August 18, 2022

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How I Smoked A Supermarket Pork Butt on a Backyard Barbecue

Orrin Onken

While a good part of the United States in 2022 began to heat up and burn, Oregon, where I live, experienced the wettest spring in recorded history. It rained, and it rained, and it rained some more.

We were soggy and depressed. Picnics got canceled and suicides were up. It was bad.

But the sun finally came out, and it was time for me to celebrate the sun by sacrificing a pork butt on my deck. The smoking of a butt, that poorly named hunk of meat from the shoulder of a pig, is my way of welcoming the six weeks of sun and warmth that once a year provide respite from the cold green rainforest in which I live.

Pork in Plastic by Orrin Onken

This year’s butt was an unassuming three and a half pound shrink-wrapped butt from the local supermarket. It was an impulse buy I made while doing the regular Tuesday grocery shopping. I thought I would cook it up for my wife and myself, but upon seeing that I had come home with pork, my wife’s mind immediately went to entertaining. She whipped out her phone, and shortly after, I learned I would be feeding seven.

The Day Before the Cook

Early on Saturday morning — the day before the cook — I removed the butt from its plastic wrapping, washed it and trimmed the fat so that at no place was the fat over 1/8 inch thick. I am not fooled by the claim of some, that the melting fat will baste the meat. I was born at night, but not last night. Nothing gets into meat except salt. Not fat, not smoke, not spices, not marinade.

Salted and Tied by Orrin Onken

I salted the butt with Diamond Crystal Kosher salt — the favored salt for all we great-cook wannabes — coating the meat so that the salt looks like a dusting of snow on blacktop. This is the dry-brine, the first step to perfect — or if not perfect, reasonably edible — pulled pork. After salting, I tied it up. Sitting on my kitchen counter, it doesn’t look like it could fall apart, but I will be glad I did when I attempt to remove it, fully cooked, from the grill. Once salted and tied, it goes into the fridge, where the salt will do its magic for twenty-four hours.

Morning of the Cook

Sunday morning I am up at six. It is crisp and cool in my back yard. While humans may have hidden and become wrinkled in the rains, the Oregon foliage has thrived to the point of being threatening. Everything in my back yard is overgrown, green and busy.

I light a half-full chimney of charcoal, then get the dry-brined meat out of the refrigerator. While the coals get hot I wet the meat with water and apply a spice rub. The water helps the rub adhere. I have used mustard for this, but mustard is mostly water and doesn’t add any flavor, so these days I keep my mustard for other purposes.

Butt with Rub by Orrin Onken

I made the rub from spices in my cabinet. It is called, Memphis Dust, a recipe devised by Meathead and available on his web page, Amazing Ribs. I use Meathead’s rub for pulled pork because it is good and it has no salt. When I dry brine prior to cooking, I don’t want to use a rub that adds salt a second time. There aren’t a lot of salt-free rubs on the supermarket shelves, so I make my own.

The temperature probe goes into the meat so the tip of the probe is in the center of the butt, but not close to the bone. I set the alarm on the probe thermometer for 200°. I will be pulling the meat off the grill at an internal temperature of 203° or so, but will make the final determination of doneness by feel.

The Goal — Fool your mouth

The low-and-slow cook that I am doing is a subterfuge. I will be cooking a hunk of pork to 203°, which by any common-sense standard makes the meat ridiculously overcooked. A pork loin is ready to be delicious at 130°, so how can I cook a butt to 203° and not have it be dry as a bone? The answer is, I am going to fool my mouth.

The butt is from the shoulder of the pig, and like my own shoulder, it is full of connective tissue that holds parts of the body together. This connective tissue is made up of a protein called collagen. Collagen is tough, chewy and unpleasant. However, at between 160° and 180° collagen slowly dissolves to gelatin. Hot gelatin is delicious.

By the time the collagen starts melting, the meat fibers are already overcooked, but the overcooked meat is being bathed in a wonderful porky, buttery gelatin. That is what I am shooting for. I want to melt that collagen so that the resulting gelatin coats the overcooked meat fibers and then get the meat on the plate before the gelatin can be washed away. My mouth will mistake the combination of gelatin and meat fibers for tender cooked pork.

It is a tricky task. I want the transformation from collagen to gelatin to happen slowly, so that it stays with the meat fibers and I get a rich beautiful mouth-feel, the hallmark of properly cooked pulled pork.

Equipment

I do not own a dedicated smoker, so I will be doing the cook on a consumer grade charcoal grill. My grill is a PK360, but I could use the same technique on a Weber Kettle or any other grill that allows two-zone cooking.

Unlike a Weber, the PK360 has two air intakes on the bottom and two exhaust holes on the top. All the vents are adjustable. The charcoal will go on the right, the hot zone, and the meat on the left, the cool zone.

PK360 by Orrin Onken

I have owned a Weber Smoky Joe, a Big Green Egg, a Weber kettle and several Weber gas grills. Gas grills will not hold a low enough temperature to do this kind of cook. The Smokey Joe is a great dedicated smoker. The Big Green Egg does a great job smoking as well, but at my house cooking devices come and go. Today, I am using a two-zone setup on a PK360 grill, because that is what I have.

