Mojo Pulled Pork
Pulled pork was something I used to make at least once year, smoking up a couple large pork butts to share with friends and freeze leftovers for other uses. The pandemic put a hold on most of my large format cooking, and included with that was pulled pork, so when I decided to return The Meatwave to its pre-pademic form this past spring, there was no question pulled pork had to be part of the menu. I decided to use a mojo sauce as a base of many of the dishes that day, and my pork shoulder fell into that category to create mojo pulled pork.
It's the Cuban variation of mojo I'm referring to here, whose two primary ingredients of sour oranges and garlic account for the majority of the flavor definition. The sour oranges are what most folks will have the most trouble procuring, but the good news is that you can replicate the bitter orange flavor fairly well by using regular freshly squeezed orange juice and lime juice in a one-to-one ratio. Luckily, one my of local groceries always has a plethora of sour oranges, which not only lets me get them when needed, but allows me to choose the juiciest specimens—it's common for many of the sour oranges to feel either too hard or rather hollow and juiceless.
Garlic in a large quantity is also required, and to get the most intense garlicky flavor, complete pulverization is called for to break down as many cells as possible. A mortar and pestle makes easy work of this, but it can also be accomplished by finely mincing the garlic and then working it into a paste by pressing down on it with the side of a knife. Besides the flavor reasoning to mash the garlic, another important aspect of this particular recipe is be able to inject the mojo sauce into the pork, and larger garlic bits would not work in an injection scenario that utilizes a syringe to do the job.
I actually made two version of mojo sauce for this dish, with the first of them being used as a dressing for coleslaw. For color and extra crunch, I opted for red cabbage as a base here with the standard onion and carrot accompaniments. After drawing out moisture from the veggies via salt and sugar, I rinsed and dried them and then tossed in the mojo sauce which had a couple extra seasonings like cilantro and black pepper. That citrusy and garlicky flavor really stood out in this slaw, which is what I was after since I made a good assumption that the mojo touch of the pork itself would end up being light in the end.
Like with the salad dressing, the injection I put together was not a strictly traditional mojo sauce. For one, I swapped out oil for water and added a bunch of salt, both done to help make this better suited to be an injection as well as have a brining function.
I still had to deal with some garlic bits that did not fit into the needle, but whenever I hit one of those, I merely pushed it aside with my finger to allow the mixture to keep flowing in. I injected the pork all over, adding about a cup of moisture into the meat that wasn't there before. Inevitably some liquid leaks out, so once done, I patted the pork dry with paper towels before applying the rub.
I kept the rub simple, playing off the flavors already in the mojo sauce with oregano, cumin, and garlic all getting representation. The two primary ingredient though were kosher salt and light brown sugar, that later added to provide a touch of sweetness to balance out the bitterness of the orange and temper the garlicky bite a tad.
Once the rub was applied, I brought the pork down to the smoker and set it in to start cooking at 10:00pm in the evening. I kept an eye on the meat and pit temperatures for a bit, but then got a good night of shut eye knowing my BBQ Guru would keep things running well, or alert me if anything went awry. The next morning the pork had developed a dark, crusty bark. At this stage I sometimes wrap the pork in butcher paper or aluminum foil to speed up the remaining cooking and prevent over blackening the exterior, but I was happy with how everything was playing out as it was that day, so I just kept the meat smoking without touching it.
It was around noon that the pork had reached my target temperature of 203°F, at which point I removed it from the smoker, wrapped it in butcher paper, and slide it into the Cambro to rest until my guests arrived at 2:00pm. For me, this rest phase is pretty crucial for getting the juiciest meat and a slightly softened bark, which blends better into the final pulled pork mix.
When it came time to eat, I removed the pork from the now fat soaked butcher paper, easily slide out the shoulder bone, and then went at it with my bear paws, which don't always make the nicest looking pulled pork, but certainly makes quick work of breaking down a giant piece of meat. I took some nibbles as I went, and as I assumed, the pork wasn't heavily mojo-flavored, but I did hit bits here and there with a strong citrus taste, which were the parts that received the injection directly.
The mojo equation really came together once formed into a sandwich, where the dressing of the coleslaw delivered the garlicky, earthy, fruity, and lightly sour flavor of mojo and also introduced a pleasing crunchy and cool contrast to the tender pork. I had smoked up two pork butts this day, one small and one large, and my crew of eaters completely finished the smaller of the two, leaving me with still an entire butt to pull, bag, and freeze. I was all too happy to go from no pulled pork to having a ton after a two-year absence, and you'll be sure that leftover pork will be showing up in recipes coming later this year.
Mojo Pulled Pork
- Yield 12 to 18 servings
- Prep 45 Minutes
- Inactive 30 Minutes
- Cook 12 Hours
- Total 13 Hours 15 Minutes
- For the Coleslaw
- 1 head red cabbage, finely shredded on a mandoline or by hand
- 1 cup finely minced red onion (about 1 medium onion)
- 1 cup finely grated carrot (about 1 large)
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided, plus more to taste
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2/3 cup sour orange juice, or 1/3 cup of fresh orange juice and 1/3 cup of fresh lime juice
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/3 cup finely minced fresh cilantro
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- For the Rub
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- For the Injection
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2/3 cup fresh sour orange juice, or 1/3 cup of fresh orange juice and 1/3 cup of fresh lime juice
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- For the Pork and Sandwiches
- 1 pork shoulder (about 7 to 8 pounds)
- 2-3 fist size chunks of medium smoking wood, such as oak or pecan
- 12-18 potato buns
- To make the coleslaw: Combine cabbage, onion, and carrot in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and 1/4 cup sugar and toss to combine. Let stand 5 minutes. Transfer to a large colander and rinse thoroughly under cold running water. Transfer vegetables to a salad spinner and spin dry. Alternatively, transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet lined with a triple layer of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel and blot mixture dry with more towels. Return to large bowl.
- Place garlic in a mortar and pestle and pound garlic into a smooth paste. Transfer garlic to a medium bowl and add in orange juice, olive oil, cilantro, oregano, cumin, black pepper, and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Whisk until sugar is completely dissolved. Pour dressing over vegetables and toss to coat. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, and/or sugar. Transfer coleslaw to an airtight container and store in refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the rub: In a small bowl, mix together light brown sugar, salt, oregano, garlic powder, and cumin. Set aside.
- To make the injection: Place garlic in a mortar and pestle and pound garlic into a fine and smooth paste. Transfer garlic to a medium bowl and add in orange juice, water, oregano, cumin, and salt. Whisk until salt is completely dissolved. Using an injection syringe, inject pork shoulder with injection liquid at 1-inch intervals. Pat pork dry with paper towels. Coat pork shoulder evenly all over with rub.
- To make the pork and sandwiches: Fire up smoker or grill to 225°F, adding chunks of wood when desired temperature is reached. When wood ignites and starts producing smoke, place pork shoulder in smoker or grill and smoke until an instant-read thermometer registers between 198 and 203°F when inserted into center of meat, about 12 to 14 hours total. Remove pork from smoker, wrap in butcher paper or aluminum foil, and set in an empty cooler to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours. Shred pork with hands or two forks. Serve pork immediately on buns topped with coleslaw.