What if I told you it was possible to get close to pulled pork barbecue heaven with your grill? This Grilled Pulled Pork Sandwich Recipe includes key steps to get more smoke flavor with your gas or charcoal grill. And just so we’re all on the same page, grilling is grilling and barbecue is barbecue. Although the terms are used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Grilling is quick-cooking over a hot fire and barbecue is indirect, low and slow cooking with some serious, almost cult-like followers.
Without a doubt, pulled pork cooked on a smoker will always beat grilled for deep smoke flavor, but more households own grills than smokers. So what’s an avid griller suppose to do when they want great barbecue? Follow these key concepts of low and slow barbecue to get close to pulled pork barbecue heaven with your grill.
Get More Smoke Flavor From a Gas or Charcoal Grill
1. Set up two-zone heat; direct and indirect:
Gas grill: Turn on only one side of the grill and leave the other side off. If the grill ordinarily runs hot or cold, you’ll have to adjust the settings to maintain a temperature around 325 degrees.
Charcoal grill: Build your fire in a chimney starter and once the coals are hot and ready, spread them out over one side of the bottom of the grill. Adjust the bottom and lid vents to maintain a temperature around 325 degrees.
2. Add water for better temp control and smoke flavor:
A water pan placed directly over the heat helps stabilize the temperature and create moisture that helps smoke flavor cling to the meat. An inch or two of water in a disposable aluminum pan works great and if you have a small grill, a mini loaf pan (5x3x2-inch) saves space.
Using a spray bottle with apple juice, beer, or chicken broth to moisten the surface of the meat while cooking also helps the smoke flavor adhere to the meat. This is especially helpful for cook times over 30 minutes or anytime the meat appears dry.
3. Three ways to create quality smoke on a grill.
Ordinarily when grilling, there are drippings to create some smoke during the cooking process. When meat is cooked on the indirect side, there is less smoke created, especially on gas.
Add real hardwood chips: Soaked wood chips will smolder, creating wisps of smoke and flavor. Check your grill manufacturer for guidance and accessories for adding wood chips on gas grills, or see below. On charcoal, you can place chunks of wood chips directly on top of hot coals. It doesn’t take a lot and you certainly don’t want to over do it and dampen your fire. Start with only one or two larger wood chunks or no more than 1/2 cup of chips a little larger than postage stamps. Note: Only use food safe wood chips, never use wood scraps or treated lumber.
Mo’s Smoking Pouch: There are a lot of grilling gadgets out there, but this stainless steel smoker pouch is the real deal. I find it most useful when I use my gas grill, but I’ve used it on both gas and charcoal. Just fill the pouch with the small wood chips (no soaking required) and lay it on the grates over direct heat. It will produce a nice stream of smoke for about 20 minutes. If you want the smoke to last longer, purchase a second pouch to have ready to switch out when needed (trying to refill a hot pouch is tricky).
♦ The kit comes with five different types of wood chips—Mesquite, Hickory, Cherry, Maple, Apple—so you can experiment with flavor. I highly recommend it for ease of use and real wood smoke flavor results.
This short video gives you an idea of the smoke it produces. Here, it’s placed directly on the coals, but I’ve also placed it on the top grate too. Don’t laugh too hard at my inability to call it the right thing in the video ~ some days are like that!
Slow and Sear Plus: This nifty insert turns a kettle charcoal grill into a smoker. It is simply amazing for longer smokes, but it works superbly for shorter cook times too. The Slow and Sear Plus makes a two zone set up a snap and has a built-in water reservoir, which helps to insulate the food from direct heat.
I have found I can use less charcoal because the contoured charcoal basket is so efficient. Last week, I was able to grill/smoke two racks of ribs for over an hour with only half a chimney of natural wood lump charcoal and a few wood chips. In the long run, the Slow and Sear is an inexpensive way to convert a kettle grill to a quality smoker. The video below shows what the insert looks like in my own 22-inch kettle grill.
4. Finish the grilled pork low and slow for tender perfection:
When the smoke clears, it’s time to slide it all in the oven to finish. Place the grilled meat on a rack set inside a roasting pan and pour a beer in the bottom of the pan. Cover tightly with foil and cook at 325 degrees (between 1-2 hours) until the internal temp of the meat reaches 200 degrees and it easy twists under the pressure of a fork. This internal temperature is important so that the collagen begins to melt, producing a more pleasant texture. Cooking time will depend on how thick the pieces are and overall quantity you are cooking. The recipe below is based on 4-5 pounds of meat.
