Pre-B-Q Practice Smoke
Ribs. Both my cameras were dead when I tried to take photos, so we used our camera phones—thus, the questionable photo quality of all these photos.
Gearing up for my annual birthday potluck, I’m putting together my menu. Ever since I got my smoker (Smokey), I’ve been daydreaming of what to light up next. On all the sites I’ve read to research smoking techniques and recipes, everyone’s been silly-happy over any and all success they’d pull off with pulled pork. Apparently, aside from the epic amount of time required to smoke a hunk of pork that often hits the double-digit weight range, pulled pork is to smoking what radishes are to veggie gardening—easy, a good way to test the soil, and tasty (if you didn’t know that about radishes/veggie gardening, then it’s because I’ve spent more time writing about desserts and smoking than I have about my little veggie garden).
Anyway, on every smoke and Q blog/site I’ve read, writers have championed pulled pork as a cheap, easy, and tasty way to feed a lot of people. The problem is I’ve never had a pulled pork sandwich I’ve liked. I’ve had maybe a handful in my entire life, and all I’ve come away with was dry, shredded meat and overpoweringly vinegary sauce in a messy sandwich. Sometimes the slaw would save it, but it rarely added anything to it. The only reason I decided to try my own was because the local market had pork butts for half-price. Aside from producing something edible on the enjoyable scale, I was also worried about the sheer time it takes to smoke up a roast. Most blogs say most pork roasts take about 1.5 hours per pound to cook, but to allow 2 hours per pound. One of my favorite blogs talked about how daunting it was to get and stay up in the middle of the night to check in on the pork every hour. Others talked about having remote thermometers, which use probes you can leave in the smokers and will beep the receiver if your smoker goes below the desired temperature. During long smokers, people would take their receivers to bed with them and set them next to their head while they slept so they could get out of bed and tend to any problems. I didn’t want to do that. I’m grumpy enough when my sleep is interrupted—I really don’t want to take that grump outside so I could stoke coals or light a chimney starter and sit around for 20 minutes while my coals light up, and then go to bed covered in a fine layer of soot.
My solution was to hack one of my 8-lb butts into pieces. I dug around online and found that a few people had asked about hacking roasts into smaller chunks. One of my favorite sites (www.amazingribs.com) recommends hacking an 8-lb roast in two. Arguments against this say your meat would dry out too quickly because of all the extra surface area and/or you’d end up with too much bark. Apparently, though, the bark on pork roasts is one of the best parts (some say THE best part) of pulled pork (I wouldn’t know—none of my pulled sammiches never came with this exquisite bark). I decided it was worth trying and testing out before my birthday.
I hacked one of the roasts into three pieces—two 1.5-lb hunks and one 4-lb hunk (this one’s heavier because it has the bone). I threw them all in the freezer, and for my test smoke, I pulled a 1.5-lb hunk out 4 days early to let it thaw in the fridge. I wanted it completely thawed by the night before smoking so I could brine and rub it down. Because I’ve read so many stories about roasts falling to pieces while being lifted out of smokers, I tied it up, even though it was wee.
Then, the rub. I rubbed first, using Meathead’s Memphis Rub from his crazy-useful amazingribs.com. That recipe is at http://www.amazingribs.com/recipes/rubs_pastes_marinades_and_brines/meatheads_memphis_dust.html . Then I wrapped the little roast up in plastic and injected the brine, punching the needle right through the plastic. Some folks say brining’s a waste since the pork is juicy enough to not need it, and at worse, you end up with pork that tastes more like the brine than the pork—or at least takes in too much interference from the brine. Alton Brown is a briner, and I’m an AB devotee, but his brine uses molasses, and I didn’t want to. Joshua Bousel, who does meatwave.com, documents a conversation he had with Chris Lilly of the much-acclaimed Big Bob Gibson’s. Lilly gave up a lot of secrets, including his simple brine recipe, and I used that. You can find it http://www.meatwave.com/blog/barbecue-recipe-big-bob-gibsons-championship-pork-shoulder
Note: Check your local big grocery store for flavor injectors instead of thinking you have to trek to Williams-Sonoma to buy one. Save yourself $15. I wish I had! ;)
Before I go on, I should add that I decided to make an already buzzy event (buzzy as in excited and edgy and anxious) a little more horrendous by also smoking ribs and chicken with the roast. Here’s what I figured for smoking times:
Baby back ribs: 5-6 hours til tender
1.5-lb roast: 3-4 hours to 190 degrees
Bone-in chicken thighs: 1.5-2 hours to 165 degrees
I’d tentatively thought about getting everything cooked for lunch, but because it was a holiday, I slept in until 9:30 and didn’t light my chimney start until 10:30 or so. Smokey was rolling by 11, and . . . it took almost 2 stinkin’ hours for the temperature to get below 250 after it peaked at 325. It was almost 1 by the time I threw my ribs in. NOTES: Temps climbed over 110 that day, I’d used warm water in the water pan instead of starting with cold, and I was smoking on the concrete in my car cubby. I also may have lit too much charcoal to start. I was using the Minion Method (http://www.virtualweberbullet.com/fireup2.html), but directions for that method are almost always geared toward the Weber Smokey Mountain, which is a bigger smoker than mine. I needed to light fewer lumps. Still, I hit about 230 when I put my ribs in, and it stayed there for the next 2.5 hours until I opened it up to put my butt chunk in. At which, point, my temperature promptly plummeted to 200. Not good, especially if you want to bring the meat temp to 190 sometime before midnight. I took Smokey’s body off the charcoal pan, gave it a stir, and tossed more charcoal in, and from that point on, it was a bit of a juggle. Moving cloud cover, intermittent cool wind, and a highly unfortunate ability to introduce oxygen to my coals without taking the smoker body off the charcoal pan. Honestly, I think it would’ve been all right if I’d done my charcoal better, and this is where experience really pays off when you’re smoking, especially multiple hunks/types of meat. Because things REALLY went to heck when I threw a dozen chicken thighs onto the top grill rack, and Smokey got sulky and just wanted to sit at 200 for the rest of the afternoon.
