Posted: June 3, 2012
I met Jeff White back when Sea and be Scene was only a dream. He and his team at Kula Partners took my vision and created the site that you're experiencing right now, and in the near three years that I've been up and running I've come to regard Jeff as both a brilliant 'web guy' and one truly cool fella.
Now, you know what they say... peel an onion – there's lots of layers, well Jeff White is really 'oniony'... in a non-smelly, non-tear inducing way. Just follow him on twitter like I do and you'll begin to experience the multi-dimensional Mr. White. How wonderful he's sharing one of his many talents with us here... grateful to ya Jeff – Thanks for everything!!! sb
Pulled pork sandwiches of some variety are on the menu at just about every pub, restaurant and diner in eastern Canada. Yet, unless you go to a real smokehouse, you’re unlikely to get a properly smoked pork butt roast. Most tend to use a slow cooker or the oven as they don’t have the space for a true smoker. While this yields tender, delicious meat, it’s still not as good as pork that is slowly smoked in a warm, humid, smoke-filled environment, best found inside the likes of a full size smoker such as the Big Green Egg, Weber Smokey Mountain or Kamado Joe.
The trouble is, these smokers are big, they’re expensive and unless you’re planning to smoke large hunks of meat, vegetables and fish every weekend, you can likely get by with a propane unit or kettle charcoal grill and a few of the techniques I’ll discuss below.
Digital thermometers for measuring meat and grill temperature
20lbs of charcoal if you’re using a kettle cooker or smoker
1 FULL 20lb propane tank (this is gonna take a while, you don’t want to run out)
16oz of wood chips or smoke wood
A small aluminum pan filled with water
1 Boston butt pork roast (5-7 lbs)
⅓ cup of olive oil or veggie oil
⅓ cup of dry rub spice mix
Fresh kaiser rolls
Your favourite thin barbeque sauce (homemade or bottled, your choice)
If, like me, you desperately need to get your knives sharpened before you attempt any sort of butchery, I suggest you ask your friendly local butcher to trim most of the fat off the butt for you. If it’s big (more than 7-8 pounds), have them wrap it in twine too. As the pork cooks, it will start to fall apart and you do not want to lose any of this amazing meat. Make sure you get a butt that still has the blade bone left in.
The night before you’re planning to smoke, take the butt out of the fridge and wash it thoroughly in cold water. Put it in a casserole pan and dry it with paper towels. Brush it all over with the oil. I prefer extra virgin olive oil as I find it adds complexities to the flavour, but it really doesn’t matter. The oil helps the rub get absorbed into the meat.
The rub is meant to add a crust and flavour to the meat. The salt is especially important. Try not to omit it, there’s very little you’ll actually consume.
I usually experiment with this rub recipe from amazingribs.com and add or remove ingredients to try to get the tastiest combinations. What you don’t use can be saved for later. Combine everything and rub this mixture all over the meat, but don’t contaminate the excess rub. Wash your hands and disinfect the counter when you’re done.
Put the butt back in the fridge until morning. 5:00 am comes quickly.
¾ cup brown sugar, firmly packed
¾ cup white sugar
½ cup paprika (I prefer the smoked variety)
¼ cup sea salt
(kosher is also good, table salt can be used, but don’t use as much)
¼ cup garlic powder
2 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons ground sage
1 tablespoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (omit if you don’t like heat)
Proper pulled pork takes about two hours per pound, so if you’re having lunch guests and you have a 7 pound butt roast, you’re going to need to put the damn thing on at 10pm the night before. In other words, plan accordingly.
The number one thing to remember when cooking meat: knowing the exact temperature is the single most important part of the job.
The bi-metal dome thermometers installed in most home grills are crap. They’re too high up and are inaccurate. I’ve seen these be off by as much as 75-100 degrees. You can’t control your cook if you’re working with the wrong information.
You can pick up a digital thermometer with a double probe, one for the cooker, one for the meat for between $50-100. At the very least, get a cheap dial thermometer and place it on the grill and use a digital unit to test the meat. You can get those for about $10 each at any kitchen supply store. Hardcore smokers like me use a dual probe unit like the Maverick ET-732. The pager is pretty cool too. Mow the lawn and check your meat at the same time.
