You can cook a perfectly decent pork shoulder roast in your oven, or you can use your slow cooker to make it into a pretty reasonable imitation of pulled pork. If you want to really do it right, though, the best way to cook a pork butt is in a smoker. Your smoker could use electricity, charcoal or hardwood, but for a lot of cooks, propane is the best choice.
Propane Smokers vs. Electric vs. Old School
Serious barbecue lovers are happy to argue for their preferred smokers, but in fairness, they all have specific advantages. If you're looking for tasty food with minimal commitment, smoking a pork butt in an electric smoker is as easy as it gets. Set it up, push the button and forget about it for the rest of the day. The downside is that electric smokers aren't portable, aren't suitable for outdoor use when it's raining and just plain don't make food taste as good as one that actually burns.
Old-school hardwood or charcoal smokers are at the opposite end of the scale. You'll need to develop some significant skills, and keeping them fueled and at just the right temperature for hours on end requires a whole lot of effort. On the plus side, nothing makes your food taste better, and investing the time in mastering an old-school smoker will certainly give you bragging rights in most neighborhoods.
For many backyard hobbyists, propane smokers represent the sweet spot between the complexity and flavor of a wood- or charcoal-fired smoker and the ease of use you'd get with electric. A propane smoker still requires a bit of supervision, but it's no more complicated than using a gas grill, and the end result is a very tasty piece of pork.
Choosing Your Pork Butt
If you grew up with the habit of looking for the leanest piece of meat in the showcase, you'll have to unlearn that. Smoked pork shoulder is tasty and moist precisely because it's filled with streaks of fat and connective tissue that moisten the meat and make it tender as they soften in the smoker's gentle heat. Whether you prefer bone-in or boneless, look for a piece that's well marbled and doesn't have too thick a rind of fat on it.
There's a popular myth that the fat helps baste the meat as it cooks, but that's not true. At most, you'll want 1/4 inch or so of fat, which is thin enough to render out and crisp as the pork cooks. It becomes part of the "bark" at the surface of the pork — the crispy and intensely flavored area where your rub and the pork combine with the smoke flavors. You can lightly score the remainder with a knife in a diamond pattern to help it render more quickly and evenly.
Preparing the Pork
Smoked pulled-pork recipes often call for brining the pork ahead of time, which seasons the meat deeply and helps keep it moist when it's finished cooking. Be wary, though, because some pork is sold prebrined or seasoned, and if you brine it again, it'll be too salty. If you're in doubt, skip that step.
Rub the pork with your favorite dry-seasoning mixture or wet-seasoning paste. Some recipes may suggest slathering the pork first with mustard or other wet ingredients that help dry rubs stick to the meat. Dry-seasoning mixtures usually combine sweetness in the form of sugar or molasses with chili heat, smokiness from chipotles or smoked paprika and a range of spices and herbs to add savory flavors. Try a few recipes and find one you like and then experiment over time until you've got it just the way you like it.
Setting Up Your Smoker
Before you load up your smoker, check the spacing of the shelves to make sure there's room for your pork. Smaller butts will usually fit just fine, but if you're using a large piece of shoulder, you might need to rearrange the shelves. Connect your tank if it's not already connected and check the fitting with soapy water to make sure it's not leaking. If the fitting blows bubbles, disconnect and reconnect it.
Fill the smoker's water pan as directed by the manufacturer, light it and let it preheat for about 15 minutes at the temperature your recipe specifies, usually in the range of 225 degrees Fahrenheit to 250 F. Then load the smoke pan with chips or chunks of hardwood and place your pork on a rack in the middle. Close and secure the door and make a note of the time.
Understanding Cooking Times
You can reasonably expect smoked pork shoulder to take eight to 10 hours, though it can sometimes take longer. Pork butt is relatively small and often sold in sizes as small as 3 to 6 pounds, while larger shoulder roasts can be 12 to 15 pounds. Those will take longer. If you're smoking your pork on a cold day or a rainy and windy one, those can also reduce your heat and extend your cooking time.
The cooking times you'll see in propane smoker recipes are always intended as a guideline rather than a firm target. The only way to really know what's going on inside your pork is to use a good-quality probe thermometer, inserted into the middle of a muscle where it's not touching the bones or a thick streak of fat. With a thermometer, you're not guessing anymore, and you're working with actual temperatures in real time.
Keeping an Eye on Things
Propane smokers are safe and easy to use, and unlike electric smokers, they're not filled with electronic components that, unfortunately, are easily damaged by the heat, steam, smoke and fat of the smoking process. The downside to that is that you can't just "set and forget" with a propane smoker like you can with an electric.
For one thing, you might run out of gas on a long cook. It's always a good idea to have a second tank ready and waiting just in case you need to swap them out. If it's windy, there's also a risk that your flame might blow out. When that happens, your smoker begins to fill with gas, with potentially disastrous results. It's best to have someone checking the smoker periodically throughout its cooking time. It's not too burdensome if you have a few people taking turns.
Your Pork Will "Stall." Don't Worry.
If you're using a thermometer to monitor the temperature of your pork as it cooks, you'll see it rise from its original refrigerator temperature of under 40 F to its finished temperature of about 200 F to 205 F. It'll be slow at the beginning, but then you'll see the temperature rise in a gratifyingly steady way for several hours.
At a certain point, though, usually somewhere around 180 F, you'll find that your pork settles in and stays at the same temperature for a really, really maddeningly long time. Barbecue veterans call that "the stall," and it's perfectly normal. Just leave your smoker to do its thing — don't turn it up, whatever you do — and eventually, you'll see the temperature of your pork start to rise again. When that happens, you'll know you're in the homestretch.
Finishing Your Smoked Pork Shoulder
Once your pork roast reaches its finished temperature, take it out of the smoker and let it rest for at least 15 to 20 minutes. If you won't be serving it immediately, you can wrap the pork in foil and then a towel or two and place it in a picnic cooler without ice, where it will stay at serving temperature for a couple of hours.
When you're ready to serve it, pull the pork into shreds using a pair of forks or the claw-type shredders sold for this exact purpose. Cooks with heat-tolerant hands can put on a pair of disposable gloves and do it with their fingers instead. Remove the bone and any oversized pieces of fat or gristle and then toss the rest with your sauce of choice and serve it as is or on soft buns as a sandwich.
- AmazingRibs.com: What You Need to Know About Wood, Smoke and Combustion
- Blain's Farm & Fleet: Meat Smoker Wars - Which is Best?
- Steve Raichlen's Barbecue! Bible: A Guide to Vertical Gas/Propane Smokers
- Pork Checkoff: Shoulder
- AmazingRibs.com: Pork Cuts Explained
- AmazingRibs.com: Best Pulled Pork BBQ Recipe Ever