BBQ Anatomy 101: Pork Shoulder
Get to know your pulled pork.
A quarter century ago Isaac Tigrett brought the Southern-style pulled pork sandwich to Texas. The Hard Rock Café founder from Jackson, Tennessee, opened a Dallas location in 1986, and in the following year the Dallas Morning News wrote that he “has trotted the pig into steer territory, offering the famed Tennessee Pig Sandwich.” It certainly wasn’t the first barbecue pork sandwich served in Texas. The public barbecues in the second half of the nineteenth century featured hogs as often as beef, but beef has always reigned supreme in Texas barbecue joints. Pork plays second fiddle in the form of ribs, but other cuts of pork can also be found, though less frequently.
You don’t have to search as hard for pulled pork in Texas these days as you would have even a decade ago. With many of the new joints opening up going beyond brisket, ribs, and sausage, pulled pork has become a popular fourth smoked meat menu option. You can even pull up “Texas style” pulled pork recipes online, but keep in mind that this trend is a relatively new one. Even as recent as 1995 when the first chain location of Rudy’s opened in Dallas, they served “Southeastern-style pulled pork [that] features shredded meat in a mustard-vinegar sauce” according to a Dallas Morning News food critic at the time. It would take a few more years for Texas barbecue joints to ditch the “Southern-style” yoke and start doing pork butts with just a rub and some smoke–Texas style.
The cut used for pulled pork is called a pork butt or Boston butt. The name is a misnomer, as a pork butt actually comes from the shoulder of the pig (the back end is the ham). What starts out as a whole shoulder (NAMP Item 403) is halved. The lower portion is the Picnic Shoulder (NAMP Item 405), while the upper portion is the Boston butt (NAMP Item 406). The pork butt is the most common cut used for pulled pork because it’s rich in intramuscular fat and manageable in size. It’s also pretty easy to smoke. My first piece of advice to anyone looking to smoke a brisket is to throw on a pork butt next to it. If the brisket doesn’t turn out well, at least you’ll have some good pulled pork to serve guests.
One of those new joints making some great pulled pork is Mad Jack’s BBQ, a new food truck in Lockhart. It’s got some stiff local barbecue competition, but nobody else in town does pulled pork. WORK in Dallas is another newbie with an incredibly moist and smoky version. Some of the smokiest pulled pork I’ve had is from Pecan Lodge where a thick bark is kept intact during the pulling process. The method if very much Texas-style, but the sauce they serve it with has a Carolina vinegar flavor. Curly’s Carolina, TX Barbeque in Round Rock serves their Texas-style smoked pork with both an Eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce and a South Carolina mustard sauce. For a Georgia twist heads to Mann’s in Austin where the pulled pork is served with a Georgia-style sauce and even a side of Brunswick stew and cornbread. At joints like Franklin Barbecue, Freedmen’s Bar, and la Barbecue in Austin, the pulled meat is mixed with the vinegar-heavy sauce before serving. Gatlin’s in Houston keeps theirs just as juicy, but they do it with just the collected pork drippings, and sauce comes on the side.
If you prefer your sandwiches the Hard Rock Café way, with pork, slaw and sauce together, then you can get your fix at joints like Big Jake’s in Texarkana, Fainmous BBQ in Houston, or Peggy Sue in Dallas, which all do a decent replication of the Southern-style barbecue pork sandwich. If you really want a throwback, then head to Neely’s Sandwich Shop in Marshall where you can get the Brown Pig sandwich. It’s still made just like they did it in the original pig stands with pork, sauce, shredded lettuce, and mayo.
A more unique presentation can be found at Valentina’s Tex-Mex in Austin where thick strands of pork are topped with salsa and guacamole before being wrapped in homemade flour tortillas. Micklethwait Craft Meats slices their pork shoulder rather than pulling it which allows for a shorter cooking time. John Mueller Meat Co. does the same, but for a while Mueller toyed with thick cut pork steaks instead. It was short lived as the large pork steak serving was a hard sell. You can find similar pork steaks, which are simply thick slices from a pork butt, at Snow’s in Lexington where Tootsie Tomanetz cooks them directly over oak coals. It’s my favorite menu item there, as well as in Hallettsville at Novosad’s. Texas Traditional BBQ in Manor and Peete Mesquite in Marble Falls both smoke a thinner version that can get a little dry, but if you get a fresh one it’s hard to let go of.
If you take that thick-sliced pork steak and slice it into strips, you end up with country style ribs. At least that’s the common term. According to the technical definition, country ribs (NAMP Item 423) come off of the front end of the rib rack closest to the shoulder, but they are more loin meat than shoulder. The country ribs you find at the grocery store are likely to be just strips of pork shoulder like they smoke at Big Boys in Sweetwater. Pitmaster Gaylen Marth calls them “My Ribs” because he prefers them to the St. Louis ribs labeled “Your Ribs”. He likes the flavor and fatty richness of the shoulder strips, and when I’m in Sweetwater, so do I.
The only thing left from the shoulder is the spine which is trimmed away from the shoulder before it makes it to the retail market. If you find them, the god news is they are cheap. The bad news is that they are about one-percent meat by weight. After spending about thirty minutes at a table inside Comeaux’s Bar-B-Que in Port Arthur trying to get a decent bite off the smoked neck bones, I figured the rest of the pork shoulder was worth the extra money.
– Much of the information and a few of the photos in this column came from the free and immensely useful Porcine Myology page from the University of Nebraska Lincoln.