While the thermometer does not agree, spring has finally sprung. The sun has taken a slightly more respectable position in the sky, the robins are back and the chives have burst forth to announce the new season (most people probably notice crocuses first, but I’m always more excited about the chives). Now with this comes the annual ritual de-winterfication of my outside living space. I started the process today but quickly lost my interest as I realized that the various leaves and other debris on my deck were in fact frozen to its surface still. The grill, however, was not, and was eager for its return to service.
And what better way to commemorate opening day than to grill a decent portion of a pig’s front shoulder for pulled pork sandwich’s for my father’s birthday dinner? I usually do this later in the summer, must notably, every year on July 3rd, but I welcomed my mom’s suggestion that I make it this weekend as I could use some extra practice. Not that pulled pork is particularly hard to make, it is more that I am ever evolving the way that I make it and make changes and improvements each time.
Now that I mention it, this allows me to mention some of my hesitancy in writing about a specific cooking process. I guess the main source of my reluctance stems from the one sheer simple fact that I have NO IDEA of what I am doing in virtually everything I do cooking-wise. OK, I have an “idea” of what I am doing, but writing about having an “idea” of what you are doing generally does not lend to helpful informative reading. I am fearful, I guess, that someone wise and more experienced will read what I write and pick it apart for the hack job that it is and point out the technical flaws in my cooking. I now recognize that that criticism will ultimately help me be a better cook, after all, it is my own criticism of other people’s cooking that has in some ways driven me to cook in the first place. Lets get started, and where I usually start, is in front of the computer, comparing recipe’s in order to fine tune and refine what I plan on doing.
Googling a recipe for pulled pork will most likely steer you toward putting a no name boneless pork roast in your slow cooker for a day. One recipe I saw boasted that it started out on your stove top and THEN ended up in your slow cooker. Woo! I guess with that one at least the Maillard reaction will impart some flavor that the slow cooker alone will miss, but seriously (no pun intended) all of those recipes are going to create that same predictable slop that you might as well just buy in tub form at the grocery store. I have done these recipes before, and if mind blowing tenderness is your only goal, then the slow cooker pulled pork is for you. With a good bit of sauce, you can seriously use a chip to dip the pork straight out of the crock pot, and that actually is not a bad thing if dressed up nicely with additional ingredients, i.e., barbecue pork nachos. For pulled pork sandwiches though, we want the meat to shine on a higher level that should not be the same consistency of something that could be made out of beans.
As you get into more serious recipes you begin to see some divergence on the proper way to prepare this dish, somewhat reminiscent of the East Coast and West Coast hip hop wars, but one thing becomes clear: the cut of meat is important, and unlike those simple Google recipes, very specific. You need a pork shoulder or, at least, part of one. The shoulders are generally available cut and sold as Pork Shoulder, Boston Butt, Picnic Shoulder, or Pork Shoulder Blade Roast. They are all different parts of a whole shoulder and each have their minor differences from the others, but they will all work well, just make sure that they are not already cured or smoked. There is another debate about bone-in versus boneless, which to me is silly, but I suppose there are some people put off by bones or are willing to trade in a bone for shorter cooking time. The meat next to the bone is always sweetest and to me, that is the end of the discussion. If you continue to have an inkling that you can go without the bone, you may want to reconsider your motivations to make pulled pork in the first place.
Once you have your choice cut, give it a night or a day to relax in a flavorful bath. There are many different homemade options between marinades and brines, try them out, find what you like. I generally end up with a vinegar based marinade that includes several near empty sauces and mustards from the fridge that need used up, it is different every time, but through trial and error I now have a fairly standard base recipe that I work with.
On the big day, you will want to give ample time for cooking as it is somewhat difficult to plan for a precise time due to a number of variables with outdoor cooking. Grill time alone will be between 6-8 hours so you will need to start early if you plan on eating it the same day. A day long cooking process may cause some people to shudder but it is really almost no work, as the the only thing you are concerned about is temperature control while the meat is on the grill. Your stress level will also go down with ample preparation and a schedule that allows for some extra time. Any fans of Anthony Bourdain already know the importance of mise en place, but if you are not or have not heard the phrase, mise en place is about having everything you need for your recipe on hand and available before you start. Typically it is taught to young chefs as an everyday professional practice to always be organized and prepared at your job, but it translates nicely to home as well.
