Snacks on Snacks: Pulled Pork 101

 Ok class, today's SOS is a bit of a learning session, so if you don't feel like reading a tutorial on smoking and real BBQ, turn back now. I don't want to read any "too long, didn't read" comments in the comment section. If you've ever been interested in smoking though and want to learn the basics to make you the envy of your tailgate, neighborhood, friends, etc. then read on.

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If you haven't done so already, please, please, please go back and read Mike's SOS post on smoked ribs. A lot of what I'm about to cover was already covered extremely well by Mike, so there will be a bit of redundancy between our posts, but by the time you're done reading both, the basics will be firmly planted in your head.

Mike's post deals with smoking ribs, today we'll cover pulled pork...

For those of us that live in beautiful central PA, our choices of real smoked pulled pork are limited. When I say 'pulled pork' I'm not talking about the garbage sold at local restaurants or the recipes that tell you to soak some pork in a cheap BBQ sauce in a crock pot all day. I'm talking about a pork shoulder that has been slow cooked under low temperature with lots of smoke for 8 hours or so. Because of the length of time needed to cook a full pork shoulder, you wouldn't be able to do this at a tailgate, but trust me… pork heats up well the next day. No one will complain.

The Meat

Pulled pork comes from the pork shoulder of the pig. A whole shoulder consists of two cuts of meat: the Boston butt and the picnic. Each cut weighs in around 6-8 pounds and will feed about 12-15 people. You may not be able to get the whole shoulder from your local butcher but you'll most likely find both cuts. Unless it's a small shoulder I usually cut the meat in half to lessen the mass that needs to cook (your butcher will happily do this for you when you buy it).

Unlike ribs, pork shoulder is the meat for beginners. It's very cheap, it's very forgiving, and it's almost impossible to screw up. I've smoked ribs and pork shoulders for about 7 or 8 years consistently and I've never screwed up the shoulder. Ever. I have, however, burnt the hell out of ribs once. You can undercook the shoulder (within the limits of safety) and it will still taste good. You can overcook the shoulder and happily serve it to your guests with a smile. Unlike ribs, pork is loaded with fat and it would take a very long time for it to dry out.

The Hardware

From the pics in Mike's post it's apparent he has a very fancy upright smoker. I'm envious for two reasons: the smoker is kick-ass and he can cook all year round. Which is fine, I'm sure when you move to Texas they issue you two things: a smoker and a gun. Unfortunately, we live in the north, and even the most serious BBQer is limited by the weather. The best choice for us is an offset barrel style smoker. You can buy one of the R2-D2 smokers, and they will work, but the offset smokers are great. Mine has been run over, knocked down, and generally beat up but it still works fine.

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This little guy's been through Hell

I got mine from Wal-Mart for around $100. Again, you can pay anywhere from $100 to $500 but if you're like me, you're only going to use it several times a year so the cheap-o works fine. No matter what you pay, store-bought smokers all have one thing in common: they are inherently a crappy design. The metal used is thin and the construction isn't that great. Fortunately there are a few simple modifications you can do that will greatly improve your chance at success. If you are really into it, there are several great websites dedicated to this but we'll keep it simple.

The horizontal offset smokers consist of a main cooking chamber and a firebox connected to one side. The problem is, the firebox is connected to the cooking chamber with a large hole.

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This causes the temperature in the cooking chamber to differ as much as 40 degrees (or more) from one side to the other. The first couple years I cooked without modifications, and it worked, but I had to constantly turn the meat because one side was cooking faster than the other. To fix this all you need to do is put a sheet of metal as a baffle over the hole to deflect the intense heat coming from the firebox.

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It's hard to see in that pic but I got a piece of stainless steel sheeting and bolted it to the side of the smoker using the bolts that hold the firebox on, and bent it at an angle and pointed toward the bottom of the cooking chamber about 2" off the floor. You could use an old cookie sheet and cut it with tin snips. This simple mod lets you set your pork in and forget about it.

You also want to put something in the firebox to keep the coals from falling out the vent. Most smokers have two vents: one on the firebox and one on the top of the chimney. I only close the vent on the chimney when in storage and use the vent on the firebox to control heat. You could build a wire basket if you're feeling frisky but I just lean the extra grate that came with my smoker at an angle to keep the coals at bay (See pic above). Also the temperature gauge that comes with the smoker is worthless. You need to take the temperature closest to the meat, you could use an oven thermometer but that would require you to open the door and you want to keep it closed. Every time you open the door it drops the temperature and extends the cooking time. KEEP IT CLOSED. You could use a digital thermometer if you want but I'm a geeky engineer with tech gadgets and I have a multi-meter that has a thermistor attachment that I use (It costs $20 at Lowes).

