Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Q: Smoking Some Pork

Do you smell it? The sweet smoke and spices. Sorry if you can't because it smells really good.

Pulled pork... all 17 lbs of it.
I've been waiting to make some true barbecue, sorry Texas, but I'm talking about smoked pork shoulder. I watched some Good Eats, I did some reading, checked out some videos on You Tube and then just jumped. What can I say, I'm fearless. The idea that I'd ruin $100+ worth of pork just never crossed my mine.

Morgan and I went down to the West Side Market and our pork purveyors Mark and Minnie at Jim's Meats, grabbing three pork shoulders and six slabs of spare ribs. In total we walked about with nearly 18 lbs of shoulder and about 21 lbs of ribs.

Three pork butts. That's shoulder for you not barbecue types.
The shoulders took a bath in water, salt and molasses, while the ribs got dry rubbed with brown sugar, salt, paprika, pepper, cayenne, garlic and whatever else I tossed in there. Total marinate/rub time was about 18 hours.

While the pork was getting it's flavor on, we hit the Home Depot to pick up the rest of our smoker: 2 extra large cardboard moving boxes and 4 cinder blocks. I already had the hot plate, smoker box and wood chunks.

Six slabs of pork spare ribs with a flavorful rub.
There were a few logistical issues getting the smoker setup. I had hoped to use two cinder blocks as a shelf for one of our oven racks and then top those off with two more cinders and a second oven rack for shelf number two. Sadly there just wasn't enough room to make the two shelves and lay out all the meat. In hind sight, that's probably a good thing since 40 lbs of meat would have taken ages to cook. More on that later.

After testing out several different configurations, we ended up placing the four cinder block in the corners of the box and topping them off with one oven rack. The three shoulders went on top, with the hot plate and smoker box in the center below them. I used the fans from my fermentation chiller to circulate air around. Before adding the pork to the box, they got a rub in fennel, coriander, cumin, pepper, onion powder, chili powder and paprika. The whole contraption was topped with a second box.

Inside the Smoker. Photo: Chuck Rooks.
The wood chunks lasted anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes depending on how many I added and how I stacked them up. For the record, rendered pork fat and smoldering wood will burn. Don't skip using a barrier between the two.

I found the best proceedure was to add new chucks every 30 to 45 minutes, removing the spent chunks and stacking them so the smoldering blocks were in contact with the cast iron smoker box and the fresh chunks were on top of those.

Unfortunately I was only able to get temps between 125° - 150° inside the box. The one hot plate just didn't have the power to bump the temperature up any higher. Had I gone with Alton's terracotta smoker, I'm sure I would have been fine, but three shoulders would have been impossible then. The cinder blocks helps hold and transmit heat, just not enough.

My Ghetto Smoker.
Because of the low temperature, we ended up taking the poor back to the apartment for a long, slow oven roast with a bit of apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and water so it wouldn't dry out. Ten hours later our apartment smelled awesome and the pork was fork tender and delicious. In total the shoulders took about between 17 and 18 hours, with 7 or so in the smoker and the rest in the oven.

To say I "pulled" the pork implies some level of effort. There was none. It basically fell apart just touching it. The exterior was a thick bark, not crunchy, but a nice contrasting texture to the tender, juice inner meat. And yes, I got a small smoke ring, although there were a few places that had a deeper ring as well.

The ribs on the grill.
The ribs got a different treatment completely. The grill we used had three heating elements, so I piled the ribs over the center and right element, while turning only the left element on. They spent six hours on the gas grill, set to 200°, with some wood chips in an aluminium tray on top of the heating element.

The wood smoked very inconsistently, new chunks often took almost and hour to start to smoke and lasted between 20 and 60 minutes. I was very happy with how they came out, but wish they were a little more tender. Still, they were a huge hit with the family at the barbecue, so I'll take it!

And the flavor? Well, the pulled pork was smoky and tender with the right amount of spice. I honestly couldn't be any happier with how it turned out. The ribs had a bit of spice and a nice meatiness that left you licking your lips.

Smokers. Meat smokers, that is.
Me and Morgan, during the smoking. Photo: Morgan Rooks.
I definitely learned quite a bit from this experience. I probably shouldn't have made 40 lbs of pork my first time smoking. And July is not a smoking month unless you like to sweat. Just like clams, I think a "ber" month would be best.

I'm also going to need to learn how to relax, because I was constantly checking the smoke, the wood and the pork. Even though the temperature was between 75° and 100° too low, the constant opening and closing of the box wasted smoke and decrease what little temperature I had.

When I do this again, I'll also need to invent a larger earthenware contraption to better contain the heat, as well as add a second hot plate to produce more heat. But I've already decided the pork tasted too good not to do again.

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