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.
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!