Turn on one side of the grill only, and keep it as low as it will go. Place your aluminum foil water pan directly above the lit burner. Insert your grate temperature probe or thermometer and wait until you hit 225°F. If it goes above, dial it back a bit if you can. If you can’t keep the temperature under 250, don’t worry too much about it, this cut of pork is incredibly forgiving. But if it starts to head north to 300 you might have some issues. If it won’t hit 225, turn the gas up a little at a time until you nail it.
Take a handful (about 4 ounces) of your wood chips and wrap them in a double layer of tin foil. Poke holes in the top and bottom. You absolutely must be using hardwood smoking chips. The sap in softwood will ruin your food, and treated wood is full of chemicals. You can buy chips from just about any hardware store and even some grocery stores. You want something mild and sweet like apple, plum or even maple. Fruit woods are the best. Don’t waste your time soaking them. It rarely penetrates enough to really extend the smoking time. Place this smoker packet directly on top of the heating element (you’ll need to lift the cooking grate to do so). Place your rubbed pork butt at the far end of the grill as far from the heat source as possible.
The setup in a charcoal grill such as a Weber One-Touch is nearly identical to the gas grill configuration noted above with a few exceptions.
For this kind of thing, you can use any sort of charcoal, either briquettes or lump. Here’s the skinny: briquettes are better at holding their temperature and therefore are easier for beginners to use. Lump charcoal uses no additives to bind the particles together, and is more pure than briquettes. It’s really not that hard to control temp with lump hardwood, but it’s worth noting that you’ll have less to worry about with briquettes.
Make sure you start your charcoal with a chimney. Petrochemical fire starters are the enemy of great taste. Why would you want to soak your charcoal in what is essentially a gasoline derivative? The whole point of charcoal is heat from a nice clean source.
Once you’ve got a decent bed of coals going in the chimney, lay down about 4-6 lbs of fresh charcoal on one side of the kettle. Open the bottom vents 100%. Spread the burning coals on top of the unlit charcoal. As the fresh charcoal catches, it will sink down and light the next layer. This is called the Minion method and it works really well for maintaining a nice, consistent temperature. You will need to add more in a few hours.
As with the gas grill, let the temperature come up to 225°F. Keep the top vent wide open the entire time to let gases escape. Once you hit the target temp, close the bottom vent to 50%. If it continues to climb, dial it back even further. Don’t close the top vent, ever. If you have a runaway grill, turn the top vent to 50%, but never any further.
Once the temperature has stabilized, you can lift the grate and put your smoke wood on. You can either do the smoker packet described above, or you can place fist sized chunks of hardwood directly on the charcoal. Place your water pan under the meat, next to the lit charcoal. Position your pork butt as far away from the coals as possible. Close the cover and make yourself a cup of coffee.
For the first two hours, check your meat every 30 minutes (don’t look more often than this, or you’ll never eat). After that, check once an hour. Note the temperature of the pork. Remove the old smoker packet with tongs and drop a new one in, or add smoke wood. It’s important to realize that meat will only absorb smoke up to 150°F and while pork butt is pretty hard to mess up, too much smoke will overdo it. Stick to a max of 4oz at a time and don’t add more than 16oz total. Smoke is like salt–once you’ve got too much, it’s impossible to go back. Also, check your grill temp and adjust accordingly.
Around 150°F (meat temp), you’ve got a choice to make: do you wrap your meat in foil or let it ride? Barbecue pros usually wrap it, as it speeds cooking and keeps more moisture inside the meat. However, the ‘bark’ on the outside of the meat will not be as crispy. It will still taste amazing. When I was first starting out at smoking a few years ago, I never ‘crutched’ my meat, as the added complexity just seemed like too much bother. As I’ve gotten more experienced with cooking on charcoal, I’ve begun to look for ways to really improve the flavour and texture of the food I cook, and boy, does wrapping at this stage ever help. It’s a pain in the ass to do though.
If you do decide to wrap the meat, here’s what to do: Pull off a couple of good sized sheets of tin foil, shiny side up. Fold the edges up and pour in a cup of beer, chicken stock, apple juice, whatever. It really doesn’t matter, it just needs to be wet, but anything you add will contribute (in a small way) to the flavour. I like to add a nice light beer with a bit of kick like Propeller’s amazing Pilsener. Remember, the pork only needs a cup of beer, so you get to drink the rest! This is the best excuse I’ve heard for drinking at 9am on a Sunday. At the very least, my wife seems to laugh it off when she sees me wandering through the kitchen at 9:04 with a half pint of good micro brew.
