What is the main reason pulled pork dries out?
The primary reason pulled pork comes out dry is too high of an internal temperature.
The ideal internal temperature for pulled pork is 205 degrees. At this temperature, the pork has enough time for the collagen to break down inside of the meat. This transformation is critical for a couple of reasons.
Collagen is the protective film surrounding every muscle tissue. Its primary purpose is to hold all of the muscle fibers closely together making this piece of meat extremely tough. At 160 degrees, collagen begins to break down and turn into gelatin. When this process happens, all of the structure of the shoulder breaks down and the meat becomes extremely tender. As the collagen renders and turns into gelatin, it adds extra moisture back into the meat. This is key for the pork shoulder to be juicy even after a 10+ hour cook!
At an internal temperature of 205 degrees, the collagen has had enough time for the majority of it to render and transform into gelatin. As the shoulder rises above 205 degrees, it will begin to lose some of its moisture inside. This is a result of the internal temperature nearing the boiling point of 212 degrees causing the liquid inside of the meat to begin evaporating.
What are additional reasons for dry pulled pork?
Two of the biggest failures leading to dry pulled pork are, cooking the shoulder at too high of a temperature and not properly resting the pork shoulder after the cook.
Cooking the shoulder at too high of a temperature is an extremely common and confusing reason for dry pulled pork. As mentioned, collagen breaks down not because of temperature, but due to time spent above a certain temperature. Collagen begins to liquefy above 160 degrees and the longer the meat is above 160 degrees, the more collagen breaks down. If you cook your shoulder at too high of a temperature, it will reach the desired internal temperature of 205 degrees, but the collagen will not have spent enough time over 160 degrees for the majority of it to break down. This can be extremely confusing for newer pitmasters since the internal temperature is correct, yet the pork shoulder comes out dry. Look to keep the temperature you cook at between 225 and 275 degrees.
A second common reason for dry pulled pork is the lack of resting your shoulder long enough. When the shoulder is being cooked, the moisture is pulled to the surface to cool the meat down. Resing the shoulder after the cook provides time for the juices within the meat to be redistributed throughout the pork shoulder. If you cut the shoulder right away, the edges of the meat will be juicy, but the middle of the shoulder will be left dry.
How to prevent pulled pork from coming out dry?
To prevent pulled pork from coming out dry, add a water pan to the cooking chamber, wrap the pork shoulder in foil at an internal temp of 160 degrees, and add liquid to the wrapped pork shoulder.
When cooking a pork shoulder, adding a water pan to the cooking chamber will go a long way in helping to keep your pork shoulder moist. When you cook the shoulder in a dry environment, the dry heat will draw the moisture out of the meat. If your environment is humid, the meat and environment will have a similar level of moisture, resulting in less water being pulled out of the meat.
A second way to prevent dry pulled pork is to wrap the pork shoulder in foil to finish the cook. This is typically done at an internal temperature of 160 degrees and is critical for saving all of the shoulder’s fat drippings and juices that will escape from the shoulder. This extra liquid will become trapped in the foil and can be reabsorbed by the shoulder as it rests.
In addition to wrapping the pork shoulder, adding liquid to the wrap will also go a long way to preventing the pork from drying out. This will replace any moisture the shoulder might have naturally lost and is typically done with apple juice or apple cider vinegar. Do not add so much liquid to the wrap that the shoulder is drowning, but a couple of tablespoons is perfect to replace any moisture the shoulder might lose!
What does dry pulled pork mean?
If your pork is dry, it means throughout your cooking and resting process the pork shoulder lost too much moisture.
A pork shoulder can be a pretty forgiving piece of meat, however, several circumstances can cause the shoulder to lose its moisture throughout the long cook.
The most common reason is due to the pork shoulder reaching an internal temperature higher than 205 degrees. While a higher internal temperature might make the shoulder tender, any of the moisture from the rendered collagen will evaporate leaving the meat dry.
The shoulder can still lose a ton of moisture even if the internal temperature is perfect. Pork shoulders are usually cooked between 8 and 12 hours. If this process is done in a dry cooking environment without wrapping the shoulder at some point in the cook, the shoulder will lose the majority of its moisture. The same goes for resting a pork shoulder, if you do not let rest the shoulder for at least an hour, your pulled pork will be dry even if you nailed the cooking process.
How to moisten dry pulled pork
If you have dry pulled pork, adding liquid to the shredded pork is the best way to add moisture to the meat.
A longtime staple for dry pulled pork is to add liquids like apple juice or bbq sauce to the shredded meat. However, these liquids are pretty strong in flavor and will take over as the primary flavor profile.
Experienced pitmasters will instead turn to a combination of chicken and beef broth to add moisture back to dry pulled pork.
If you find your pork to be dry after properly resting and shredding, there are some steps you can do to add some moisture back into the meat.
First, make sure to add all the fat drippings from the foil back into the meat. Secondly, add a half and half mixture of beef and chicken broth to the shredded meat before you add bbq sauce. This will provide moisture without sacrificing a ton of the flavor you worked so hard for. If you add bbq sauce first it will provide some moisture, but the tendency will be to add too much and you will lose all of the pork’s flavor in an attempt to add moisture.