Pulling Your Pork – The Essence of BBQ

I’m a Texan, and any good Texan loves BBQ. However, BBQ can be a tricky. You can’t just throw a slab of meat onto a grill and then slather it with sticky sweet sauce and expect to have good BBQ. BBQ needs LOOOOONG slow cooking with delicious smoke from well-seasoned wood. What that means is that you have to have a piece of meat that has lots of fat, so chicken breasts and backstrap are out. Those boys in Tennessee and South Carolina know this as a BBQ must.

Here in cattle country, we know that brisket is the key to a Texas BBQ. And if you’ve read the Big Red Ribs recipe, you know that if you are going with ribs they need to be pork ribs and not beef. However, Texans have a really bad habit of overlooking the greatness of the Boston Butt. It could be because it’s pork and not beef; it could be because it’s got a yankee name and the fact that yankees call a shoulder roast a “butt”. Let’s overlook the sins of our sisters from the North and look deeply into what could potentially change everything you’ve known about BBQ and become a staple in your stable.

They call this thing a pulled pork; if you go to a Hard Rock Café, you should find a dish called the Tennessee Pulled Pork or the “TPP” (‘If you’ve been to the HRC and you haven’t had the TPP, you haven’t been to the HRC’). Before they closed the HRC in Dallas, that was one of my favorite things to get. I actually had a kidney stone attack one time eating a TPP, but it’s so good I hung in there for the whole sandwich before heading to the emergency room. True story. On a toasted bun, this might turn into your favorite BBQ sandwich, and again…this is coming from a Texas Beef fan.

First of all, let’s take another look at our pig diagram:

Right above the ear, you’ll see the words “Boston Butt”. Yeah, it’s the shoulder. They also call this a “blade roast”. Either way, when you go shopping you’ll be looking for the biggest slab of non-ham pork you can find. Note: there’s also a “picnic roast”, which is a nice alternative if you can’t find a shoulder roast. However, the bone isn’t quite as easy to remove for presentation, so stick with the shoulder if you can.

In the package:

That’s an eight-pounder, which is about the average of what you’ll find. On occasion you’ll run across one a little bigger or smaller, but for the most part that’s what you’ll get when you buy one. First thing’s first….take it out of the package and rinse it under water. Be careful…there are a couple different muscles here, so it may try to fall apart on you. When you get it rinsed off and set aside, let’s get the bag out. I like to use a turkey bag. Reynold’s makes a perfect product for this:

Take the bag and put it into one of those cheap plastic storage bins.

I’m doing two roasts here, but you can double this up easily in the same bag and bucket.

Go ahead and put the roast(s) in the bag. Now, for the next 24 hours, we need to brine this bad boy. Remember…a brine is for moisture, not for flavor. If any flavor is garnered from the brine, it’s a bonus and not the original intent. The brine will be a mix of sugar, salt, and acid to break down those muscle fibers to be as tender and moist as possible. For our brine we are going to use about this much apple juice:

Just pour it right into the bag. No reason to scrimp, but no reason to over do it.

And about this much apple cider vinegar (about a cup):

You can mix them right in together. Swish ’em around a bit, but you don’t have to worry about getting them perfectly mixed. Go ahead and close up the bag and get as much air as you can out. It’s not imperative to get it air tight, but it will keep your fridge from being too vinegared up if you get it closed.

Into the fridge it goes for the night. The next day, take it out of the fridge, unfastened the closure and pour as much of the liquid out as possible. We are going to use a dry rub on this, so you want to make sure you get as much liquid out as possible. No reason to save the brine…it’s done it’s job, and we’ll have ample liquid from the drippings from this after it’s cooked.

Using the Arcadian BBQ rub, liberally coat these things down on all sides and any cracks and crevices you can find. Then, put it back into the bag and close it back up. It needs another night to get seasoned up.

So that your timing is right, this is your timeline:

Day 1: brine in the evening, in the fridge overnight and into the next evening

Day 2: season with rub, into the fridge overnight

Day 3: smoking for six-ten hours (including the rest)

Fire up your smoker. Now, you guys know how I feel about mesquite. That’s not changing. However, I really like pecan/hickory on this recipe. Because you are cooking for so long, though, you’ll want to use a mixture. Mesquite is a harder wood and will cook hotter and longer than pecan, which is a softer wood. That’s why my nickname in college was “Mesquite”. What’s up, ladies?

Get your smoker rolling to 225-250deg and put your roast on fat side UP. It’s totally up to you on how much smoke you put on it, but you need at least 2 hours of pure unadulterated smoke. Some might argue with me on the fat thing, but if your smoker is designed correctly you’ll have indirect heat, full smoke, and the fat will melt into the meat fibers. That’s important in this dish. You see, it’s different from brisket because on brisket we cut against the grain. However, with TPP we are going to literally pull the pork apart so the meat fibers will be long. Since they are going to be long and not short, they need to have a lot of fat in between them to lubricate the fibers and make them easy to masticate. Get your mind out of the gutter.

