Slow Cooked Boston Butt (Pulled Pork)

As I had previously mentioned, I picked up a Stoker BBQ Controller from Rock’s BBQ.

Pulled Pork

Yesterday (Saturday), I grabbed an 8.5 pound boston butt (pork shoulder), with a goal of cooking my first pulled pork.

Nailed it. Right out of the park. Going to make this again and again. Was absolutely delicious. Two mistakes: I futzed too much causing myself undue stress and I only made one. There was a couple of points where I thought a fisticuffs might break out over that plate of pork.

First, I rubbed it down with something close to Alton Brown’s rib rub. I figured I would start with a known good quantity and go from there, letting the pork marinate in a sealed freezer bag in the fridge for at least 5 or 6 hours before cooking.

I originally used this rub to make some incredibly yummy smoked pork ribs. When doing the ribs, I wrote:

Hence my fear. Here is a food for which no amount of temperature probes or timers is going to help. Beyond controlling the cooking temperature, there are very few variables beyond initial preparation. Since cooking with the BGE is all about not peeking or opening the egg, there is the potential for many hours of imagining all the ways this could go wrong.

Now, a boston butt is, quite possibly, even more nerve racking. First, a good, pork pulling quality, butt requires somewhere beyond 15 hours of cook time. And the temperature needs to be a relatively low 210 degrees or so and it needs to be stable. Unlike ribs, there is a sizable chunk of meat on the pork shoulder and the internal temperature really does matter.

Enter the Stoker. With the stoker, I can sleep through the overnight portion of the cook with confidence that the Egg will maintain whatever temperature I desire. Since the Egg is an extremely efficient consumer of fuel, it won’t need to be reloaded during the cook.

Late Saturday afternoon, I preheated the Big Green Egg to about 225 degrees using lump charcoal and big chunks of maple as fuel. Once the temperature stabilized, I dropped the boston butt in an aluminum pan (to keep the drippings off the coals), inserted a probe and shoved it in the Egg.

The Stoker was set to maintain a target temperature of 215 degrees. I would like to say that I left well enough alone and didn’t mess with the temperature after that. But I didn’t. I fretted and worried, getting up several times in the night to screw with the temperature — typically thinking I should set it a little lower because I wasn’t truly using indirect cooking.

Silly me. I set the temperature too low before going to sleep at 1am. At 7am, the temperature was crashing and I actually had to use the electric charcoal starter to heat things up. The temperature never got below 140 and the internal temp of the meat stayed above 150 the entire time. At that point, I set the temperature to 210 and forced myself to go do something else.

Now, an aside: Pulled pork isn’t carved. It is quite literally pulled apart with a couple of forks. It is that tender when done right. The cut of meat — the boston butt (a map of all cuts) — is from the front shoulder(s) of the pig and contains lots of connective tissues. And that tissue is the key. Once the internal temperature of the pork reaches around 160 to 170 degrees, the connective tissue breaks down, turning into a gelatin like substance.

It may take a few hours for the tissue to fully break down, during which the internal temperature will rise very slowly (and seem pretty much completely stable when using an inaccurate thermometer — the Stoker shows tenths of a degree, so I could watch the slow climb). As soon as the temperature rises quickly past the 180s, the pork is done.

If you cook it in too hot of a fire, the moisture produced by the breakdown of the connective tissue will boil off and the result will be dry meat (or, at least, a layer of dry meat). Hence, the need to cook slowly over a low fire, possibly even indirectly if dryness is a worry.

Fortunately, the BGE does a wonderful job of keeping moisture in the cooking environment and in the meat. While I worried like hell that not cooking over a pan of water would be a problem, I needn’t have worried and further research indicates that the pan of water does little for moisture and seems to mostly benefit a stable cooking temperature.

In the Egg, I have no problem maintaining a stable temperature manually — it is extremely good at maintaining a temperature — and the Stoker means that it’ll definitely remain stable, even while I sleep or leave the house and regardless of whether the coals shift during the cook, a primary cause in temperature changes.

Pulled Pork

At about 1:30pm the internal temperature had hit about 190 degrees. So, I removed the pork from the egg and immediately wrapped it tightly in foil, then in a beach tall, and then dropped the whole thing in a cooler to keep until dinner (at about 4pm). As long as the internal temperature doesn’t fall below about 140 degrees, the meat will stay in prime shape. Supposedly, this kind of wrap will keep it warm for many hours. Keeping it whole until serving time is much better than pulling it and letting the meat potentially dry out.

Yes — that picture on the right is a boston butt that has been hot smoked for over 19 hours. Though it looks like it might be dry, it wasn’t and I knew — at the least — it was quite thoroughly edible upon removal from the drip pan. Why? Because I had a damned hard time pulling it out in one piece! Fortunately, a couple of hunks stuck to the bottom of the pan for me to sample. And they were delicious!!

