Recipe Review

I Tried the Neelys’ Pulled Pork Sandwich Recipe and I Have Some Thoughts

published Jul 6, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

When I think of pulled pork, the first thing that comes to mind is slow-smoked, real-deal barbecue — the kind of pork that’s so tender after its long stint on the grill, it practically pulls itself. Piled high on a soft hamburger bun with creamy-crunchy coleslaw, it’s the ultimate outdoor meal, whether that’s at your summer cookout, a picnic in the park, or your game-day tailgating party.

I was excited to come across this recipe, which offers makeshift smoker instructions for either a kettle-style charcoal grill or a gas grill (no heavy-duty dedicated smoker required). The simple spice rub and homemade barbecue sauce further pulled me in and offered the promise of pro-level pulled pork. Here’s how it went when I made this recipe on my grill.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

How to Make the Neelys’ Pulled Pork Sandwiches

The recipe starts with a five-ingredient spice rub that’s applied generously over a large (10- to 12-pound) boneless pork shoulder/Boston butt roast. The roast is covered with plastic wrap and stashed in the fridge for a few hours or up to a whole day; I went with the overnight option. 

The next morning, I got my grill ready. I burned a pile of hardwood lump charcoal until it was covered in telltale gray ash, and allowed it to smolder until the grill held a temperature of 275°F. I then spread some quick-soaked apple wood chips onto the coals (the Neelys include a great tip to soak the chips no longer than 15 minutes, or they’ll be so wet they snuff out the fire), placed the pork on the grill rack, and started the long process of slowly smoking the meat. I periodically added more coals to maintain the cooking temperature and added more wood chips as needed to keep the smoke steady. 

Meanwhile, I prepared the ketchup-based barbecue sauce on the stovetop and set it aside until the pork was ready. After eight hours on the grill, the pork had reached an internal temperature of 165°F, at which point the recipe says it’s done. As the pork rested until cool enough to handle, I reheated the sauce, grabbed the buns, and opened the deli coleslaw I bought for the sandwiches.  

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

My Honest Review of the Neelys’ Pulled Pork Sandwiches

With any sort of smoked meat, there is a certain amount of grill babysitting that you have to expect. I knew what I was in for, and there was indeed a good bit of finesse required to maintain the grill temperature for such a long amount of time. That’s fine, though, and it comes with the territory if you want the rich, robust flavor of slow-smoked meat.

The real problem came with the instruction to remove the pork from the grill when it reached an internal temperature of 165°F. I was skeptical, with a memory playing in my mind of an amateur pitmaster friend droning on and on at a cocktail party about the perfect pulled pork temperature being 195°F to 205°F (think: Christopher Guest’s character in Best in Show boring Parker Posey with talk of fly fishing).

My apprehension proved to be justified, and further reading at Serious Eats, ThermoWorks, and BBQHost confirmed that indeed the ideal temperature for pulled pork is much higher than what the Neelys’ recipe states. At 165°F, the pork just was not tender enough to be pullable. It looked beautiful, with a burnished, dark spice bark on the outside, but the best I could get were slices (juicy, tasty slices — but not pulled pork).

I was puzzled by the fact that the recipe has received so many five-star reviews, but as I read through them, I saw that many of those reviewers prepared the pork in a slow cooker. With a huge hunk of pork that wasn’t tender enough to shred — and a yummy sweet-tangy homemade barbecue sauce at the ready — I found an easy way to salvage the roast to make it perfectly pullable; see below. 

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

If You’re Making the Neelys’ Pulled Pork Sandwiches, a Few Tips

  1. Take the chill off the pork. Remove the spice-rubbed pork from the refrigerator, and let it stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour or up to 1 1/2 hours to take the chill off. You don’t want to put a super-cold roast on the grill.
  2. Try wood chunks. For a handy two-fer, try replacing the charcoal and wood chips with heftier wood chunks. They’ll provide both fuel/heat and smoke. 
  3. Cook the meat to a higher temperature. You have two choices here. First, you can keep your pork on the grill, feeding the fire as needed, until it reaches an internal temperature of 195°F to 205°F (shield the pork with foil after about 8 hours so the bark doesn’t dry out). Or, after 6 to 8 hours on the grill, at which point the pork has absorbed plenty of smoky goodness, wrap the roast in foil and cook it in a 250°F oven until it reaches that magic temperature.

Overall rating: 6/10