A note about slow cookers: You can finish the pork in a slow cooker, but I don’t recommend it in this case for two reasons. This appliance is a set and forget method and you’ll need to keep an eye on the internal temp of the pork for doneness. Too often meat is overcooked and dry because it is left too long in a slow cooker. The meat must also be stacked with the bottom portion resting in liquid, which you don’t want.
5. Temperature trumps Time:
If you’re grilling without an instant read thermometer, it’s time to elevate your game and stop guessing about doneness. Great grilling or barbecue relies more on temperature than time. There are so many variables, any grilling recipe depending on timed doneness alone will always be a shot in the dark. Everything you cook on the grill will be better if you follow temperature for doneness. ThermoPop is a good, reliable, and reasonably priced—it’s the one I use myself.
Get the most out of dry rubs and time on the grill with smaller pieces.
Forget the full pork shoulder roast, also known as pork butt or Boston butt, and go for the boneless country-style ribs (not really ribs at all). Country-style pork ribs are the best pork to use for pulled pork using this method because there’s more surface area in contact with the smoke and it saves cooking time. Most butchers will simply slice the pork shoulder/butt to make country-style ribs and if the shoulder blade is left in, you’ll find bone-in country-style ribs. Because it is reduced to manageable pieces, there’s more surface area for the flavor of the rub and smoke to penetrate (ideal for grilling).
Using the techniques described above, it should only take about an hour on the grill to pick up a good amount of smoke flavor—you’re not trying to cook it through at this point because it will finish in the oven. Of course, you can let it go longer if the wood chips are still providing good smoke and you have the time to monitor temps and keep the surface moist when needed.
Need a great pork rub?
- 2 tablespoons coconut palm sugar — or brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon granulated onion
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
- 4 pounds country-style pork ribs (4-5 lbs)
- 12 ounces beer — or 1/2 cup each of apple juice, apple cider vinegar, and water
- Homemade Sandwich Buns — toasted
- Coleslaw — optional
Special Equipment: spray bottle (optional)
- In a small bowl, combine the first eight ingredients and mix well. Arrange the pork ribs on a rimmed baking sheet and rub seasoning evenly over the pork to coat. Place in a zipper bag and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. *Remember to prepare any wood chips for grilling, if necessary.
- Remove pork from refrigerator and bring to room temperature while lighting and prepping a gas or charcoal grill with wood chips and water pan, with direct and indirect heat zones. Once the grill is maintaining around 325°F, place meat on the grill over indirect heat leaving an inch in between the pieces to not crowd and allow smoke to circulate. Grill for about an hour, rotating the meat halfway through so the closest to the heat source changes. After 30 minutes, spray the meat with apple juice or beer to keep the surface moist.
- Note: During this time, wood chips should be producing a steady stream of smoke. Grilling time can be extended as long as the wood chips are smoking and the internal temperature of the meat doesn’t go above 200 degrees.
- Once the meat has been on the grill for an hour or so, heat oven to 325°F. Transfer the pork onto a rack inside of a roasting pan in a single layer and pour beer in the bottom of the pan. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and cook in the oven about 2 hours or until pork is 200°F internal temperature when testing the thickest piece. The exact time will depend on the thickness, so it is important to check after the first hour.
- Once the pork has reached 200°F and is tender, transfer to a rimmed baking sheet until cool enough to handle. Using your hands, pick up chunks of the pork and rub it between your thumb and fingers to shred, removing bone, connective tissue and fat as you go. (I like to wear surgical gloves for things like this.)
- Optional: Strain and skim fat from juices in pan. Taste to determine if the juices are suitable to pour over the shredded pork (if you like the flavor, it’s a yes)–add a small amount of water to dilute if needed. This liquid can be reserved to moisten the pork when reheated or pour a little into each bag when storing for later meals.
- Toast the buns by lightly buttering each slice and place under the broiler on HI for 3-4 minutes until golden brown. When ready to serve, reheat the pork with barbecue sauce mixed-in 2-3 minutes. Serve 1/2-2/3 cup per serving on each toasted bun, or serve plain with sauce on the side. Top with a scoop of coleslaw, if desired.