The big thing for using a grill to make pulled pork is having a way to have the piece of meat on the grill for that long without it burning up. This means “indirect grilling” which is one of the main reasons that I prefer a charcoal grill over a gas grill. It is so much easier to create an even, indirect cooking environment in a round container with a flexible heat source than it is in a rectangle with fixed burners. About an hour before I’m ready to start cooking, I start my coals. In the center of my grill I set a brick with a disposable pie plate set in top. In the pie plate I usually put some liquid and some aromatics, in this case, a can of cooking beer with sage and rosemary. Fancy. The coals get arranged evenly around the center well, the brick gives some nice elevation that just makes coal arrangement easier. Next I put my full smoker box of mesquite wood chips on the coals. Place the cooking grate, replace the lid, and everything will be all set for the arrival of the pork.
Usually while the coals are initially starting up I create the rub that I am going to use, and here again, your available options of viable pork rubs are limitless. Buy one at the store or find a recipe that you can rely on to make your own. Again, experiment, use what you have on hand and find what works for you. Since the pork will cook over indirect heat, you do not have to worry about what you put in the rub that may otherwise char instantly over direct heat. With this in mind, I sometimes use diced shallot or garlic in my pork rubs. Once the grill is all set up and coming up to temperature, I apply the rub to the pork. This step is a time to not be shy about working with a piece of raw meat. Take time to work your rub into all the little creases and crevices of the meat. When you are satisfied, take a deep breath, take the roast to the now smoking grill, and set it over the water pan. Now it is just about temperature control. Try to keep the grill at a medium low temperature during the rest of the cooking time, which, as I said before, will be as long as needed, but plan on at least 6 hours.
Now, what to do, what to do? Read a book, do some yard work, make the other dishes for a meal. The grill is doing the work for you here, make the most of your time. One nice option that I like is to make an event around the barbecuing of the meat. Have some friends over, crack open a few cold beers and put on some old blues music. To me, that is a summer party atmosphere like no other. The smells, sounds and anticipation all come together and seem to be just right hand in hand, all to the point that I can not help but think of good barbecue when I hear a good blues track (John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, The Black Keys) and vice versa. The nice thing about this is that everything for a good pulled pork meal can be made ahead of time. Cole slaw, baked beans, and some sort of cheesy baked potato dish can all be prepared and ready to go with little advanced warning. The beans can cook all day and potatoes can be thrown in the oven with ample time before dinner and everyone can plate up and sit down when the pork is ready for them.
This has always been the most difficult part for me. The pork is done when your thermometer reads 170°, but it never fails that when I think I have reached the desired state of doneness, there is still a little bit of pink juice near the center. I have been able to overcome this with a little patience and proper thermometer placement. When I think it is done, I go ahead and wrap the roast and foil and let it rest on the grill another half hour or so, and then take it into the house to rest another half hour before I tear into it. This generally ensures that the meat is thoroughly done and also prevents me from burning myself by being over eager with sampling it. It is also nice to have a few extra hands to help pull the pork, and by now you should have no shortage of volunteers. Do yourselves a favor though, have some bread nearby to handle and juices that may try and get away, and also maybe a little sauce for dipping.
Now that it is done and pulled, it is time to serve. As you have already found out, it is good enough to serve alone and that certainly an option to you and your guests, but I always go for serving it in a sandwich. Purists leave it as is and provide sauce to be added as a condiment but I usually pride myself on the sauce that I use and toss a little of it with the meat before hand just to enhance the meat’s flavor, but in no way overpower it. A whole day of effort piled high on one bun and eaten in five minutes, but oh so worth it. Just to make sure though, you better have a second.