There are two major reasons to become a BBQ Pit Master; an endless supply of finely smoked meat, and showmanship (the ability to show off). As Homer Simpson once said, “I am trying to impress people here Lisa. You don’t win friends with salad!” If you are polishing your skills on the smoker, pulled pork is the drill for you. It is a forgiving hunk of meat, it is an affordable way to feed the masses, and just the phrase pulled pork itself will make your friends and family drool and crave an invite to the feast. For example, this year over Christmas break I posted pictures on Facebook of my smoker in the snow as I loaded up a brisket flat and my Mom commented “Does this mean pulled pork?”
Pulled pork is typically made from a cut of the swine called Boston Butt. The Boston Butt is really pork shoulder and is located in the upper part of the front legs. The ass-end of the pig is actually ham. Pork butt, when smoked properly, is one of the best foods in the world. When I talk about this cut of meat I primarily refer to it as pork shoulder, pork butt, or just simply put as butt.
When it comes to meat, I strive for consistency. When I select meat to smoke I don’t hunt around town for a sale price. I do not buy my pork shoulder from the supermarket, I go to Costco. The supermarket shoulders very so much in size from day to day. My local Costco always has two packs of mostly trimmed boneless pork shoulder from Swift. I normally seek out a cryovac package that looks like it might contain two similar sized butts in the range of 7 pounds. Below is a picture of the last package of pork I purchased from Costco. You can see I only paid $1.75 a pound and the sum of meat was about 14 pounds. I used to only cook one butt at a time, but a bit of extra prep and you get twice the bounty. I love feeding my friends and family, and any extra pulled pork that does not get eaten can be frozen and reheated and enjoyed months later.
Once you have taken your time selecting your butts and get home, open the package and rinse the meat off in a clean sink, and dry them well with paper towels. During the wash I focus on feeling the butts for loose meat or excessive fat. I consider any fat that is firm and larger than my pinky finger excessive and always try to remove it at this point. Hopefully you took your time when selecting your package of pork and chose similar sized butts at the store but this is a good time to take note if your butts are extremely mismatched in size. A large mismatch could result in your butts finishing at significantly different times.
After the wash and trim I like to inject my butts. My most commonly used Injection is simple to make and easy to modify to your own personal taste preference.
Simple Pork Injection = 2 Cups of apple juice + 1/4 Cup of apple cider vinegar + 2 Tbsp of your favorite rub.
Stir your injection mixture till the rub is fully dissolved. Use a good injector, i like this affordable ($15) stainless steel rig from BedBathBeyond. If you were planning on injecting a ton of meat I would definitely switch your injector selection to something more ergonomic like this “Made in the USA” Injector from amazon. When injecting there is really only two things to focus on; getting flavorful liquid into you meat, and trying to not squirt juice all over your ceiling or kitchen cabinets.
When you are ready to inject, place your pork butts fat side down into some format of a tub. Make your way around each butt injecting in grid-like pattern. Insert the injector needle into your meat and begin to gently squeeze the injector as you slowly pull the needle out of the meat. If you squeeze too quickly or if you pull your needle too far out of the meat you will send a stream of juice across your kitchen onto your blinds / cabinets / ceiling. If you clean it up now no one will notice or complain. Take your time, inject the way that works best for you. Don’t worry about getting every last drop inside your meat, just dump any extra on top.
Now sprinkle a moderate layer of rub on top of your butts, cover, and and place in your refrigerator. I like to let it linger for approximately 4 hours (you can go up to 24 hours).
Now that your ready to start smoking your pork butts, drain off any injection juices into your sink and liberally apply your favorite rub all over the butts. For lack of a discrete volumetric description, go “semi crazy” here, no one ever complains to me that the bark was too tasty! Keep it under 1/2 Cup per butt as an upper limit.
With the butt rubbed and ready to smoke, its time to go outside and light the fire. I recommend using my fairly standard method of completely filling your WSM fire ring with unlit Kingsford Charcoal. Then fully light about 20-25 briquets using a fire starter and carefully dump them into the center of your unlit briquettes. My smoking wood of choice is typically a blend of hickory and apple wood. For pork butts and beef brisket I like to use a 50-50 blend of these two woods. Gather yourself 2 nice tennis-ball-sized chunks of hickory and of apple wood and give them a bit of a char by setting them onto your lit coals for a few seconds. Spin each chunk around and let all sides become charred a bit (takes about 3 minutes). I now take these charred and smoking chunks and put them towards the outside of the fire ring where there are not many lit coals. Now its time to assemble the smoker with all vents wide open and wait for the temperature to climb up into the 200 degree range. Once it hits 200 degrees bring your butts out and place onto the smoker. Begin to close vents as needed to lock down your temps in the 250 degree range. With this configuration you will have a heat source that can comfortably produce 250 degrees for 12 or more hours with little-to-no adjustments. This will also give you a wonderful layer of smoke flavor, a smoke ring that you can brag about, and confidence that your meat will not be too smokey.
The angle that the above picture was shot does not show it but there are a few inches between each butt, allowing for complete air circulation around each butt. When properly loaded we can estimate that 2 butts will take about the same amount of time as a single butt.Using a time table is always a bad idea, as it gives you false hope. This time guideline will trick you into not letting the meat cook to the point where the meat is at its peak tenderness. But because I can guess that you still want it, the common time table is 1.5-2 hours per pound @ smoking temperatures. So by textbook guidelines a seven pound pork butt in a 250 degrees WSM will finish in about 10 to 14 hours. Go ahead and give yourself 2 hours per pound as a buffer as it is easier and preferred to hold your cooked meat warm than to rush a smoking session because your guests are hungry.
