Pork butt, contrary to what you might think at first glance, comes from the front, not the back, of the pig. In fact, it's a shoulder cut of meat. Its name comes from the practice in Colonial New England to pack pork shoulders into barrels of brine called butts. The meat is tough and fatty, with a lot of connective tissue. The standard advice for cooking it is to cook it "low and slow."
Pork Butt Smoking Time
Though initially tough, pork butt is well worth the extra time it takes to cook; well-exercised muscle is very flavorful once it has time to mellow out. Slow-cooking helps dissolve the connective tissue and melt the fat, making for an ultra-tender, delicious result
An average estimate for smoking pork butt is 1 hour of cooking time for every pound of meat. But this is an "educated guess," and there's no absolute rule on the matter. Cooking time depends on the meat's density, the proportion of connective tissue, the temperature both of the smoker's interior and of the meat itself – even the weather has an effect. If you open and close the cooker to check the meat's progress, you'll be letting in air and destabilizing the interior temperature, so keep that in mind as well.
Selecting and Preparing Your Pork Butt
It's your choice whether to get a bone-in or boneless roast. Many smoking masters say it doesn't matter, though some recommend bone-in, claiming that the meat closest to the bone is tastier than that of the rest of the cut, and that the bone helps improve flavor and texture overall. Sounds like a good excuse for doing a taste test, so why not take a few weekends to try both approaches?
There's also some disagreement in the smoking community about whether or not – or how much – to trim the fat cap before cooking. Some insist that the intramuscular fat content of the pork butt is all it needs for "self-basting," and nothing is gained by keeping a layer of exterior fat. In fact, these cooks say, if the roast is allowed to cook without the fat, it will gain that much more of the dark, delectable exterior crust (known as "bark") that for some diners is the best part. Also, removing the fat makes it easier for the rub to penetrate into the meat.
Others contend that leaving the fat cap on ensures that the meat will maintain an optimum moisture level, so some cooks compromise by removing much of the fat while leaving enough exposed meat for the rub to work its way in. For your own sort of compromise, score the fat deeply and massage the rub vigorously into the bottom of the knife-cut.
Smoked pulled pork rubs come in a lot of variations. You can prepare your own dry rub or buy a mix straight off the spice rack. But, before you proceed to the rub, you need a binding agent first – something wet that will help the rub adhere to the meat. Plain yellow mustard is the choice of many, though you can use other sorts of mustard or cooking oil instead. In any case, the wet stuff won't add much flavor to your final product. Apply the binder, and then rub it evenly all around the pork butt, including the fat cap if you've left it on.
There’s the Rub
A basic dry rub is a simple mixture of brown sugar, kosher salt, smoked paprika and coarse black pepper. Add cumin if you want along with as much cayenne pepper as you like. Blend it thoroughly and apply after it you've put on the binding agent. Most barbecue chefs use the "wet hand/dry hand" method. Use one hand to slather on the rub and the other hand to rub the seasoning into the meat. Coat both sides of your pork butt on its entire outer surface. The more you apply, the better the flavor of your 'cue.
If you do choose to keep the fat cap, you still have to make the decision as to whether to place the meat fat-side up or fat-side down. Once more, cooks disagree on this point. Decisions, decisions! Some prefer it on top, so the melting fat bastes the meat throughout the cooking time. Others opine that placing the fat on the down side helps protect the meat from overcooking. If your meat is well-marbled, the exterior fat may not be much of an issue at all.
Types of Smokers
The essence of smoking meat is using the indirect heat of smoke released by wet hardwood rather than the direct heat of the fire. Choose from different types of hardwood, including the usual favorites: oak, apple, mesquite, pecan or hickory. Whatever you pick, soak the wood in plain water for at least an hour before adding it to the fire. Wet wood produces the long-lasting smoke required for your pork. When using small wood chips, you can make them last longer by puncturing holes in aluminum foil, then wrapping the soaked chips in it.
