Monday, October 7, 2013

I Like Big Butts And I Cannot Lie.....Breasts too!

We decided to have a bunch of friends over on Sunday to watch the 49ers play the Texans on Sunday Night Football. Kathy & I are always game for an opportunity to entertain but if I get the opportunity to make it less work for her by doing a big part of the cooking, so much the better. In keeping with that and my desire to further hone my ability to run my new smoker I jumped at the chance to make some pulled pork sandwiches for the assembled crowd.

While I'm still working on trying to find the happy place with this cooker with respect to Low & Slow type cooking (~225deg range) I've quickly found the process for maintaining the cooker in the ~300-325deg range which is ideal for the "Hot & Fast" style of BBQ cookery which is gaining in popularity. Doing so allowed me to sleep in a bit on Sunday which I rarely shy away from and allowed me to get started at ~9am for a ~6hr cook instead of staying up all night for a ~13hr cook.

By 10am I had started the smoker, split a small pile of Apple wood and had a 9lb Boston Butt in the cooker chugging away. For the sake of clarity, a "Boston Butt" is NOT from the rear-end of the pig. The Butt comes from the upper part of the shoulder around the scapula. For comparison to your anatomy, think about the infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi and trapezius muscle groups surrounding your shoulder blade. That area is the "butt" of the pig. So why then is it called that? There are a number of possible answers but the most common is that in the past, less expensive cuts of meat were salted and stored in small barrels once commonly called a "butt" (which also has a "bung"... go ahead and giggle). The cut now called a Boston Butt was cut to it's size and shape to accommodate fitment into the barrel. Since it was the same size and shape as the barrel.....strange, I know, but that's the best we have.

This new cooker (Lang 36" Patio model) has been a joy to use thus far. Its easy to manage, at least at the Hot & Fast temp ranges, and it runs very efficiently. If you look at the photo above, you can see that the temp gauge is right at 300 degrees. Notice the smoke coming out of the stack? No? Me either. That's how cleanly the thing burns. And that's a good thing. Thick columns of white smoke are also thick columns of creosote which doesn't taste awesome. The elements in smoke that positively impact the flavor of smoked meats are still there, it's just that the nasty stuff that comes from an inefficient fire are not. You can still smell the pleasant aroma of the clean burning wood, but you get none of the sooty, creosote smells associated with incomplete combustion.

Apple wood smells AMAZING when it's burning.
After a couple of hours I popped the lid on the smoker to have a peek at the pig parts and give it a quick spritz with apple juice and apple cider vinegar. I don't like to open the cooker much but I wanted to grab a photo of the mid-point...and damn it smelled great already.

You'll notice the temp probe in the photo above. Here's where we get into the unique process for cooking a cut like this using "Hot & Fast" instead of "Low & Slow". The initial goal here is to get some good flavor into the meat via the smoke, establish the formation of a nice bark through caramelization, get the meat to a food safe temperature (over 140) within the first 4hrs and to a "cooked" but not "done" point prior to the next step. Most call this point at about 160 degrees internal so that is what I'm shooting for. After ~4hrs I'd achieved the right appearance in terms of the bark and the butt was at ~160 internal throughout so on to the next step.......

At this point I popped the butt into a foil pan containing about 1cup of unfiltered apple juice & ginger beer. I then tightly covered the pan with heavy duty foil and popped it back in the cooker still in that ~300deg range. Argue if you want that this is now braising and not BBQ. You're kinda right. But it's VERY difficult to  cook this cut at these temperatures and times without turning it into a briquet. At low temps it's pretty easy, but at high temps you kinda have to go this route....... or resign yourself to a night without sleep and go "low & slow"

Once covered and back in the cooker, it'll stay there for ~2hrs or until it probes VERY tender throughout.

While this was going on Kathy asked me to smoke some turkey breast. Here's a look before:

.....and after:

I seasoned them with a bit of salt, pepper, garlic powder & Hungarian paprika then smoked them at ~300 until they were 160 internal. Should make for some tasty turkey sandwiches this week.

So, back to the piggy-bits. After 2hrs, the butt was mostly tender but still a bit firm around the bone. So I popped it back in for another 30min and after that bit of extra time it was probe tender throughout.

I should at this point describe "probe tender" for those who may wish to try this. The first step is to ignore that temp probe readout. When it's tender throughout, it's done. It may happen earlier than your "time X pounds" math suggests and it may happen later. Every cut of meat has different fat content, different muscle and connective tissue density and thus achieves tenderness at a different point.

So how tender is "probe tender"? Allow a stick of butter to come up to room temperature on your kitchen counter - cool and soft not hot and runny. The amount of resistance offered by the butter to a butter knife is just about what you are looking for. Using a probe (a kebab skewer, an awl, heck, even a meat thermometer as long as you promise to ignore the display) of roughly 3/16" in diameter prod your meat (giggle again) in a few different places, near and away from the bone if there is one and if we are talking about a brisket, in both the flat and point. When you achieve "probe tender" in the densest or thickest portion it's done. Yeah, it's that simple.

In the case of this particular pork butt, "probe tender" was achieved at ~205deg internal but it took that to break everything down and allow that shoulder bone to pop cleanly free of the meat. I was pleased with the process thus far. The bark was still pretty firm.

The next step is to uncover the foil pan and leave it on the counter for 10-15min to halt the cooking. Then I carefully removed the butt from the pan and wrapped it tightly in foil then popped it into a small beer cooler to rest for ~1.5hrs. I poured off the liquid from the foil pan into a separator which I put in the fridge.

After 1.5hrs I pulled the reserved liquid from the fridge and removed the fat, then unwrapped the butt and put it back in the pan to pull. I reincorporated the reserved juices. The meat literally fell apart. Ive seen video of people pulling pork using "bear paws" or forks. This fell apart by means of tossing it with a pair of tongs as if it were a salad. Stupendously tender, juicy and absolutely delicious.

The texture was great too. All the fat was fully rendered out and the bark remained firm with a few crunchy/chewy bits in there. Nice smoke ring too for the aesthetic element.

We served the pulled pork sammiches on Onion Brioche rolls with a bit of sauce, slaw and dill pickle. Kathy made the's awesome, as is her sour-cream/bacon potato salad.

So all told, the meat cooked for ~6.5hrs and rested for 1.5hrs and was every bit as good as any pulled pork I've made by the "Low & Slow" method and I got a full-nights sleep....and for desert, the 49ers beat the heck out of the Texans by a score of 34-3.

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