The Pull of Pork

My first serious food obsession was authentic BBQ. And, for someone who (at the time) could barely open a can or boil water, it was a hell of a place to jump into cooking.

In baking, a novice can be guided by precise measurements, controlled temperatures in an oven, and any other number of quantifiable controls. Cooking on the stove top similarly offers some safety rails of predictable and measured conditions. Not so with BBQ, which (in retrospect) is probably why it appealed to me so deeply.

Now, to be clear, I am not a BBQ purist or some sort of meat-police here to demean anyone’s preferences or practices. Look, if you can make something palatable from an immersion circulator and smoke-infused aerated egg-foams, I’ll eat it. Happily.

Rather, I believe BBQ is an immensely personal experience that should be as enjoyable and nourishing in its process as it is in its consumption. The BBQ gods can taste your pain, and angry cooking means bad product, so do what makes you happy.

For me, that means a real fire, real wood, and a lot of time.

So, for the first big smoke of the year, we’re going for some top-flight pulled pork, which starts with a butt:

Pork butt is actually a shoulder, and it’s a favorite for pulled pork because of its high fat content, loads of connective tissue that dissolve to delicious gelatin, and because it’s cheap. This guy was less than a dollar a pound.

Like literally every aspect of BBQ, there is massive and angry debate over whether to go bone-in or boneless on your pork butt. The bone-in crowd says it produces more flavor and regulates the internal temps to produce a better end product. The boneless crowd says the bone extends cooking time and is just another obstacle to deal with when pulling the end product.

This butt is bone-in because… well, that’s what they had at the local market.

I’ve cooked hundreds of these, and I can’t tell a difference. Personally, I think you’re better off focusing on things like overall size, freshness, fat cap, marbling, etc.

So, now that we have the meat, what do we do with it? TV and internet are rife with things like injections, wet rubs, dry rubs, brines, and all manor of mysterious voodoo.

As for me, I keep it simple. On a big, round hunk like this, I like a simple 6% brine of salt and sugar overnight. This gives deep penetration of those flavors all they way into the meat. There’s nothing worse than having someone’s “famous pulled pork” that’s seasoned for the first millimetre of the outside, then completely untouched after that.

Next up, I like a dry rub made from fresh-ground spices. This is another individualist aspect of BBQ, and I encourage everyone starting out to make your own spice mix versus buying something pre-packaged. First, it’s hard to screw up a rub. Second, it’ll help you learn what spices go well with others, which is a skill with applications far beyond pulled pork. Third, it’s cheaper as a lot of pre-packaged rubs have you paying for salt and sugar.

This rub has a base of brown sugar and cayenne, with additions of ground coriander, caraway, celery seed, black pepper, and sage. Mix it up, taste it on the tip of your finger, adjust.

You’ll note that I didn’t use any salt in this rub, and I never do. In this case, I’ve salted the shoulder via the brine process (and, since we’re pulling it, there’s going to be a second shot at that later). Were I cooking ribs, I’d add the salt separately. See, if you have salt in your rub, you’re automatically limited to how much or little rub to use based on the salt content. If you salt separately, you can use whatever quantity of rub you want. Speaking of:

On it goes. I like a healthy dose, but I’ve found that overdoing it can lead to a very mushy, muddy paste instead of a crispy, crunchy bark on the finished product.

And now… the big debate: the smoker.

First up, you don’t need a super expensive, custom rig to produce excellent product. Hell, the best BBQ I’ve ever made came off a pit I built from cinder blocks and an old door I scrounged from an abandoned construction project in my neighborhood in Miami:

I’ve seen setups using ceramic plant pots with electric hot plates, all the way up to trailer-pulled rigs that cost more than the trucks pulling them.

I’ve also personally owned and used everything from kettle-style charcoal grills, cheap hardware store offset models, kamado-style “egg” cookers, vertical offset cabinet smokers, and vertical “barrel” configurations. And I’ve produced some pretty good food from all of them.

As, in all things, I have some opinions. Good BBQ comes from a small, hot fire, with a lot of air circulation (convection). For this reason, the kamado-style cookers just don’t do it for me. They’re too efficient, meaning there’s very little air movement, the fire doesn’t burn particularly hot (the super-insulating nature of the ceramics will quickly rise to roasting temps with a hot fire), and as a result, the end product is kinda like something that came from an oven and may have been waved through some smoke on the way.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the cheap offsets are so leaky and inefficient that the smoke and heat never actually seem to get to the meat.

The solution, for me, has been a vertical barrel-style smoker with a few tricks:

I build a ring of fire, and only light one end of it, like a fuse. There are only a few coals burning at any given time, but they’re burning hot. As the coals burn, they ignite the next in line, and start up the next chunk of smoke wood (in this case, apple).

So, smoker lit, meat on:

My smoker came with a water pan/heat diffuser, and I don’t use it. I like dry heat, and there’s something about the juices from a pork shoulder or whole chicken or a beef brisket dripping onto hot coals, sizzling, and then heading back up in the form of smoke and steam that just… well, it’s just irreplaceable.

And now we wait. I’ve plugged in a digital thermometer, not so much to fuss with keeping a super-specific temperature, but more to make sure I’m alerted if anything is going seriously wrong. One sad day, I set fire to that cinder-block-door pit when I didn’t jump on a flare-up fast enough. So, lesson learned, I have a thermometer alarm to let me know if the temps jump up above 265F or below 200F.

Five (5) hours in:

Another golden rule of BBQ: it’s done when it’s done. Sure, you can try to estimate five hours for ribs, or two for a chicken, but every hunk of beast is different, and anyone who has done some serious BBQ can regale you with tales of a pork but that took fifteen hours, or a whole brisket that somehow cooked through in seven. So, relax.

Lastly, for pork butt I don’t do any wrapping. Again, simple. Meat. Fire. Smoke. Time.

Ten (10) hours later, and this is the reward. Juicy, tender, smoky, pork. The bark is crispy, sweet, and spicy. The pink shows the smoke penetration, and those long fibers are soaked in delicious, lip-smacking gelatin. And as for that bone?

Play your cards right, and it’ll take care of itself.

As for the pulling, a couple of forks will shred it down, and at this point, I like to add a little extra kosher salt, and a sprinkling of cider vinegar. That’s it. That’s the whole thing:

So what to do with this? Well, eat it by the handfull. Also, the sandwich is a classic application with a little slaw and some hot sauce. Or, tacos. Or white-bean soup. Or nachos. Or a bowl of ramen. Or…

6 thoughts on “The Pull of Pork

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