I am using Kingsford briquettes. The PK360 is designed to use Kingsford. I have used lump charcoal in the past, but never fell in love with it. I will be cooking for as long as it takes between 225° and 275°, the recommended temperature for traditional barbecue. Half a chimney of briquettes will get me up to temp, and I will put additional cold briquettes next to the lit ones to catch fire as the initial ones burn out. The initial charcoal setup will hold the temperature at 225° to 250° on the PK360 for about four hours. When the temperature starts to drop I will add a quart of new charcoal to bring the temperature back up.

The bottom and top vents control the temperature. I keep my bottom right vent — underneath the coals — open all the way and the bottom left vent closed. On the top, it is reversed. The top right vent is closed and the top left vent is adjusted to regulate airflow and thereby control the temperature. This brings air up from the right where it grabs heat and smoke and then passes over the butt and out the vent above the meat. The more airflow I allow, the hotter the coals burn.

Setup by Orrin Onken

I decide to use a throwaway aluminum water pan beneath the meat. I am using water beneath the meat to catch drippings and because the water is a heat sink. Water is heavy and cannot be heated above 212°. Thus, it serves as a heat stabilizer, much like the ocean does near coastal cities. The water will make it easier to keep the heat inside the cooker in the 225° range.

My PK360 has a thermometer at the grate level on the cool side, which is accurate and appropriately placed for two-zone cooking. As I cook, I want to know the air temperature at the grate level and the internal temperature of the meat. For the internal temperature I have a ThermoWorks Chef Alarm.

Ready to Smoke by Orrin Onken

Smoke

I am using apple wood. I take three chunks, each about the size of a billiard ball, and nestle them among the coals. I like the fruit woods, but I’m not picky. Hickory reminds me of bacon, which is not bad, but this is not breakfast. Mesquite is dangerous because it is one of the few woods that will over-smoke meat. I don’t want to risk it. The other common smoking woods all do a good job. They don’t make your food taste like bacon and will not over-smoke. I had apple wood today, so I used it.

Smoke does not penetrate meat. Despite the rumors, the smoke particles sit on the outside and provide flavor, a wonderful flavor, but those particles do not penetrate the surface of the meat. The smoke ring some crave is a chemical reaction that does nothing. I can get the same ring with curing salt. I will get a natural smoke ring in today’s smoke, but the ring is not smoke flavor.

Smoke adheres to colder surfaces better than warm surfaces, so the most aggressive application of smoke flavor happens shortly after I have put the meat on to cook. After two or three hours, the meat is as smoky as it is going to get. I quit worrying about smoke and pay attention to what is going on inside the beast.

The Stall

The internal temperature of the butt rises at a steady pace until it hits the stall. Today, my butt stalled at 170°. As the meat heats, it squeezes out water. The water collects on the exterior of the meat and evaporates in the hot dry interior of the PK360. Evaporating water cools whatever it is on. That is what makes you cold getting out of a swimming pool and encourages you to dry off with a towel rather than depend on evaporation.

There are two ways to deal with the stall. One is to wait it out. Eventually, all the water will be squeezed out and the temperature will rise again toward the 203° target. That is what I wanted to do on my first cook of the summer, but the butt had other plans. The other way is to force the meat through the stall by wrapping it tightly in two layers of aluminum foil. The foil prevents evaporation and allows the temperature of the meat to continue to rise. Wrapping the meat in foil is called the Texas crutch.

The drawback to the Texas crutch is that it creates a hot moist environment inside the foil that inhibits the formation of a crisp crust. Crisp crust is delicious, but not essential.

The Butt at the Stall

Timing and Doneness

Timing is a pain because a butt is unpredictable. I like things to begin and end at set times. Butt is not like that. Today after eight hours I am at 180°. I took a nap for an hour and when I got up, it was at 181°. That is the stall at its finest. It is now four o’clock. I have guests at six and twenty-three degrees to go. Time for the Texas Crutch.

I carefully removed the meat from the grill and wrap it tightly in two layers of aluminum foil. It worked. The temperature moved. By 5:30, I hit 203°.

Then came the crucial test. I opened the aluminum foil package. The butt glistened, and the crust was black and soft. I stuck a large carving fork into the butt and twisted. It turned without resistance, and the hunk of meat began to fall apart. I didn’t have to tug on the shoulder bone to know it would pull out clean. The butt was ready.

With tongs and a large spatula, I moved the butt to a sheet pan to remove the foil. Then I put the now-wet butt back on in the PK360. As the water evaporated from the butt the temperature of the meat dropped and the crust, which had gone soft in the foil, began to crisp up. After thirty minutes the crust was hard again (but not as crisp as if I had not used the Texas crutch at all).

The pulled pork is at its best when eaten immediately. If it is done early, it can be held for quite a long time wrapped and placed in a stored in a camp cooler, but leftovers are a pale imitation of freshly cooked pulled pork. Eventually, the porky gelatin separated from the meat strands and your mouth will recognize that it is eating overcooked pork. Order pulled pork at a low end restaurant and you will see what I mean.

This butt shredded easily with two table forks. The butt meat varies in fattiness and tenderness. Some of the meat is wet and luxuriously fatty. It falls apart on its own. Other meat is less so and needs shredding. I shred all the meat, mixing chunks of the black crust and the various textures of meat together. The homogenized shredded meat goes in a large bowl with tongs for people to dip into.

I serve sauce on the side. This lets everybody administer sauce as they like. On this day, I served the meat on toasted soft hoagie rolls with homemade cole slaw. I like my cole slaw on the sandwich itself. Most people, I have noticed, like it on the side.

There were no leftovers.

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