In case my previous post about shipping barbecue didn’t tip you off, I’m a bit of a barbecue lover. In August of 2006, I drove three hours to Hamburg, Pennsylvania, with my good friend David as he sought to fulfill a life-long dream: certification as an official Kansas City Barbecue Society judge. After an evening’s worth of guidance from long-time judges and competitors (and an entire competition’s worth of trial-run tastings), we were officially welcomed into this elite society of ‘cue connoisseurs.
Since that time, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to try my hand at making pulled pork myself, and last Thursday gave me just that. With friends in town for a college reunion and a huge sale on pork shoulder at the new Harris Teeter, it couldn’t have been a better time to give it a shot. So I volunteered to take care of dinner and set my sights on my friend’s Big Green Egg.
The Big Green Egg is an American-made variation on a traditional Japanese kamado clay cooking vessel. This ceramic upgrade is capable of maintaining low temperatures almost indefinitely using just a few lumps of hardwood charcoal because it absorbs heat and then radiates it back out over a long period of time. With the vents open full bore, it can just as easily create a raging blaze that can reach temperatures in the 600 to 700 degree range and can sear your steaks almost before you set them on its surface. The Egg or BGE, as it’s known among adherents, is ideally suited to the marathon that is perfect pulled pork preparation.
The secret to good pulled pork is a (fairly forgiving) balance of time and temperature – hence the “low and slow” mantra that drives most barbecue competitors. Most guidelines suggest cooking pork at a temperature between 200 and 250 degrees for 1 1/2 to 2 hours per pound. Using indirect heat, you gradually melt the fat and dissolve the connective tissue that runs throughout the cut of meat that comes from the pig’s powerful front shoulder (don’t let the cut’s ‘Boston butt’ alias throw you). The addition of aromatic wood chips like apple and hickory that have been soaked in water create a thick layer of smoke that constantly washes over the meat in waves, imparting flavor and – if you’ve done it properly – a bright pink ring just beneath the skin.
More about my first attempt at pulled pork after the jump.
Thankfully, I had done some reading up on the process before I got started, so I knew that I needed to apply any seasonings I wanted to use to the pork several hours before putting it on the grill. Taking advantage of a container of Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Spice Rub I had in the house, I rubbed a generous amount over every inch of the pork shoulder, making sure to coat the skin and to work it in. I then brought the pork over at 11 PM on Wednesday night (after Top Chef, of course) and started the Big Green Egg. Getting the temperature under control in a smoker can be a laborious task, and it wasn’t until just before midnight that I was able to put the shoulder onto the grill and walk away.
I returned Thursday morning at 8 AM to find that the charcoal in the BGE had gone out over the course of the evening – not an unusual occurrence – and the temperature inside the Egg had dropped below 200 degrees. Even so, I was confident that the pork was off to a good start as I set about restarting the fire and getting the temperature back into the target range. From there, it was a watching-and-waiting game as I let the shoulder cook for almost sixteen hours. And, really, that offers about as much fun and excitement as it sounds like it does…barbecue is not exactly a high-energy pastime.
When 5 PM rolled around, it was time to take the shoulder out and let it rest for an hour. Giving it this time allows the meat to redistribute the juices that have been concentrated at the center of the shoulder throughout, preventing uneven and dry shards of pork. Again – not exactly edge-of-your seat activity, but still really interesting for someone who had tasted more than his fair share of very well-cooked pork but had never tried to make it himself.
Finally, at a little after 6 PM – almost 19 hours after the meat went into the smoker – it was time to help the pulled pork live up to its name. At this point the meat was still painfully hot, but there was something visceral and energizing to dig into the meat with both hands and turn it into a big pile of shredded goodness. I was pleased to see that the 8+ pound shoulder I cooked yielded quite a bit of meat – more than enough for the group of us to make sandwiches and plates to our hearts’ content.
Despite my inexperience, the pork was amazing – truly piglorious. It was earthy and moist with a crisp ‘bark’ and a prominent smoke ring. The spice could have used some work, which I attribute to the use of a pre-packaged rub. Rest assured, I will be making more pork shoulder in the near future and I will be experimenting with other ways to kick up the flavors that the pork carries with it. Despite the length of time required to make this a success, it was universally well-received and I look forward to trying again.