For this smoking session I put both of my butts directly onto the top cooking grate of the smoker and had the temp locked down at ~250 just before midnight. I proceeded to go to bed with my alarm clock set for six am. When I woke up the smoker was still chugging along near 250 degrees and I was happy. The internal temperature of both pork butts was in the high 160′s. Up until this point if you were sitting in a lawn chair next to the smoker staring at the reading on your meat probe it would be rising at a fairly uniform rate. When the internal temperature of your pork butts get in the range of 150-170 it is common for the temp to flat line. The temp will stay the same or toggle up and down a few degrees for up to a few hours. This stuck range is what most folks refer to as “the plateau”. Don’t worry this is good thing, this is when the magic happens. When the meat is In this temperature range the connective tissues of the pork shoulder containing collagen melt and render out as gelatin. This breaking down of connective tissues and rendering is essential to creating tender meat. The beautiful thing about standard smoking temperatures (225-275) is that you will spend plenty of time in this range and end up with ultra tender tasty meat. If you want to understand more about what is happening from a food / physics-sense read this article.
At this point in the smoke, the bark has fully set up and I place each butt into its own foil pan. Using a trick my friend Glenn taught me, I pour a bottle of Stub’s Pork Marinade on top of each butt and tightly cover the pans in foil. This marinade concoction adds a second layer of flavors (think zing) to the meat and the foil pan collects it and the natural juices that are dripping out of the meat towards the end of this cook. I have recently become a huge fan of Stubb’s and use the pork marinade on all of my butts and the beef marinade on all of my briskets. Stubb’s marinades can be found online for about $5-6 a jar, but sometimes they can be found on sale at your local super market for about $3 each. When they are on sale I recommend stocking up (PS I don’t like the Chicken Marinade). After sealing up the butts in the marinade, I went back to sleep for a two hour nap.
I woke up waited for the internal temp to climb north of 180 before I began to check for tenderness. Most of my pork butts finish in the 195-205 degree range. When cooking multiple hunks of meat do not think that the smaller butt will always finish first, each piece of meat is unique and needs its own amount of time. Cook it till it is done. To check for tenderness slide a temp probe into the meat in a few places and note how much restriction there was. If the meat is done the probe will slide into it with the same ease as a loaf of soft white bread. I could describe a handful of things like room temp butter but you wont know what this feels like until you feel it for yourself. Odds are you are going to get nervous and pull the meat off of the smoker because your scared that you are about to dry it out. Don’t do it man, just walk away and check it again in 20 minutes. Don’t worry about accidentally over cooking your meat. When your cooking in the smoking range of temps (225-275) and checking every 20 minutes you will never go from almost tender to dry and nasty in a single interval. Continue checking every 20 minutes in multiple places until your probe slides in super easy.
Now that your pork has been smoked and is perfectly tender, remove it from the smoker. Let your pork butts rest uncovered on the counter for around 15 minutes. Be smart here the foil pan is stil hot, put pot holders or something below it to protect your counter tops. You now have to chose one of two paths; pull or hold. If you need to hold, because your waiting for guest to arrive, you should remove the butt from the foil pan and tightly wrap it in a few layers of aluminum foil. Reserve the juices in the bottom of the foil pan for later, they can be used in a BBQ sauce. Take your foiled butts and wrap them in a towel and place into a cooler. You can use any cooler you already own but I use a 24-can party stacker made in USA by Coleman. The stacker is cheap and an impressive form factor that fits most cooked butts / ribs / briskets. When your cooked meat is properly wrapped in foil, and the extra airspace in your cooler is filled by a towel, you can hold your meat at a safe temperature for hours.
If your meat was holding in a cooler, remove it and let is rest uncovered on on the counter to cool down. If your pork has been cooling down for 15 minutes it is now time to pull your pork. Get out your cutting board and carefully place your butt on it. I like the simplicity and precision I get from two dinner forks. Simply use the two forks and drag it across the meat, i.e pulling the pork. I like to take my time while shredding the meat by also looking for and removing any undesirable non-meat bits. Go ahead and process the entire pork shoulder and then mix up the center bits with the outer bark for a good blend of seasoning and texture. I get by just fine with my dinner forks but If I was given a set of Bear Paws I would use them. Or if I was a complete bbq-bad-ass, I would use a machete
I also like to toss the shredded pork in the au-jus (natural juices) and remnants from the Stubb’s marinade from the foil pan. If needed, add some very finely ground rub to your shredded pork mixture and toss some more. I have found when using the jus / Stubb’s combo, I have not needed any additional seasoning. Never pre-sauce your pulled pork. Leave pre-saucing of pulled pork for the crock pot cookers. Let your guests squirt a bit of BBQ sauce onto there pulled pork themselves. I like to put out a variety of sauces and let people experiment. Every one likes to experiment with BBQ sauces, and you start to see some trends forming on what sauces the majority of your guests enjoy most. You only want to add BBQ sauce to accent the amazing meat you just smoked. The bread you choose for pulled pork sandwiches is important. I once got hearty thick heavy rolls that you could barely fit any pork inside and the end result tasted like dry bread with hint of pulled pork. Your bread choice can be as simple as white wonder bread, or you could use my favorite King’s Hawaiian Sweet Dinner Roll. A few of the big name bread company’s are now making clones of the Hawaiian sweet rolls that can be used in place of King’s. Take your bun, pile up your pulled pork, and enjoy every last bite! If you really read every word of this post, wow, thanks for reading, best of luck in your smoking adventures!