I don’t think I have a problem. Your opinion may vary.
Anyway. Make sure the entire butt is wrapped in tinfoil. Check the temp of your meat and make sure there’s still plenty of water in the water pan. If that’s dwindled, add more warm water.
If you read barbecue blogs, you’ll have heard of the dreaded stall. In most American blogs I see, this usually happens around 150°F. For whatever reason, the meat I buy in Nova Scotia seems to hit this at a higher point, usually around 170°F. The stall is exactly what it sounds like. At some point, your meat will hit a temp point and just sit there. And sit there. And sit there. I’ve seen a big butt stall for close to two hours. Meanwhile, you’ve got guests coming for dinner so you start to think about jacking the heat or ordering pizza.
Give it time. The meat will push through. There’s a bunch of incredible chemical reactions that are happening inside that pork butt right now and if you push it with heat, you risk rushing the good work that’s going down. At this point the fats inside the pork are melting and the collagen is breaking down. As it does this, the delicious fat is absorbed deep into the tissue, bringing out all of your other flavours. Meat science!
The answer is: when your butt’s good and ready. When the internal temperature hits 190°F, you’re likely very close. Remember when I told you to buy a pork butt with the blade bone left in? Here’s why: wrap the bone in paper towel and twist it. If it turns easily, you’re good to go. If it’s still got some resistance, wait.
If you managed to get a butt without the blade bone, never fear. Grab a fork and jam it into the side of the butt. Twist. It should turn with no resistance at all. If not, you need more time. Keep checking every few degrees until the above test succeeds. Pull it off if it hits 200°F. You have a slightly tough butt that will still taste great. No biggie.
Grab a cookie tray and place your pork butt on it. Now, this is hot. Really hot. Pull the bone out and set it aside. Your dog will thank you for waiting an hour for it to cool before giving it to him. You should notice a deep smoke ring in the outer inch of the meat. If you used a gas grill, the bark will be shiny, but charcoal turns it pretty dark brown. The meat will be dark pink, lightening as it gets closer the centre. Take the largest serving forks you own (ask your wife if it’s ok to use the ones you got as a wedding gift) and begin to pull in opposing directions. It’s going to take 5-10 minutes, and while you’re doing it, a long line of people are going to be forming behind you, starting with your dog and children, followed by your spouse and neighbours, your banker and non-vegan Twitter followers.
Once you’ve got the pork yanked, you’re ready to eat. Warm up some of your favourite sauce (honestly, it can be store bought, although thinner texas-style sauces are my preferred style, and you usually have to make those yourself). Just google ‘texas mop sauce’ and try something out. Whatever you do, don’t drown the meat in sauce. Pile your bun high with pork and drizzle a little bit of sauce on top. You can soak a bit into the bottom bun too, but that’s it. If you’ve done this right, you will want to taste the smoky rich meat more than any sweet sauce. This is why thin sauces work best: they mix deeply with the meat, adding flavour rather than masking it.
If there’s any left, there are all kinds of things you can do with it. Anything you’d put chicken or bacon or ham in tastes a thousand times better with pulled pork. Try it on nachos, omelets, have it cold in salads, it really doesn’t matter. Because it’s smoked it will keep a little bit longer than regular cooked meat, but if you die of botulism after eating three week old pulled pork, neither I nor this site is liable, okay?
Well, if you’ve stuck with me this far, thanks! It’s a real effort to smoke meat in this way, but I hope you enjoyed the experience and are interested in trying other meats and different cuts. It’s possible to smoke just about anything with the indirect cooking method on just about any type of grill. I’ve done whole turkeys, briskets, duck and more. But, if you really start to get into it, have a look at a proper charcoal-fired smoker. You’ll have more room (I smoked two 17 lb turkeys last Thanksgiving and they were incredible), and it’s possible to add fuel and water without having to disturb the meat.
If you like what you saw, you can follow me on Twitter at @brightwhite. I post smoking photos just about every weekend. JW
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