The rest of the butt was divine. Near perfect. It had a deep smoke ring with a nice crust of slightly salty and very smoky meat surrounding incredibly tender, juicy, meat in the center.

Near perfect? Yes. I can do better. First, I can not stress so much through the cook. The Stoker and Egg will take care of maintaining a rock solid cooking temperature (configured correctly, the temperature will shift only a few degrees away from the target temp throughout the cook) and there is a rather large window of the internal temp being Just Right.

Secondly, I’m going to do the next Butt for slightly longer. This will drive the smoke ring deeper and — even at 19 hours — the internal tissue could have spent a little longer at the breakdown temperature.

Finally, I’ll do no less than three butts in the future! Gotta avoid the fights! Fortunately, boston butts are cheap. I cooked about an 8 or 9 pound all natural boston butt and it cost only about $8.50. And you really don’t need an egg to cook a boston butt. I could be done perfectly well in an oven. Or you could use a cardboard box and an electric hot plate!



17 Responses to “Slow Cooked Boston Butt (Pulled Pork)”

  1. rama says:

    *drool*. That looks tasty! Good thing taste-o-vision hasn’t been invented yet, or I’d be missing a chunk from the upper corner of my LCD. ;)

    One thing about the slumlord’s cardboard box version that could lead to failure: cardboard is moisture permeable: a lot of my taped seams were steamed up after the ribs session. I’d have to look into installing a moisture barrier (Al foil maybe?), or insert a pan of water in there- and even then, I’m sure the results wouldn’t be like yours!

  2. David says:

    I did my first pulled pork about two weeks ago too. I got up at 5 in the morning and didn’t call anyone until 3 in the afternoon when I was sure that I was going to have something to serve them! When I was picking up the shoulder from the butcher, he hadn’t yet cut it into two parts and it weighed 16 pounds. I had asked for 8. Then, standing there, I realized that if I was going to spend the day cooking, I may as well do two. So I had it cut into 7 and 9 pound portions. The smaller was pulled off the egg at 200 (11.5 hours) and the other was pulled off at 190 (14.5 hours) because the guests couldn’t wait anymore!! I kept a constant dome temperature of about 250, with the plate setter a few degrees cooler. In the end I fed about 20 people and have never had a more successful dinner party despite it just being french bread, pork, bbq sauce and coleslaw (and wine, of course!). Who would have guessed? I recently read tips for successful dinner parties in the Globe and Mail and the cook said if you want to make guests feel comfortable, make food that is comfortable and familiar. I would have to say that is excellent advice!! Thanks again for turning me on to the BGE. After about 6 months of ownership, I have to say the real trick is not to fuss at all. Everything turns out perfect, pretty much despite my best efforts to screw it up. Can’t wait to try turkey at Christmas. The 15 pounder is already ordered!!

  3. bbum says:

    David — that is awesome! Smoked turkeys are amazing. Just be sure and get one quite a few pounds more than you think you need or it might get ugly with people wrestling over the remnants!

    Did you use a rub on the pork?

  4. David says:

    Yes, I used the Dizzy Pig (Dizzy Dust) rub that I ordered by telephone from their website. I took the pork out of the fridge just before 5 AM, put on the rub and then went out and got the BGE started (I had set the lump in as described on various websites such as Naked Whiz). The last thing I did was throw two fist size hunks of hickory on the coals. Then I went back into the kitchen and got the pork and put it on the grill above a drippings pan set on the upside down plate setter. I couldn’t even see at that point because it was pitch black outside, raining, and the smoke was making it impossible for my light to penetrate into the egg. I placed a remote thermometer in the smaller piece betting it would finish first, which turned out to be right. I adjusted the lower vent slightly wider a couple of times over the course of the day, never opened the lid, and got enough confidence in the temperature stability to actually try an overnight next time….

    About the turkey, so far there’s four of us :-)

  5. David says:

    Two other things:

    The initial level of the lump was an inch or two above the firebox and it never came close to burning out. I am sure it could easily have gone on for several more hours.

    Pull the pork by hand. I was mucking around with the two forks method and a Mexican woman at the dinner chided me and dove right in with her hands. It turned out to be much faster and a pretty good way to start a conversation!

  6. SoCalBoy says:

    Nice Butt!

    Pork shoulder is a wonderful piece of meat to cook and more importantly to eat. Your finished product looks great. I also cook on ceramic but a different make than yours. When I do mine I try to maintain a temperature of 225-250 at grate level and take my meat to an internal temperature of 200 degrees. It seems to pull easier when I cook to this temperature. I wrap in foil like you to let it cool down.