So, for next time, NOTES: settle the charcoal into the pan better. I used hardwood lump, so I need to give the pan a shake to make sure I’m fitting as much charcoal as I can into the pan if I expect to be able to pull off the Minion Method and not have to add more charcoal. I really shouldn’t have to during such a short smoke time, but I did have to add more charcoal as we went on. I also need to make sure I distribute the lit charcoal better—when we took the body off, I saw that there was charcoal left, but it was unlit, and some areas didn’t have any lit charcoal at all. If I’d had (1) more charcoal (2) that was lit, I don’t think I would’ve had any problems.
In the end, everything did get smoke. I made sure to keep it smoking during the ribs’ first hour, then added wood each time I introduced a new meat. I couldn’t finish the pork butt and chicken in the smoker, though. It was 7:30 by the time I preheat the oven to 225. During that last hour, I was really fretting over the ribs, because I was sure they were done. Trouble was, on the bottom rack, under the chicken, they were hard to see and test, impossible to get to, because moving the rack with the chicken on it would’ve been a pain (in retrospect, not so much because I do have Grill Gloves of Awesomeness) to rescue the ribs before they overcooked. And they did overcook. Friggin’ sigh.
Ribs the next day. For some reason, you could see the smoke ring better. It would’ve been more apparent if it hadn’t been for that whole “overcooked” thing.
I gave one of the rib bones a tug, and it came clean out, dry and with just a tiny chunk of meat stuck on. The flavor was on (I used Meathead’s Memphis Dust on this, too), and the meat of the meat was fine, but the bark really suffered. I thought it was dry, even though my sweet supportive Hun kept saying it was fine. The chicken was good! Half was skin-on with Meathead’s Memphis Dust, and the other half was skin-off and used his Simon & Garfunkel Spice Blend (http://www.amazingribs.com/recipes/rubs_pastes_marinades_and_brines/simon_and_garfunkel_rub.html). I also made his version of Big Bob Gibson’s White Barbecue Sauce (http://www.amazingribs.com/recipes/chicken_turkey_duck/big_bob_gibsons_white_sauce.html) that he reverse engineered to duplicate, and I put too much Cayenne pepper, so it blew the top of my head clean off. And that was a bummer. The moral of that story: stop being too lazy to walk across the kitchen to get the half-teaspoon measure and eyeball the measurement into a tablespoon measure. Although looking back at the replay of that scene while figure out what in tarnation I did is pretty funny now. I have a crapload of extra sauce, so I might separate some out and add more mayo to make a useable version with the leftovers. Anyway, I liked both, so smoky and juicy and fabulously tender, but Hun said he liked the skin-on version just because it was juicier. Originally, I was going to take the skin-on pieces and send them under the broiler for a minute or two to crisp them up since smoked chicken skin just is not right, but by the time we got to eating, I didn’t have the time, heart, or patience for it.
As for the butt, it tasted awesome! It didn’t really develop much bark, or not much thick, crusty bark, though the outside dark bit (bark-to-be) was tasty. Maybe it was great bark and I just don't know!
Mini pork butt
And the innards, oh sweet Jeebus, the innards. Sweet, succulent, Homer Simpson would be swimming in drool. BUT. It was not super tender. The meat strands did not fall apart. I chunked it apart with gloved hands because a pair of forks was just a futile fight. I’m not quite sure what it’s supposed to be like, though. The meat really melted in my mouth, though. I loved the texture of the big chunks, and I’d read that some people like hand-pulled chunks better for the texture. Maybe the finely pulled pork I’ve had in the past led to faster drying out. The leftovers I had today were still amazing—juicy, tender, delicious.
Pork butt smoke ring. Just seeing those words together makes me laugh. Anyway, it did have a really nice smoke ring--it's just hard to see in these photos.
Pulled pork sammich