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Yeah, my girlfriend laughed at me too

The Preparation

The night before, you want to lay down a sheet of aluminum foil (for easy cleanup), place the pork shoulder(s) on, and coat with the following rub recipe.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1/4 cup black pepper
  • 1/4 cup paprika
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon cardamom

INSTRUCTIONS: Mix all ingredients thoroughly and store in an airtight container

To "rub" the pork means just that, coat each side with ½ the above recipe and use your fingers to rub the spices in all the crevasses of the meat. Only use half and save the other half for the following day before the meat goes in the smoker. Refrigerate the meat overnight.

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The Smoking

The first thing you need to do in the morning is take the meat out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Do that first and it will be ready by the time the smoker is ready. A word on charcoal: don't ever buy match light charcoal unless you want your meat tasting like chemicals. I suggest a natural charcoal briquette that uses a vegetable binder like Stubb's (found at Lowes). Make sure to use a charcoal chimney to light the charcoal and let it burn until the coals are red hot.

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Add an entire chimney of charcoal to the firebox at first and wait till the cooking chamber comes up to temperature. While you are waiting, rub the meat with the leftover rub from the night before. The ideal temperature for smoking is around 215 F but the acceptable range is between 200 and 235 degrees F. Use the vent on the firebox to adjust the temperature. Keep it almost closed at first and wait till the temp in the cooking chamber evens out. After that you can adjust the cooking temperature by opening or closing the firebox vent.

When the cooking chamber is up to temp, put the meat on and throw a handful of wood chunks in the firebox on top of the coals. I buy my chunks from Wal-Mart or Lowes but you could use real wood if you have it, just make sure to use Hickory or wood from a fruit tree. Die-hard BBQers swear by apple wood but it's just personal preference. Remember; try to keep both doors closed as much as possible.

Now the hard part: waiting. It will take roughly 1-1/2 hours per pound for the shoulder to cook. Grab a beer and keep an eye on it.

You don't need to add more wood chunks until the smoker stops smoking. You probably won't need to add more coals for an hour or so but just remember that it takes the charcoal about 20 – 30 minutes to burn down in the chimney. You probably will only need to add ½ to ¾ of a chimney of charcoal to maintain cooking temperature. Keep a spray bottle with water handy, when you open up the firebox door the wood chunks will want to catch on fire. If the vent is open too far the wood chunks will catch fire, this is why you have to keep an eye on it. If the smoker stops smoking the wood has either burned up or caught fire. Either way you need to handle it quickly, if the wood is allowed to burn it will raise the temperature too much, put the fire out with the spray bottle.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the amount of smoke flavor absorbed by meat declines as it cooks. Therefore the amount of smoke flavor you would be adding in the last two hours is relatively insignificant. If it becomes difficult to maintain the temperature or other circumstances get in the way you can move the meat to the oven. If that becomes the case set the oven to the ideal temperature and wrap the meat in foil to keep in moisture. You should at least cook the meat half the time in the smoker. I've only had to use the oven one time because it was a windy, other than that I've used the smoker the entire time and I use wood chips until the last hour.

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It's not burned, that's the delicious coating called 'bark'

Once the meat reaches an internal temperature around 180 degrees F it is ready to be pulled. You can serve the meat once it reaches 165, but it will be hard to pull apart. Use a meat thermometer to check at the very center of the meat. Once the internal temp is ready, remove the meat from the smoker (or oven) and let it sit for a half hour to an hour.

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This is the important resting period that will bring the temperature down far enough that you won't burn the hell out of your hands and it lets the juices settle.

Pulling Your Pork

Once the pork has rest, it's time for the fun part. You can use a large fork to shred the meat, but I think it's easiest to put on a set of disposable latex gloves and tear into it with your bear hands. There's something primeval about pulling flesh apart with your hands.

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If this greasy mess doesn't make your mouth water, check your pulse

Feel free to take a couple test bites as you go, you deserve it, just be careful… it's addicting.   Have a crock pot turned to warm to put your meat in if you are serving it right away, if not you can use the container you're going to store it in. The size of the chunks of meat are up to you.

Finishing

You want to serve your pulled pork as a sandwich on a bun. You're going to be tempted to buy some fancy schmancy fresh-baked 12-grain rolls. DON'T! The pork is the star of the show, don't detract from it with a bunch of gut-filling bread. Use simple, cheap, regular rolls you would serve a hamburger on. They don't have to be big, your guests will come back for seconds if they are hungry, and oh they will come back for seconds!

You can serve the pork on its own and it will be damn tasty but to enhance the flavor you can make finishing sauces. Don't you dare buy bottled BBQ sauce or I will hunt you down. You've put a lot of time and effort into this so make some sauces from scratch. My three favorite sauces are Piedmont, Red Pepper Sauce, and Mustard. Piedmont is a vinegar based sauce that is popular in the southeast, while the Red Pepper Sauce is tomato based popular in the southwest (caution: it's spicy). The mustard sauce may not sound very good to some people but once you try it you'll love it. These sauces are all easy to make, can be made ahead of time and none of them overpower your pork.

Serve the pulled pork, sit back and watch people's faces light up when the take the first bite, especially if they've never had smoked pulled pork before.

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