Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pulled Pork

I continued the whole hog project last weekend with my favorite cut of pork, picnic shoulder. It's my favorite because it is used to make pulled pork, which is one of my all-time favorite foods.* I apologize for the lack of photos--about half of the pictures I took were terrible, and the other half didn't show up at all.

Picnic shoulder is the lower part of the pig's shoulder, along with the upper part of the leg. (The upper part of the shoulder is the Boston butt.) The muscles in the picnic shoulder are constantly in action, keeping the pig upright and helping it walk around. Because of this, it's a very tough cut of meat, and needs to be tenderized. The best way to do this is with long cooking times at relatively low temperatures, somewhere between 200 and 250. Barbecueing fits this cut perfectly. Shoulder meat is also good stewed (like for posole) and braised. Picnic shoulders usually have skin on the outside; I find that handy when smoking, because the skin acts as a shield against excessive heat, and gives you a little more margin of error when smoking.

Here's my recipe for smoking a pork shoulder. The measurements aren't that precise, and my recipe varies nearly every time I fire up the smoker. The important part is the technique rather than the ingredients.

1 pork shoulder, 7-8 pounds
1 cup kosher or pickling salt--these dissolve rapidly in water. (It just struck me that using kosher salt for pulled pork is somewhat ironic.)
1 cup brown sugar or molasses.
Lots of water.

Put the whole shoulder in a big bowl or pan. Put in the salt and sugar. Put in enough water to cover the pork; stir to dissolve the salt and sugar.

Let the meat sit in the brine overnight (or longer) in the fridge.

Pull the meat out, dump the brine, and let the meat drain while you get the cooker ready. Letting the meat warm up to room temperature cuts down the cooking time.

Pull out your smoker and start a fire. I used to use a water smoker, but I got a barrel smoker for Christmas (thanks Mom and Dad), and I like it better. You can use charcoal or any hardwood for fuel. I use oak, because it has a good "neutral" smoke flavor (not strong, not sweet, not too mile), and because I have lots of dead oak trees on my place (which means it's free).

Wait for the fire to burn down to white coals, put the meat in the smoker, close it up, and go away for a while. I check back every 30-60 minutes to make sure that the cooker is running around 200 degrees, and that there is enough fuel in the firebox.

After four hours or so, I start checking the meat temperature. You have to get the internal temperature of the meat above 200 (and hold it there for a little while) to liquefy the collagen. Collagen is what links the muscle fibers together and makes the meat tough; until you've dealt with it, the meat will never be tender. If you don't have a meat thermometer, get one. It's the very best way to figure out when meat is done.

Once the temperature reaches 200, the meat is done. (Another clue that it's done is that you stab it with a thermometer or fork, and can pull the point through the meat sideways. At this point, the meat should be close to falling apart. Pull it off the smoker, wrap it tightly in foil, and let it sit for at least an hour. The wrapped meat will steam itself, further dissolving the collagen.

Once the meat is well and truly falling apart, it's time to pull the pork. Stick a fork in the meat and pull off a hunk. Use another fork to pull shreds of meat away from the hunk. The final product should look like a mass of threads going every which way.

This meat is good on its own, and it's better with your favorite sauce. My very favorite dressing for pulled pork is lime juice--it gives it a nice tangy bite, but doesn't overshadow the natural flavor of the pig.

The picnic shoulder brings my whole hog project to two parts. Here's Jasper to show what parts I have tried:

*This makes me a bad Texan. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I prefer pulled pork with a vinegar sauce to brisket with a tomato-based sauce. I should probably suffer a stiff penalty for this offense, like spending 30 days in Oklahoma, but pulled pork is worth it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's your problem right there...comparing it to brisket with "sauce." Brisket is best served up without sauce. :)

You might was well move to Far Far North Texas permanently.