Sunday, July 24, 2016

How To Pull or Chop Pork

This isn't how to smoke pulled pork, I've already done that before.  

No, this is all about different methods and tools for breaking down that big hunk of smoked pork shoulder down to the delicious bits and pieces that end up your sandwich.

First, some general pointers.

  • Smoked pork is best after it has rested for an hour or more.  Known as F.T.C. (foil-towel-cooler), just put your foil wrapped butt into a warm cooler, cover with a towel, and leave it closed until ready to pull.  We usually stick ours into one of our Cambos.  When we have a lot, more than 8 butts, we'll stick them in my Yeti 75 (holds 12) or an Igloo 150 quart.  The trick is to pick something the right size.  For whatever you use, to have as much meat in the cooler/cambro as possible with only a little empty space so it will stay warmer, longer.  
  • For transporting pork to a different site for serving.  My first preference is to haul it there whole and pull it on site.  Smoked pork holds better whole and the spectacle of breaking it up in front of your guests adds impact.
  • Pulling pork after the butt is cold.  Don't.  If for some reason you can't pull it while still warm, you will need to slowly reheat it.  With it still wrapped in foil, put it in a 200°f cooker or oven for an hour or so to get the chill off first.  
  • Work quickly.  The meat will start drying out as soon as you break the butt open until you have it pulled, stored, and covered.  
  • Taste and season the pork while pulling.  Sample pieces from all over - the horn, money muscle, and roast muscles - to get a good idea of where the flavor is at before you start adding. We usually use a fine ground, sweet and spicy rub for this.  We'll also drizzle a small amount of Carolina vinegar sauce when chopping pork; not enough to douse it, just enough to add a little flavor.  
  • Save the juices from the foil wrapping and add some of it back into the final product for extra flavor and moisture.
  • Pulled versus chopped.  This is just a personal preference.  Pulled pork is just that - the meat pulled apart, leaving bigger pieces and strands.  Chopped is further processed into small pieces for a different texture.  You will get a higher percentage yield from chopped pork than pulled pork because you have less waste or scrap.  

Two Forks

This is the original way we first started pulling pork and we still do this depending on what is available.  Break the pork into large chunks and then using two large serving forks, pull the chunks into "threads".  Stick the forks into the middle of a chunk, pressing down on a cutting board, and pull the forks outwards.  

This is the most meticulous of all of the processes.  Look for any gelatinous pieces of fat and discard them.  If you find any pieces of bark (dark outer crust) that overcooked and got hard, discard them as well.  But that is where all of your flavor is so try not to over cook :)

By Hand

The pork should still be very hot so you'll want some heat resistant food gloves.  Silicone gloves are good for this and come in two styles - straight silicone and silicone with a fabric lining.  I use the straight silicone gloves because they are easier to keep dry but that's just a personal preference.

I picked up this technique from World Champion Pitmaster, Chris Lilly.  He just pops out the bone and then smashes the pork butts down like in this video from the NY Big Apple BBQ Block Party.  It works when you're in a hurry and only requires a set of heat resistant food gloves.  Obviously if you are rushing then you are not going to get the quality control of picking through it.  Usually I'll do this part, push it to the side for a teammate or two to pick through it, and I start on the next one.

There are a TON of these orange style gloves available and the prices vary pretty widely ($9 to $25) so comparison shop.  I haven't come across any that are poor quality yet.  I use them a lot for handling ribs, butts, and briskets as well as pulling the pork.

Bear Paws

Bear Paws are one of the original pork pulling tools.  They are cheap, easy to keep santized, and a slew of people swear by them. You use them just like you would forks, but hold your hands like this.

They are effective and get the job done.  They've just never been my favorite because they feel a little awkward to me.  These are very popular and there's nothing wrong with them, that is just a personal preference.

Meat Rakes

Meat Rakes are similar in concept to the Bear Paws but execute that product in a slightly different way.  They have metal tines for tearing the meat apart instead of plastic tips that can dull.  They are also dishwasher safe.  They cost twice as much as Bear Paws but I prefer them over Bear Paws because
  1. The tines are closer together than Bear Paws so they shred the meat smaller than the Bear Paws with each pass, making them work just a little quicker, and 
  2. My wrists feel like they are in a more neutral position when I use these vs the position I use with Bear Paws.

Again, this is just my choice.  Pick which is better for you.


At some BBQ joints you can find a worker with a pair of cleavers chopping away at pork in a blur with alternating strokes like he/she is beating a drum.  It amazes me that they have all of their fingers but these folks have been doing this every day for years.

The way I use it is in conjunction with some of the other tools I have mentioned.  I pull the pork first.  If I am wanting chopped pork, I rapidly chop back and forth across the pulled pork in two directions.  
Prices vary, I've seen them as cheap as $15 and almost no limit on the upper end, but you can get a decent one for $50.  Look for one with a thick blade that extends all the way through the handle (full tang).

Drill Attachment

I always thought this was overkill until we started cooking at the Kentucky State BBQ Festival where I cooked with our Memphis In May team.  We go through hundreds of pork butts each day so speed is of the essence.  One of our teammates makes a version of these.  This one is a RO-man pork puller that we bought online.

Best practice is to use this with a brand new drill that is only used for this to avoid cross contamination from a dirty drill that splits time in the work shop.
It works by pulling the bone out of each of 2 to 3 pork butts and putting them in a large stock pot. Then just insert the pork puller, add any additional seasoning, and whirl away.  It breaks down the butts into pulled pork very quickly.  Want chopped pork instead?  Just use it for another minute longer.

We typically only use this for large scale service, like the Kentucky festival, Christmas parade, or charity events.

So there are some options for pulling or chopping pork.  As I mentioned several times, it's all about preference and what works for you.  You don't need anything more than a couple of forks.

[FTC Standard Disclaimer]  I received no compensation for this post and paid full price for all of the tools that I mentioned.