    Dave

    PS: One more tip, I am really meticulous to get as much of the fat out of the pulled pork as I can. This creates a different problem as pork tends to dry out very quickly. My secret is to add low sodium chicken stock to the meat after I have pulled it. It will plump up the pork without adding flavor. If I am going to save some in a food saver for later, I will let the pork firm up in the refrigerator first before sealing.

    Again, nice looking pulled pork..

  7. bbum says:

    Interesting idea (chicken stock). Thanks!

  8. bbum’s weblog-o-mat " Slow Cooked Boston Butt | Team Ham says:

    […] Read the full recipe Read the full recipe […]

  9. Shari says:

    This does sound good. We want to do pulled pork and then take to a tailgate. What is the best way to keep it warm for 5 hours or so without electicity?

  10. bbum says:

    Easy!

    When you pull it off the grill, immediately wrap it in double or triple layers of aluminum foil. Then wrap it in a beach towel. Then drop the whole thing into the smallest cooler that will fit it.

    It’ll stay warm for hours that way — I have used this method to keep it warm for over 4 hours.

  11. steve pinkston says:

    Well, I have done about 30 or so butts on my BGE in the past 4 years, this is my routine no matter what I coook:

    – grill steak, chicken, chops whatever….emjpy, cook some more while I eat the first batch.

    – Use my foodsaver and vacuum seal the 2nd and 4rd batches for dinner the rest of the weeks, freeze or refridgerate based upon when we arr going to consume them

    – reload with a few bigger chunks of charcoal not too much

    – Lower my vents on the BGE (about 1/4″ on the top and 1/2″ on the bottom vent til I reach under the 300 degree mark (temp will lower to mid 200’s- soak some wood chips, about 12 ounce cup worth, not fond of apple for some reason, makes chicken taste smokey. I am most fond of mesquite but that is probabbly due to my Texan heritage! Also like Pecan, hickory and oak I have used the red oak chunks left over some some of my furniture building!

    – throw on the wood chops

    – Place an old cookie sheet on the grill. This is to catch the drippings AND to make sure there is no direct heat

    – Put on a rib rack on the sheet and put the butt on top of the rib rack giving a 2.5 airpath under the butt

    – watch a movie on TV

    – make sure the temp is somewhere in the mid 200’s

    – Go to bed

    – Cook till 6am, stir the coals, reload if using cheap charcoal (it seems to burn faster)

    – Cook some more till internal temp reaches 175….usually around 2 more hours

    – wrap in 3 layers of foil

    – pour some Sprite over the butt(s) (1/4 cup) once you have a the first layer of foil almost covering it.

    – put back on the grill for 4 more hours. This steam cooks the butt holding all the juices in and making sure the colegen is very well cooked.

    – pull off BGE and chop all the chunks that just fall off the bone.

    – I save the outer red ring parts for me!

    – Place on buns cover with Stubbs BBQ sauce (another Texas fav from Austin, TX. Krogers carrys it or order online or better yet Harolds BBQ sauce from Abilene but I only get there about 1 time every ten years or so. He don’t do online. :-( )

    – Eat, foodsaver the rest, if there is some leftover.

    Turkeys

    Place turkey on a Vertical roaster funnel which stands on the cookie sheet. Cover skin with Butter and smoke overnight @ 275. NO rub, no marinade, nothing. Make sure internal temp reaches 175-180. Wrap in foil, place in towels then a cooler for insulating reasons. Drive to grandma’s and slice. Guests will SCREAM it is the best smoked turkey they have ever had….cousins and uncles will beg to know how you did it. Aunt Gwen will pat your backside, bat/raise her eybrows and offer a trip to the barn wanting to know your secret. Hands down the moistest (is that a word) turkey you will ever eat.

    Chickens
    Basically the same as above except I do shoot them with Creole butter or BBQ suace with a heavy duty needle.

    Brisquits
    the same as butts but temp of the grill needs to be 220 and nearly 20 hours for a FULL size slab.

    Remember the smoking takes place the first hour. this is where you will get your ring of fire on the meat. (maybe this was the RING OF FIRE JOHNNY CASH WAS SINGING ABOUT!!!)

    Enjoy

  12. Al says:

    Steve,
    I have a BGE and am always having to fiddle fart around with the vent settings. Especially with long cooking times. When you say you leave the bottom vent open 1/2″, are you saying the sliding door is 1/2″ from the fully closed position, or there is 1/2″ of the actual bottom draft hole in the egg exposed? I’ve never gotten a good explanation for that and it would make a big difference in the amount of draft you are getting. Also, I use a daisy wheel on the top vent. How would that translate to leaving 1/4″ draft in the top.
    TIA
    -Al
    P.S. Been up all night babysitting my butt. Fixing to beg the wife for permission to buy one of them ‘Stokers’!!!

