Every now and then you hear someone worth listening to say something that motivates you to really pay attention to what they are saying. I had one of these moments last week … during a backyard party of all places.
To set the scene, my daughter graduated from 8th grade last week and is preparing to enter high school. While I wouldn’t normally think that graduating from 8th grade is all that big of a deal, (since I did it, how hard can it be?) the accomplishment is in no small part associated with the school she attends. My daughter attends a nationally recognized and prestigious all-girl school here in Dallas that is extremely challenging (with a little effort on your part, you could easily figure out which one). My daughter and all of her classmates are incredible young women, and the parents are a fairly diverse and well-educated group of people. Despite all the parents being exceptional individuals, there are a few notable individuals that stand out – one of whom hosted an 8th-grade graduation party, including all the parents, at his Dallas residence.
[imagine an amazing party picture – it didn’t seem right to share someone else’s house]
After some time socializing, just as dinner was served, our host stood up and took a few moments to impart three pieces of advice to the graduating class of 2022, because quite frankly, his station in life has earned him the right to share advice. As we all listened, I thought that this was good advice for everyone, not just 8th-graders, so I thought I would take a few moments to pass them along to you. They are as follows:
1. Dream Big Dreams.
2. Surround yourself with good people.
3. Turn every failure into something.
I don’t think any of these need explanation, but to dismiss them as simplistic would be a mistake. All three are worthwhile lifelong pursuits, not something that you do, check the box, and move on. I have spent a fair amount of time discussing the simplicity and power of these three items and have been hardpressed to think of any other pieces of advice that have the longevity and clarity of these three.
On a lighter note, I enjoyed a fairly rare three-day weekend where I did little other than lounge around the house and go swimming. About the only “task-oriented” activity I took on was I decided to smoke some barbeque for Memorial Day, which in my part of the world, backyard barbeques and swimming are requisite activities for this particular holiday, and smoking barbeque is about the closest thing I have to a hobby (as long as we agree that sleeping 6 hours a night doesn’t qualify as a “hobby”).
If you are “meat averse”, now would be a good time to punt out of this post.
Most of my friends know that I like smoking barbeque – there is a craft and attention to detail aspect to the process that I find challenging and rewarding. If you are thinking that I am probably not any good, otherwise I’d be a lot fatter, don’t kid yourself … I’m plenty fat.
Since I personally prepared all the food for the 25th Anniversary Party my office celebrated last fall, as well as all the food at my recent 50th Birthday party, I take the process pretty seriously. I get asked about the process fairly often so I thought I would tack on to today’s post a quick primer on the process I go through when smoking pork butts.
First off is the fire – I use a combination of oak, hickory, and mesquite. The mix is normally predicated on how long the meat will be smoking. Mesquite is really strong and I would not use it on cooks longer than 5 hours. Oak burns really hot so it is fuel efficient, but sometimes I can only get my hands on hickory – similar to oak but less dense and it burns faster. If I was cooking a brisket, I would only use oak.
I cooked two 11-pound pork butts (which is not actually from the butt, but from the shoulder of the pig), but unfortunately most of this food was for others. I had a door prize at my birthday party that would include all the leftover BBQ … except there wasn’t any BBQ left over. So in order to make good on my promise, I had to prepare more BBQ. Once my neighbor heard that I was going to be smoking pork, he paid for a second pork butt and I smoked it for him and his family. That’s the thing with BBQ, I can cook one or four with the same amount of wood, so it’s no problem to throw a couple more in the smoker.
The prepare the pork, I inject it the night before with a mixture of cranberry/cherry juice to which I have added some salt. In the morning, on the outside, I have a rub that I prepare myself that is made up of kosher salt, black pepper, granulated garlic, granulated onion, along with some paprika (which really just helps with the color).
FYI – I know this sounds like a lot of salt, but I probably didn’t use more than a 1/2 cup for almost 23 lbs of meat.
As the saying goes, “If you’re lookin, you ain’t cookin’ …” and I tend to subscribe to this philosophy. Once I put the meat on the smoker, I don’t open the lid for at least 3 or 4 hours (which is when I took the picture above). I will spritz the pork about every 30 minutes or so after this point with a 50/50 mixture of apple cider vinegar and water. I also have a water bath in my smoker (it’s a commercial grade pan that holds about a gallon of water) – I want to make sure the humidity level is high to help maintain moisture during the smoking process. This also helps the smoke particulates adhere to the meat, which is what gives you that really dark bark on the outside.
I like to run my smoker between 225° and 250°, which translates to about 60-75 minutes per pound, which means I plan for the pork to cook for about an hour per pound start to finish. Unlike brisket, which in some cases can take 10-12 hours of smoke, pork is a little more delicate and after about 5 or 6 hours, I take it off the smoker. There isn’t a particular time when this happens – it can range anywhere from 4 to 6 hours depending on how cleanly (consistent temperatures) I’ve been running the smoker. The picture above was taken right at the 5-hour mark and the internal temperature was right around 155°. I cook my pork fat side up and I look for a sizeable split in that cap to tell me it’s the right time to take the pork off the smoker and wrap it to finish the cooking process.
When I wrap pork, I lay out four 12″ wide sheets of foil that are about three feet long and roll the pork up tight. I want to make sure that the final folded seam is on the fat cap side and that they are both facing up. There will be some juice that comes out during this process and I don’t want it spilling out. After the foil comes a ton of plastic wrap – one continuous piece that wraps around and around so that the entire package is sealed up tight.
Once the pork has been wrapped, you can either place it back on the smoker to finish or stick it in the oven. Since it isn’t getting any more smoke, I am fairly indifferent to which one you choose. I chose not to burn more wood than necessary ($$$) so I put mine in the oven to finish. I set the oven to 225° and I slowly bring the pork up to 198° at which point I take it out and set it on the counter to cool.
Would you be surprised to learn that it takes about 2.5 hours for the temperature to drop from 198° down to 155°? I have gloves that protect my hands from the heat because 155° is still hot enough to burn you – I don’t recommend you using your hands without any sort of protection.
These pork butts turned out really, really well – I’d like to say that this is better than anything you would get somewhere else … this is a small-batch bespoke smoked meat product, and you can tell. Truth is, it’s almost impossible to screw up pulled pork if you are paying the slightest amount of attention to what you are doing. It can still happen, just not to me.
So there you go – probably the most random post I’ve written in years. Three valuable pieces of advice and my process for preparing pulled pork … I suppose this falls into the “Life” category of ‘Life of an Architect’.