After you’ve put all the smoke you want on it, take your digital probe thermometer and stick it into the opposite end of the shoulder blade bone longways and push it in as far as it will go. Then wrap the roast in foil VERY well. That is, lay down the foil with the shiny side down and lay the roast on it.

Then wrap the foil around the sides and back over the roast, making sure the thermometer is sticking out and the foil is tight around it. Then put another layer of foil around it. The reason is that there will be lots and lots of tasty liquid that we want to save, and if you don’t have it wrapped well the drippings will escape.

Note: the temperature we are looking for does not reflect doneness in any way. Instead, it’s just a marker for us to go off of because once we get to 195deg internal temp, then we know that the roast is cooked the proper amount of time to melt all that delicious fat intertwined into the roast meat fibers.

For the next few hours, keep your smoker going at 225-275. When you wrap the roast, it will probably be around 110-120deg. After you wrap it, the temp will start coming up relatively more rapidly.

Don’t rush it. We need it to go slow, so take your time and pay attention to the temp of the smoker and look for 195deg on internal temp. Once you get there, pull it and put it into a cooler. You know the drill…you need at least two hours of rest in the cooler, but the mass of this thing will let you go much longer. You can keep the probe in and keep the therm on and watch the temp. As long as you don’t drop too far down (130 or so), then you can let it rest a long time.

When you pull it out of the cooler, get one of those disposable foil pans. Get a deep one because the presentation is going to get kinda messy. Using your cooking gloves and with the assistance of your favorite sous chef, open up the foil and take the roast out without spilling any of the juice. The juice is good. The meat should be receded from the shoulder blade enough so you can grab onto it, give it a jiggle or two and take it out.

Jiggle to remove the bone

Throw it away…it’s duty to the world is over (or at least until some critty comes along to chew on it).

Using two large forks turned back-to-back, start ripping the meat apart. Don’t worry about being gentle, just rip. Break up all the chunks. It needs to be stringy.

When you get it all ripped apart, pour the juice over the top and toss the meat in it. Do as little or as much of the drippings as you want, but keep in mind that if you have any too much juice after serving the drippings will coagulate and make pork jello when it cools.

This is great straight up on a plate with some Texas Toast, or you can toast up some buns and throw some of the meat onto the crispy bun. Add some sauce if you like, a couple of pickles slices or onion slices, and you’ve got yourself a gen-yoo-wine TPP. Texas Pulled Pork, made the way Texans eat BBQ.

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Big Red Ribs

If I have my choice of bbq, it’s going to be ribs. The meat is awesome, they are fun to cook, and you can chew on the bones when they are cooked right. Brisket feeds more people and is much easier to prepare, but ribs are what BBQ is all about. That being said, you can’t just throw a rack of ribs on the smoker and smother them with bbq sauce and expect good ribs. The best ribs are cooked for a long time with a bit of care.

There are three types of pork ribs. If you picture a butchered pig:

You can see the ribs attached to the spine directly under the loin, or the “backstrap”. Those are baby-back ribs.  A lot of people get confused there because they think “babyback” is the operative word, as if the back part is “baby” or from a young pig. Actually, it should read as “baby back-ribs”, meaning that those ribs are back ribs (i.e.-contain part of the spine) and are small (“baby”). Those are the most lean and the most expensive. The next portion of the rib bones (you if you follow along the rib secion) you get the spareribs. Those are the ones we are going to eat because they have a lot of connective tissue and take smoke really well. For the record, the last part is the countrystyle ribs, which are really meaty and cut across the bone instead of with the bone. The layer of meat that lays directly on top of the country-style ribs is the part of the pork that they cut for bacon, which is the “pork belly”.

Prep

A rack of spareribs needs to be prepared or you’ll get some tough stuff. This is what we are looking at:

This is the backside of the ribs, or the concave side. These need to be trimmed. There is a flap of meat right in the middle of the rack that needs to be taken off:

As well, you need to trim off the meat at the bottom of the rack:

Both of those trimmings should be kept and cooked. They aren’t ribs, but they are delicious, so you can marinate them and cook them at the same time as the ribs. They are good testers as well so you can tell how the meat is cooking.  Now, you HAVE to remove the silverskin on the concave side of the ribs. The best way I’ve found to do this is to use one of my probe thermometers. Stick the thermometer under the skin, pull it away, then peel the skin off. That’s important so you aren’t trying to eat it from the ribs when they are cooked.

I like to wash the rack at this point under cool water just to rinse off the blood and juice that it was packaged in.  Then, pour Big Red soda on it up to about halfway up the pan, squeeze half a lemon, cover with saran wrap and put it in the fridge for a few hours, potentially overnight.