  13. bbum says:

    If you don’t have a Stoker or BBQ Guru, then it is utterly critical that you use good quality fuel. Get BGE brand hardwood charcoal or BBQ Galore’s house brand. Do not use other brands of lump hardwood charcoal unless you are utterly sure it is high quality! I used Whole Foods house brand and it was horribly inconsistent; one bag was great, another was so light and fluffy it burned out 12 hours into a 24 hour cook!

    So, with good fuel in hand, once you get the egg to the proper temperature, leave the vents alone!! 1/4″ and 1/2″ refer to the gap that the air can go through and they are merely guides! The quality of the lump, the humidity in the air, and air flow conditions within the egg (plate setter or no, how much meat is present, etc..) all impact exactly how the vents need to be set to maintain a particular temperature.

    The key, again, is to adjust the vents to the point where you get the temperature you want and then not touch ‘em unless the temperature starts moving. If it does, adjust the vents just a tiny little bit and wait a good 15 minutes for the temperature to stabilize again. Then adjust again.

    I’ll do a short cook — 4 or 5 hours — without the Stoker. Sometimes (the Stoker is really convenient). However, I’m usually doing my butts about 24 hours now and, as such, having something like the Stoker is a god send. It is the difference between a good night’s sleep and laying awake all night wondering if your butts are getting scorched or cooking at all.

  14. Al says:

    Man, that is great advice. I’m pretty sure I have about the crappiest Lump Charcoal around. Cowboy brand. Looks like wood trim scrap that has been burnt to make charcoal. I just had to add more as the temp was getting lower and lower and the vents were getting wider and wider. It had almost completely burnt down to ash.
    I have used BGE charcoal in the past and it is very good quality. I’ll bet that is most of my problem.
    Lucky me, they just started selling BGE and supplies at the pool supply store just down the road, so I’m going to get a bag for the other butt.
    Thanks, bbum.
    P.S. Wife thought the ‘Stoker’ sounded like a really cool gizmo ’til I told her the price! Wish I had seen it b4 X-mas. Dang it!!!
    Oh well, my butt is still gonna be terrific.

  15. steve pinkston says:

    Al, the bottom vent is 1/2″ from fully closed and I do not use the wheel at the tip top I just slide the whole daisy wheel off th big port hole about 1/4″. But again this depends on the temp of the outside air. Colder air use less, warmer or hot air more. I learned that in college physics hotter air is thicker therefore more is required.

    fule is what u can get in the south during the winter unless you can find a BGE store retailer nearby. Mine is almost 30 miles from me. So I buy a bunch in the summer (8 bags or so) then usually get find whatever Krogers has in the winter. the NakedWhiz.com has HUGE resource of types of fuel. He’s the consumer reports of charcoal!

  16. Mars says:

    I use the bottom vent on my BGE for “course adjustments” and the daisy wheel to tweak it. Usually the bottom is open 1/4″-3/8″ and the daisy wheel holes open to about 1/8″ usually keeps it within my range. I have a Redi-Check remote therm that I set to alarm outside 210°-250°. I can see the temp vary 20 degrees sometimes without adjustment and you will wear yourself out keeping it at 220° and 230°. But the BGE is immediately responsive when you need it. You will learn to anticipate hi/lo swings. Wind and outdoor fans have more to do with temp than you would think. Glad to know about the hot air. Lots of that here. I highly recommend a remote grill and meat therm. Also, Bad Byron’s Butt Rub. Never forget to wrap it in foil and let it rest at least 2 hrs.
    Also the USDA now recommends pork (and beef) internal temp of 145°. I don’t know about that….. I’ll still cook mine to about 180°, wrap it and let it sit overnight.

  17. bbum says:

    @Mars The USDA recommendation you quote is the simple form and it is completely safe; 2 minutes at 145º will pasteurize pork quite effectively. So will 2 hours at 135ºF, by the way, and, using a sous vide water bath methodology, I’ve been able to produce rare pulled pork that was quite safe to eat and very tasty.

    @Rob I hadn’t thought about the warranty thing. Not sure why changing the grate would violate the warranty, but that wouldn’t surprise me.

    @Bob Mack — Sorry to hear your tale of woe. Sounds like your dealer was incompetent. In my experience, it takes very little adjustment or maintenance once correctly configured. It also leaks very little unless you burn out the gasket.

    @Dennis — The rings holding the top and bottom half of your egg is installed incorrectly and it hasn’t been tightened down correctly. I don’t know what to say about the handles. Haven’t heard of that problem. In terms of other brands, the only one I’ve seen that seems like it has promise is whatever brand is sold through the Orchard Hardware stores in the west.

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