Barbecue…barbeque…BBQ; no matter how you spell it, that word makes me giddy. I’m not talking when it is used, in the generic sense, meaning any type of cooking on a grill, or over an open fire, but real, god honest barbecue; the kind done slow and low that can turn some of the toughest cuts of meat into melt-in-your-mouth morsels, bursting with smoke flavor. Not that I’m against cooking out, in any of its forms. In fact, a rather large portion of the food I cook is done on a grill, but there is something special about making true barbecue, whether it is ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork or any number of other items that benefit from a long slow cook while being bathed in smoke.
Let’s set the record straight though, before we begin. Grilling and barbecuing are not the same thing. Yes, they can both be done on a grill, but grilling is done over a relatively high heat, directly over the heat source. It’s this high heat that sears and chars the meat providing plenty of flavor, and it works best for tender pieces of meat such as steaks, chops, chicken, etc. Barbecuing is done at much cooler temperatures, away from the heat source, and requires hours of cooking. It is used on tough cuts of meat such as brisket, ribs and shoulder cuts to transform them into a tender finished product. While most people use the the words interchangeably, they really are 2 different styles of cooking, and believe me, the easiest way to tick off a serious barbecue aficionado is to talk on and on about how you like to fire up the grill and barbecue some steaks and burgers.
I am no barbecue expert. That’s evidenced by the fact that I do not, yet, own any type of barbecue pit or rig. I do all my barbecuing on my Weber kettle grill. There are those in the barbecue community that will scoff and say that I can’t truly barbecue with a set up like that, but I think I do all right. Sure, there are some issues to overcome, and I certainly won’t win any major competitions with my set up but it works for me and I like to believe that I make some pretty good ‘cue. And I have a number of fans that would agree.
While I am not a snob about barbecue, like some that I know, I will say that unless you own a smoker, barbecue pit, or at the very least a kettle grill, you can stop reading here. Sorry but a gas grill is not going to cut it for the recipe I have, nor will a regular grill, even if it has a lid. It needs to be a kettle style grill to create a proper smoke chamber. A regular grill keeps the meat too close to the coals and doesn’t allow for the proper convection of heat.
As for charcoal, lump charcoal is always the preferred charcoal of choice for those serious about barbecue (unless they are using logs to fire their pit), but for some people, in some areas, lump charcoal can be hard to find. If you must use the standard briquettes it is imperative that you always burn them down before adding them to your grill. If you don’t, the chemicals and fillers used in these things will contribute nasty, off flavors to your final product. Always start them out in a chimney starter and don’t add them to the grill until they have burned down and are completely covered with white ash.
A few more things before I get into the recipe. The recipe as written is for making 1 pork butt. Most of the pictures will show 3 butts being made. I was doing this for my brother’s wedding reception and was feeding many people. 1 pork butt should easily feed 20 people with some to spare, unless they are big eaters. Also, plan on making a day out of it as this is going to take about 6-8 hours to cook. You don’t need to sit there and watch it all the time, but you will need to regularly replenish charcoal and do a few other things as the meat cooks. You can do other chores, or even run a few quick errands, but you need to stay close. Or you can do like I do…make a big production out of it, convince your wife that this delicate procedure takes constant vigilance then sit around all day drinking beer with a buddy or 2 and watch the grill…don’t tell! Finally, it just dawned on me that some people might be wondering why the hell I would want to cook pork butt. In culinary terms pork butt refers to a cut taken from the shoulder area of a pig. Don’t ask my why they call it “butt.” I have no clue. Anyone want to chime in?
1 pork butt, 7-9 pounds, bone in
2 Tbsp. paprika
4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. black pepper, ground
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup apple juice
2 cups wood chips (your choice-I often use hickory, apple, cherry, mesquite, or hickory nut hulls)
Four hours before you want to start barbecuing, remove the pork butt from the refrigerator. Combine the paprika, salt, mustard, cayenne, black pepper, and sugar. Rub all over the pork, using every last bit. Allow the pork to remain at room temperature. Soak wood chips in water. 20 minutes before starting to cook, fire up about 25 charcoal briquettes in a chimney starter. When ready, and covered in white ash, place charcoal coal in a ring along the outer edge of the grill. In the center place an aluminum pan or pie plate (don’t use one of your wife’s good ones or there will be hell to pay) filled with a couple cups of water. Place the cooking grate on the grill and allow to heat up briefly. Place pork in the center of the grate.
Place about 1/2 cup of the soaked chips directly on the charcoal and cover the grill with the lid.
For proper heat control and air flow, if you have bottom vents make sure they are only open about 1/3 of the way. You want to allow oxygen in to keep the charcoal burning but you don’t want too much oxygen to allow the fire too get too hot. On the top vent you want it opened about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way open. This allows the smoke a relatively quick exit, which you want. You don’t want the smoke to become trapped in the chamber for too long or it will deposit many of the particles suspended in it onto the meat.
After about 35-40 minutes of cooking you want to start another batch of charcoal, in the starter chimney. This time use about 15-20. When ready add to the grill, again placing them in a ring around the meat, on top of the almost spent charcoal. Add another 1/2 cup of soaked wood chips. This process is much easier if you have a grill grate with hinged sides. If not you will need to remove the whole cooking grate, pork and all to accomplish this. Do this quickly to prevent the pork from cooling too much and adding considerable time to your cooking.
Meanwhile, combine the vinegar and apple juice. Once you hit the 3 hour mark, brush the meat every half hour with this mixture, making more if necessary. Continue adding charcoal, at the same intervals throughout the cooking process. We are looking to maintain an approximate temperature of about 225-230°F throughout the cooking process. Keep adding the wood chips when you add new charcoal. Once the wood chips are gone don’t worry about them anymore, the pork has probably taken in all the smoke flavor it’s going to anyway.
After about 5 hours start checking the temperature each time you add new charcoal or mop the meat with vinegar mixture. You are looking to pull the meat at about 190°F. This may seem awfully high, especially if you are used to cooking steaks and eating them MR to medium, but this temperature is important for a nice and tender product and don’t worry, with the amount of fat and connective tissue in this cut of meat it will still be plenty moist. A quick warning though, at about 180°F you might run into a problem with what some people refer to as the “stall” or “plateau” were the temperature refuses to climb. It is a waiting game, but the temperature will eventually start to rise again. If you seem to have a problem with an exceptionally long stall (over an hour) try adding an extra 5-10 briquettes the next time your replenish your heat.
Once the meat hits 190°F remove from the grill, cover loosely in foil and allow to sit for 15 minutes, at least. Once the meat is just barely cool enough to handle start pulling and shredding the meat by hand. If cooked properly this task can be done almost completely by hand, though you may need to use a knife to chop a bit of the innermost meat.
Serve however you like and with whatever sauce you choose, but I’m partial to the way they serve it in North Carolina, on a big, soft, white bun drizzled with a North Carolina style barbecue sauce.
North Carolina BBQ Sauce
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
Combine all ingredients. in a nonreactive saucepot, bring to a boil, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
This sauce may seem rather sour compared to the sauces that most people are used to, but it’s a great sauce for pulled pork as it cuts through the richness of the fat laden meat. Just remember, you don’t need to dump it on like regular barbecue sauce. It just takes a good drizzle over the meat.