduce greasiness and cook time, leaving the fat cap intact provides crucial moisture and flavor. Most experts today recommend keeping most of the fat, then removing excess after cooking if desired. Patience is rewarded with insanely delicious and tender pulled pork when the pork cooks low and slow with the fat on. Brining, injecting, and smoking are options, but a simple dry rub also infuses plenty of flavor. Remember to let the pork rest before shredding and digging into the finger-licking barbecue. With the right prep and cooking methods, you can make professional-tasting pulled pork at home to feed a crowd or stock up your freezer.