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Football Food: Pulled Pork

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Carolina barbecue is about the hog, some time to break out the smoker for some pulled pork

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Can you eat, think, or talk too much about barbecue? Nope. Last year with North Carolina visiting South Bend, Joe made us all jealous with some mouthwatering local spots, as well as great background on the origins and history of BBQ in the Carolinas.

If you're drawing a barbecue map of the United States, the Southeast is firmly entrenched pork territory. There are still regional differences - vinegar, mustard, or white sauces, dry rub in Tennessee, whole hog versus shoulders and ribs - but it's all still about the pig. Most places will have chicken (a high floor - low ceiling meat to smoke in my humble opinion) and many serve brisket, but few places in the Southeast do it well. As a native Georgian, it pains me inside to go home and watch people order brisket at places that have incredible ribs and pulled pork, all because they think they like brisket more based on a good experience in Kansas City or Texas.

So for this week in preparation for Wake Forest, we'll make some pork this time - breaking out the pork butt on the smoker to make some pulled pork sandwiches.

Smoked Pulled Pork

Preparation:

The right kind of meat for pulled pork is less important than something like brisket - there's less variation in the quality of meat, and pork is generally more forgiving as well. The most popular (and often easiest) cut here is the Boston Butt, taken from the upper shoulder. Pork shoulder is actually separated into two parts - the butt and picnic, which sits lower on the leg. You can buy both together, but more commonly you'll see Boston Butt, either bone-in or boneless. Bone-in is usually the way to go - you don't need to tie it up with twine, and there's a common perception (not necessarily based in fact) that leaving the bone in leaves that meat juicier and tasting better.  You can find a Boston Butt almost anywhere, and Sam's Club or Costco are usually well-priced in my experience.

Once you've purchased your meat, pat it down with paper towels. Get to know it, it's going to be your best friend for hopefully a few days. You'll notice a thick layer of fat on top of the butt - this is the fat cap. There's several schools of thought here on whether or not to remove it, smoking with the fat cap on top or bottom - I'm on team "get rid of it". Trim up any other areas of fat you see - leaving thin layers is fine, it doesn't have to be perfect.

Now it's time to season the pork butt with your rub. I've commonly used this one, from champion barbecue master Chris Lilly.

Chris Lilly's Six-Time World Championship Pork Shoulder Rub


1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup paprika
1/3 cup garlic salt
1/3 cup kosher salt

1 Tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly.

If you don't have all these elements, that's ok - there's lots of freedom here as well to spice up (higher ratio of pepper/salt) or eliminate anything you don't have. Paprika, salt, pepper, and some brown sugar are most important, and everything else is bonus to tinker with. You can squeeze on some regular yellow mustard or vegetable oil to have more rub stick to the pork, but it my experience it doesn't make too much of a difference if you use either or do it dry. Wrap and refrigerate overnight, and you'll be good to go the next morning.

Pulled Pork Rub

Optional: Injection

Another option step is injecting your pork to keep moist and juicy - again, lots of recipes out there, but you could simply do a base with apple juice, a favorite marinade, or even soda.

Smoking Time

Time for the Weber Smokey Mountain - I usually fire mine up to high heat at 350 degrees for a fast cook (~ 6 hours). In an ideal world, I'd go lower and lower - the traditional time and temperature is 225-250 degrees for 8-12 hours. However, that requires a lot of time, and unfortunately I'm usually smoking in the parking area of a downtown condo (having a smoker may or may not be technically allowed) and requires a degree of supervision. I'm also biased, but in my opinion the difference between the hot/fast cook and low and slow is probably unnoticeable to whoever you're serving to - tasting the difference between unbelievable and excellent.

I use a combination of 1/3 hickory and 2/3 of a fruit wood like apple or cherry for a nice balanced taste that's not overwhelming. Bury a few fist-sized chunks in your charcoal, and you don't need to add more over the cook to overpower. I maintain a temperature of 325-350 until the internal temperature is about 160-165 and the bark appears set, then I foil for around another two hours. With a higher heat there's a risk of drying out, so you can either spray with apple juice or your injection mixture or add some liquid to your foil - I often use Stubb's pork marinade.

Time for foil:

PP Smoker

After a couple more hours ....

Feast

It's critical to let the meat rest after you take it off the smoker for at least 30 minutes - throw the foiled butt in a cooler or the oven and let it continue cooking in its own delicious juices. After you wait (good time to start clean up or side dishes) - then it's time to pull.

Pork pulled

Claws like this 1) make you feel cool, 2) help immensely versus pulling with forks, and 3) shorten the process. They're cheap and available on Amazon or local grilling spots. Toss any bits away that are still overly fatty that you wouldn't serve and time to snag some pieces of amazing bark and pink outer pieces for yourself - you've earned it.

At this point, time to serve with optional buns (pick your favorite) and sauce (make your own or pick your favorite). I usually don't make my own sauce, but that's another entire adventure if you choose to embrace it. For store-bought, nationally available sauces, my favorites would be Stubb's original (a little hotter / tangier than most), Sweet Baby Ray's, or Cattleman's Kansas City Classic.

PP Sandwich

Make yourself a heaping sandwich, grab a beer, and enjoy watching the Irish beat the Demon Deacons.