PULLED BEEF/CHUCK ROAST
Often overlooked in the barbecue world is the cousin to pulled pork, pulled beef. Pulled beef has all the tender, shredded, juicy, smoky goodness of pulled pork with the bold beefy flavor we love from a good beef brisket. We like to think of it as the perfect hybrid between pulled pork and brisket. However, if you’ve never made pulled beef then of course the question begs to be asked: ‘how do I do it?’
The answer is surprisingly simple. Chuck roast. Then, nearly all the steps are the same as if you were making pulled pork. Maybe that doesn’t put your mind at ease, maybe you’ve never made pulled pork either…never fear, keep reading!
There are a few more details you need to know to ensure your efforts are well rewarded. To start with, let’s discuss the meat…
Chuck roast is arguably the best cut to use for pulled beef. Similar to the front shoulder of pork (or the pork “butt”) chuck roasts, being from the front shoulder of the steer, are chock full of fat, collagen, and marbling. This is the stuff we need to make delicious juicy pulled beef. You may ask ‘can I use any beef roast, like round or rump?’ The answer is no, just like you wouldn’t buy a pork ham (rear leg) or a loin for making pulled pork, we want to stay away from round or rump roasts and loins when our goal is pulled beef. They are simply too lean. Cuts like these are best suited to roasting to 135 or medium rare, then sliced thin, and they can be delicious when prepared this way. But as with many barbecue-worthy cuts, the point is to get something high enough in internal fat that we can render it out and turn it into a tender juicy delicacy.
Trim: Just like when making pulled pork, we want to trim excess fat and fat cap from the roast first. This will ensure proper salt penetration and rub adherence/bark formation during the cook. It is not necessary to leave any amount of fat cap on the roast, as you might with a brisket. Just like a pork butt, a chuck roast in most cases will have enough internal fat to do the job we need it to do. Surface fat in these instances will simply be a barrier to salt, rub, smoke, and bark. Trim it off, don’t be shy!
Season: Next, dry brine the meat. It’s best if you can allow yourself 24hrs on a thicker piece of meat like this. We recommend using coarse Kosher salt*, at a rate of about ½ tsp per pound of meat, applied all around the roast. So if you have a 4 lb chuck roast, it’s safe to plan on about 2 tsp of coarse Kosher salt spread evenly around the roast. A good rule of thumb too is to add the amount of salt you naturally would if you were to eat the meat then. Oil, mustard, or other means of sticking rubs onto the meat are not necessary here. The meat should have enough surface moisture to hold onto most of this salt.
*Please note, if you use regular table salt instead of the recommended coarse Kosher salt, use approximately half the amount. Plan on around ¼ tsp of table salt per pound of meat. Table salt granules are much smaller and therefore more are packed into a given volume. You’ll likely over salt your meat if you don’t pay attention to this!
Store the meat in the refrigerator, at 34-38 F. You can wrap it in plastic wrap or leave it uncovered during this time to aid in a drier bark. Just always make sure to keep it plenty clear of other foods to avoid cross contamination.
After you’ve dry brined your meat at least a few hours in the fridge, preferably 24hrs, it’s time to warm the smoker up and add the unsalted rub. (Note: If you plan to use a salted rub, please skip the Kosher salt dry brine step. Simply use your salted rub as the dry brine and proceed as directed!
We HIGHLY recommend you use a different rub than you would with pork. We know you love your favorite rib rub or pork rub and you may be seriously thinking it’ll be great on pulled beef too, but beef is generally better suited to peppery profiles, not sweet rubs like pork. We love Meathead’s Big Bad Beef Rub, it works great on chuck roasts, briskets, and even steaks! For this recipe we recommend adding 1 teaspoon of cumin to the rub.
Do you add oil to the meat first? Mustard? Sure, you can. But you don’t need to. These additions are merely to help the rub adhere to the meat better. Even a light coating of plain water will suffice. We like to use a quick spray of PAM or similar, simply because a spray can of anything is simple and easy! Add your rub generously. It’s not a bad idea to add another light sprinkle of finishing/table salt to the surface after the rub is on. This will enhance the flavor of the bark.
We recommend the typical low & slow 225 F lighting technique for pulled beef/chuck roast, including hot water in the water reservoir. When your kettle gets up to 225 on the cooking side, at grate level, as measured by a quality digital thermometer probe (not your grill’s lid temp gauge), add the chuck roast directly from the refrigerator to the grate. Place a thermometer probe in the center-most spot in the roast that you can.
What wood? Let this be the least of your concerns. However, if you have many woods to choose from and want to know which we’d recommend, it would be 1) oak, 2) pecan, 3) hickory, 4) apple or any fruit wood. We say to let it be the least of your worries because there are so many other things that will affect the final outcome and flavor of your end product than the choice of wood. But if all you have is cherry, don’t fret, use it! Refer to our lighting instructions, we recommend only about 3 fist-sized (or 4 if smaller) chunks. You don’t need a lot of wood with your Slow ‘N Sear.
From here on out, things will be very familiar. The meat will rise in temp fairly quickly, and will stall anywhere from 150-170. It may stall for an hour, or it may be 3. Eventually the meat temp will rise once again. And as you’d expect, we’re going to take it up past 200.
One main difference when doing pulled beef vs pulled pork, is beef chuck roasts often need a little higher internal temp to soften and fully render the fat. Where with a pork butt we’d be happy around 203 then a Cambro hold, a chuck roast may require 205, 207, even 210. When the meat hits this level, let’s hold it there if we can for about an hour. THEN, let’s hold it further in a faux Cambro. If you’re familiar with the time frame it takes to fully cook pulled pork, pulled beef will be strikingly similar, but perhaps an hour or two longer. Most important is not the clock, or even the temp necessarily, but ‘probe tender’- when you can stick a thermometer probe into the meat and it slides in with little resistance “like butter”, or a fork easily twists in the side, then it’s ready! If the meat feels tough or dry, give it more time. Come back in an hour and try again. Repeat if necessary.
To wrap or not? Wrapping in foil, known as the “Texas crutch” or “crutching”, will help speed things along. A foil wrap will inherently sacrifice some bark and maybe some of the rub coating, but it will significantly reduce your cook time. We highly recommend you do not wrap right at the start of the stall.
If you can hold out until the internal temperature of the meat is ~180 F, which is after the stall, you will have a much better bark developed. Bark is the flavorful crust on the outside of the chuck, full of seasonings, salt, and smoke. Bits of bark mixed into the pulled beef provides extra bursts of flavor in the finished product, and is what will set yours apart as ‘REAL Q’!
We recommend that you hold it in the faux Cambro, wrapped tightly in foil, when cooking is complete. Often 1-3 hours is all that is necessary for a faux Cambro hold. Make sure to save any drippings from the foil and add them back to the pulled beef. It’s good practice to leave your leave-in thermometer probe in the chuck during this hold, and make sure the meat temp does not drop below 140F.
You’ll notice this is no quick endeavor- one of the main secrets to great barbecue is patience and allowing time for the magic to happen!
Simple recipe ideas for pulled beef: Nachos: shredded cheddar and/or Monterrey Jack cheese along with your favorite nacho toppings and generous amounts of hot smoked pulled beef will make some of the best nachos you’ve ever tasted! Or Philly Steak & cheese sammies: Pulled beef, provolone cheese, sautéed peppers & onions, mushrooms optional, on lightly toasted ciabatta bread. Restaurant good!