How to Cook Pork Shoulder for Pulled Pork

updated Jan 26, 2024

A pork shoulder, slow-cooked and pulled into succulent little shreds, can become a thousand different meals.

Serves10 to 12

Makes10 cups

Cook2 hours to 4 hours

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Pork shoulder is one of my secret weapons in the kitchen. Slow-cooked, it can become a thousand different meals. I can mix in some barbecue sauce and make pulled pork sandwiches, scatter it on top of tortilla chips for pulled pork nachos, or use it as a filling for pulled pork lettuce wraps. And that’s just to start!

Here’s everything you need to know about pork shoulder — from choosing the meat to transforming it into a fork-tender meal that can last all week.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

How to Buy Pork Shoulder

Look for pork shoulder or pork butt. Even though it’s called a “butt,” it’s actually part of the shoulder meat. (The actual rear end is called the ham!) Go for bone-in or boneless, whichever you prefer.

Bone-in shoulders take a little longer to cook, but can make the meat more flavorful and juicy. Boneless cuts can be sliced into smaller chunks for easier handling and quicker cooking. I’ve done both many times and find bone-in and boneless fairly interchangeable.

How Much Pork Shoulder to Cook

You can use this method to cook any size cut you want, but I usually go for four to six pounds boneless or four to seven pounds bone-in. This will give you roughly 10 cups of shredded meat, which is enough to feed a crowd or plenty for a week’s worth of meals.

Cooking a pork shoulder takes an afternoon of your time, so I tend to roast as much as I can at once and freeze what I don’t think I’ll use right away for future meals.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

How to Cook Pork Shoulder

Cooking a pork shoulder is practically fool-proof, but it does require time. The shoulder is a hard-working muscle and the meat is pretty darn tough. At a low, steady temperature, however, the gelatin in that tough shoulder melts and bastes the meat as it cooks. You can’t rush it.

  • In a Dutch oven: Put the meat in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot, pour in just enough liquid (broth, beer, or anything else) so the meat is partially submerged, then cover it and let the pork cook slowly in a low oven for a few hours. Cooking time will be between 2 to 4 hours, depending on the amount of pork and whether it’s bone-in (which takes longer to cook). This is entirely hands-off time. The pork is done when it’s so tender that it literally flakes apart when you poke it with a fork and falls off the bone.
  • In a slow cooker: In a 5-quart or larger slow cooker, combine the meat, any vegetables, and liquid. Cover and cook on HIGH for 5 to 6 hours or LOW for 8 to 10 hours.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

Flavor Variations for Pulled Pork Shoulder

  • Plain: Whole bay leaves with no other spices. This is the most versatile version. Season after cooking so that you can use it in any dish.
  • Barbecue: Cumin, paprika, brown sugar, and dry mustard. This is perfect for pulled pork sandwiches, tacos, and pizza.
  • Herb: Fresh or dried oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, and whole bay leaves. Use this for pasta sauces, ravioli, and casseroles.
  • Chile: Cumin, chile powder, dried oregano, whole dried chipotle or ancho chiles, garlic powder. Good for enchiladas, burritos, tacos and tamales.
  • 5-spice: Star anise, cloves, fennel, coriander, cinnamon. Try it for steamed buns, lettuce wraps, and fried rice.

What to Make with Pulled Pork Shoulder

I said this was my secret weapon and I meant it. A few hours of labor upfront means some pretty darn incredible pork that will make almost any quick weeknight dish taste like it took hours to make. Depending on how you spice the pork, one single batch can be used in countless ways. Besides making pulled pork sandwiches, here are a few ideas:

Try adding pulled pork to marinara pasta sauce, easy frittatas for dinner, weeknight comforting casseroles, and homemade pizzas. Don’t forget about making enchiladas in salsa verde sauce, steamed pork buns, or pork fried rice — there are so many ways to use pulled pork! I also freeze the pork in one-cup batches so I can easily thaw it for easy dinners down the road.

How to Cook Pork Shoulder for Pulled Pork

A pork shoulder, slow-cooked and pulled into succulent little shreds, can become a thousand different meals.

Cook time 2 hours to 4 hours

Makes 10 cups

Serves 10 to 12

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 4 to 6 pounds

    boneless pork shoulder or butt (or 5 to 7 pounds bone-in)

  • 1 tablespoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 to 3 tablespoons

    mixed spices or dry herbs (see Flavor Variations)

  • 1

    medium yellow onion, chopped (optional)

  • 1

    medium carrot, chopped (optional)

  • 3 stalks

    celery, chopped (optional)

  • 4 cloves

    garlic, smashed (optional)

  • 1 1/2 cups

    liquid, such as low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth, tomato juice, light or amber beer, white or red wine, orange juice, or a mix of several liquids

  • 2 to 4 tablespoons

    liquid smoke (optional)

  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup

    barbecue sauce (optional)

Instructions

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  1. Arrange a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 325°F.

  2. Trim off any large pieces of fat from the outside of a 4 to 6 pounds boneless pork shoulder or butt (or 5 to 7 pounds bone-in), but leave small pieces and the interior fat. If using boneless pork, cut the pork into several large fist-sized pieces. If using bone-in, leave the pork as is, on the bone.

  3. Sprinkle the pork with 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, and 1 to 3 tablespoons mixed spices or dry herbs, if using. Rub the seasoning into the pork with your fingers so the meat is evenly coated on all sides.

  4. It's optional, but if you have time, searing will deepen the final flavor of your pork and give it some textural contrast. Heat a tablepsoon or two of oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the pork and sear on all sides, working in batches as needed so as not to crowd the pan. For more detailed step-by-step instructions, see How To Sear Meat. If not searing, just place the pork in the Dutch oven.

  5. Onions, garlic, and other vegetables also deepen the final flavor of the pork, but are optional. If using, nestle 1 chopped medium yellow onion,1 chopped medium carrot, 3 stalks chopped celery, and 4 cloves smashed garlic around the pork in the Dutch oven.

  6. Pour 1 1/2 cups liquid, such as low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth, tomato juice, light or amber beer, white or red wine, orange juice, or a mix of several liquids (and optional liquid smoke) over the pork. The pork should be only partially submerged, with some of the pork remaining above the surface of the liquid.

  7. Place the Dutch oven with the pork over medium-high heat and bring the liquid to a simmer.

  8. Cover the Dutch oven and transfer the whole pot to the oven.

  9. Let the pork cook undisturbed for 2 hours, then begin checking it every half hour. Total cooking time will be 2 to 4 hours, depending on the amount of pork and whether it's bone-in (which takes longer to cook). The pork is done when it is fork-tender (when the meat can be easily pierced with a fork without resistance and easily falls apart with a little pressure). If you're cooking pork on the bone, the meat should be falling off the bone. If in doubt, cook the meat another half hour; it's almost impossible to overcook meat with this method.

  10. Lift the pieces of pork out of the liquid and transfer to a large bowl. When cool enough to handle, use two forks or your fingers to shred the meat into pieces. Remove any large pieces of fat or bones.

  11. Strain the cooking liquid into a measuring cup. The vegetables can be chopped and mixed in with the pork, if desired. Skim the fat off the top of the cooking liquid.

  12. For more moist and flavorful pulled pork, you can mix some of the cooking liquid back into the pork. Start with a little, mix, then add more until the pork is as wet or dry as you like. Alternatively, for barbecue pulled pork, you can mix in barbecue sauce.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Pulled pork will keep for 1 week in the refrigerator or for up to 3 months in the freezer.