Several types of smoker are available if you don't already own one; their differences are based primarily on the heat source and/or construction of the apparatus. So, you'll see vertical water smokers, drum smokers, box smokers and offset smokers. Fuels for these smokers include propane gas, electricity and plain old charcoal. The price for a dedicated smoker can range from about $100 to several thousands of dollars.
If, however, you want to start off your smoking experience in the simplest manner possible, you can use your own charcoal grill – as long as it has a lid and enough room for the meat to be placed to the side and cooked by the smoke rather than by direct heat. You can try just shoving the charcoal to one side and the meat to the other, or to be a bit more efficient, use a baffle to provide a physical shield between the meat and the fire.
Since the Big Green Egg came on the scene some decades ago, kamado cookers have achieved a wide popularity in the United States because of their versatility. These ceramic self-contained cookers are more adaptable than most other charcoal grills, because of their airflow system and the insulation provided by the ceramic structure.
How to Take the Pork Butt’s Temperature
When you get right down to it, the only way to tell that your pork butt has reached the end of its cooking time is to take its temperature. And the way to get to the correct interior temperature is to control the temperature of its environment. To do this, you need, at the very least, a good meat thermometer. You'll want to remove the pork when its interior temperature reaches between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you keep opening the cooker to check on the meat's temperature, though, it will take longer to cook. It might be a good idea to use a remote smoker thermometer probe. With that, you'll can check the temperature from inside your house if you like.
To get really serious about your barbecue, invest in a dual probe thermometer, which allows you to monitor the temperatures of both the meat and the smoker itself. You could use a regular oven thermometer in the smoker, but again, you'd be losing heat every time you open it to check.
You'll also be interfering with temperature if you open the cooker every so often to baste the pork and/or turn it over. You don't really need to baste for extra moisture if you're using a well-marbled hunk of meat, but you might choose to baste for a little extra flavor.
The “Stall” in Smoking Pork Butt
At some point during smoking, the pork butt will probably hit a certain temperature and then stubbornly remain there. And if you don't attend to it, it could stay at that same temperature for hours before once more rising. This is known as "the stall," and it usually occurs when the temperature reaches 150‒160 degrees F.
You can forestall the stall by wrapping the pork in aluminum foil or plain butcher paper after 4 hours or so of cooking. The wrap will keep out the smoke, so don't attempt this too soon. After 4 hours, though, the meat should have absorbed enough of the smoke to flavor it nicely.
At this point, you may keep on cooking your wrapped meat at 225 degrees F, and the meat's internal temperature will once more rise. Even raising the heat to 300 degrees won't really harm the meat and will speed things up, but to get the most tender, most mouthwatering pork possible, stick to the "low and slow" mantra.
In any case, keep on cooking. When the temperature of the meat gets to 195 degrees F, it's ready to go, so you can pull it out of the smoker. However, some contrarians have a different idea and leave it in until it gets a bit warmer, up to 205 degrees. They claim that the extra heat makes the meat even more tender.
Pulled Pork Heaven
After all that hard work cooking, your pork butt deserves a rest. Let it be, still wrapped up, for at least 30 minutes, so it can settle down and cool a little until the meat thermometer registers 185 degrees. If you are the patient sort, put the pork in a cooler for up to 4 hours for maximum flavorful tenderness.
Smoked pork shoulder makes the best pulled pork in the world, which is what most people do with it. If you dig into the pork immediately after removing it from its resting place, you can shred the meat either with your fingers or with special shredding forks. If using your fingers, you'd better put on kitchen gloves first so you won't get burned. After it's all shredded to your liking, mix it up so the meat's juices – and those extra-tasty brown crusty bits – are thoroughly integrated into the mix.
The pork shrinks during cooking, and you'll lose a bit of gristle and such as you shred the meat. If you trimmed the fat prior to cooking, you have to allow for that also. So, you will wind up with less than you started out with – say, perhaps 70 percent of good eatin' from the original weight of the roast. In other words, you can expect a 7.5 pound pork butt to produce about 5‒5.5 pounds worth of sandwich-piling material.
At this point you can serve it up, take off that special BBQ apron you got for your birthday last year, and dig in. You deserve it, so eat hearty!
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