That might be the white trash in me talking, but I’m a Big Red fan, especially the stuff made in Dublin with cane sugar. The soda adds the sugar that the pork needs for flavor as well as a brine because there is so much sodium in soda. As well, the lemon adds the acid that the marinade needs to start breaking down the meat fibers to be tender.

Rub

There are two types of rubs in bbq…dry and wet. We use the wet rub on the brisket, but we are going to use a dry rub on this because there is a higher surface-to-mass ratio. The wet rub will permeate the meat, but the dry rub will season just the surface, which is what we want…sweet, carmelized outside and a tender inside. That’s balance; Taoism in food.

1/4 cup light brown sugar (pack it in good)

3 tbls pepper

4 tbls ks

1/4 cup paprika (get sweet paprika, not smoked)

1 1/2 tbls garlic powder

1 teaspoon cayenne powder

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon cumin

Mix all those ingredients together well with your fingers in a bowl. That’s your BBQ rub, and it’s universal for anything you want to BBQ. If you want more heat, throw some red pepper flakes in or a bit more cayenne. Also, if you want a slightly sweeter flavor, you can go 1/2 onion powder with your garlic powder. You can store it in a ziploc for a couple months as well.

After you let the ribs marinate in the Big Red for 1/2 a day to a day, take them out and blot the surface dry with a paper towel. Don’t go overboard and try to soak up all the juice…just get the pools of juice out of there.

Take a handful of rub and cover both sides. You don’t have to have a huge layer, but you can taste the rub and see that it’s not overpowering, so make sure you get good coverage on both sides as well as the ends. The bone marrow takes seasoning very well and is good to eat. Don’t forget about the trimmings as well.

Wrap the rack back up and let it sit in the fridge again, up to a day. I like to leave it overnight, but you’ll want to go at least a couple of hours min.

Smoke

Straight mesquite is going to be a bit harsh for this, so I like to mix pecan in for the smoke. Use mesquite to get your smoker hot, then add wood at a 2:1 ratio, pecan to mesquite. Don’t let people tell you that oak is good for this. Be a real man and use mesquite. You’ll need to keep the heat at 225-250 for this one, and let’s go with a 3-2-1 smoking routine: 3 hours on the smoker unwrapped, 2 wrapped in foil (double layers of heavy duty foil and don’t put the creases down or the juice will fall out), 1 hour wrapped in the cooler.  Depending on the size of the rack or how your heat fluctuates, you may need to increase to a 4-2-1 or even a 4-3-1.  What you are looking for is to be able to grab onto the end of a rib bone, jiggle, and have the rib bone come out with little effort.  Once the connective tissue melts down, this should be an easy feat.

Put the ribs concave side down (that’s the side we pulled the silverskin off of). As the rack cooks, the concave will relax because the connective tissue next to the bone will melt into the meat. You’ll want to put the rack away from the fire because the bone will burn really quickly if you aren’t careful. With five hours of smoke time, the ribs will have ample heat/time to cook so don’t worry about that. Again, don’t forget the trimmings…throw them right on top of the rack of ribs and let them cook. They have some fat, so the fat will melt into the meat.

After 3-4 hours, you should have a nice bark around the edges (but not scorched) and a nice red-brown color to the meat.

At this point, go ahead and wrap it up with heavy duty foil.  Wrap it twice and make sure the juices can’t drip out.

You’ve got another 2-3 hours at 225-250 to let these cook in their own juices…a rib confit, so to speak.

This is one of the most beautiful sights in the world…hours of smoke turn the aluminum gold. I think it may be the work of God.

At some point, you’ll need to CAREFULLY unwrap the rack just enough to get access to the bone so you can do your jiggle test.  If you spill any of that juice, I swear to you I’ll come to your house and cut your hair at the scalp with my pocketknife.  DON’T do it.

After the rack passes the jiggle test, then the ribs need a good hour to three hour rest in a cooler.  Take them directly (still wrapped in foil) from the heat and into a cooler.  Don’t open the lid until you are ready to cut/serve.  They will stay hot in the cooler, trust me.  Whatever you do, don’t open the cooler for at least an hour. DON’T do it.

Take the ribs out, cut one of the ends of the foil right next to the rack and pour the juice out into a bowl.  You should be able to squeeze the rack right out of the foil pouch now, so lay it up on a cutting board and cut them right in the middle between each rib (or two, depending on how many people you are serving). They are ready to eat, but if you want you can toss them in the juice.  If you want them extra gooey and kinda sugary like one of those sissy Kentucky fellers, then coat them with your favorite BBQ.  These are good enough without any sort of sauce.  If you go with sauce, try to do one on your own or try one without a whole bunch of sugar, like Stubb’s (which is my favorite bottled bbq sauce).

Tah. Dah. Big Red Ribs.