Smoker Chronicles: Pork Butt / Pulled Pork

As I’ve made my way through the journey of Meats to Smoke, I somehow missed one of the most popular, and as legend has it – one of the easiest:  pork butt which becomes pulled pork.

Lately I’ve been doubling up on tri-tip (takes roughly 1 hour at 225 degrees to get to 135 internal temp!  Mesquite), which resulted in a serious case of Memorial Day Meat Sweats after I had 5 consecutive non-breakfast meals of sliced smoke tri-tip & cheese sandwiches.

Last weekend I tried Meathead Goldwyn’s pulled pork recipe.   I dry-rubbed the small boneless skinless pork butt – under 3 lbs – overnight, and set it in the smoker at 225 degrees at 10am.

Here’s what it looked like on the way in:

Dry-rubbed pork butt

Dry-rubbed pork butt

I was shooting for an internal temp of 195, but I actually gave up at 8pm, hungry, and pulled it from the smoker at 191.    It looked like this after I shredded it:

pulled pork

pulled pork

Now, the finished product kinda surprised me.  It wasn’t super dry, but it was far from moist.   I got very little “flavor” from it, perhaps on account of the salt-free dry rub, and the fact that I smoked with hickory.   I do my beef (brisket, tri-tip) with mesquite, and I think I’ve deduced that hickory is a much milder wood than mesquite is.   Turns out this isn’t a new discovery – it’s a well known fact.  Perhaps next time I will try to mix in a little bit of mesquite for more of what I view as a traditional “smoke” flavor.  I also have cherry and apple wood to work with.

Anyway, this first pork butt came out ok, but with the simple addition of a little bit of bbq sauce, it was great.  I didn’t need to slather it – just a dollop on the bun and voila – sandwicho deliciouso.   I should also note that this pork butt was tied together with butcher twine – perhaps that negatively affected the ability of the internal temperature to reach my target.

I have used Meathead Goldwyn’s Amazing Ribs as a smoker-bible so far, and I took his advice to avoid the brining/marinade/injections for the first attempt:

“Some folks like to inject butt with an internal marinade. Typically they will do something like mix about 4 tablespoons of their rub with 1 cup of warm apple juice and pump it deep into the meat. Some even use chicken stock. I don’t bother. I think this cut is moist enough on its own and injecting can mask the flavor of the pork. When I am judging, and the meat tastes more like apple juice than pork, I mark it down.

Most competition cooks inject with flavor enhancers such as phosphates and MSG in order to get a tiny edge, but if you cook it properly, you don’t need to inject.

Marinating will not penetrate a big hunk very far, so don’t bother. Read my article on marinating. I love brining pork chops, but to penetrate such a large thick hunk of flesh, you would need to brine the meat for more than a day and even then the penetration would be shallow and uneven. Read my article on brining. Use a good rub, and let the smoke flavor it and the internal fat and collagen moisturize it. Keep it simple”

This weekend, however, I was in the grocery store,  saw a nice 4 1/2lb boneless skinless pork butt and decided to give it another shot.   I’ve previously tried to make Tyler Florence’s Pork Shoulder Pernil in my oven, with limited success, but I decided to try his recipe and do it in the smoker.  What’s the worst that could happen?   This was a $9 piece of meat, not a $40 brisket.   So I whipped up Tyler Florence’s marinade (1C olive oil, 1 bunch of cilantro, about 1/4C OJ, 3T lime juice, 5 garlic cloves, salt & pepper: all blended in the food processor).

The marinade was a bright green, pungent mixture that I figured couldn’t hurt my quest for flavor in my pulled pork.  I marinated it overnight in a ziplock, and threw it on the smoker at 8am today.   I again went with hickory chips at 225 degrees.

At 7pm I yanked it off at an internal temp of 194, and it looked like this:



A thing of beauty: charred yet glistening, and the tip fell off when I grabbed it with the tongs to take it off the rack. I took this as a good sign.

I placed it on a plate, and as I touched it with 2 forks it collapsed like a pig-meat-Jenga.  It was like a porcine tower of cards collapsing in on itself.   I took this as a very good sign: the meat was soft and moist.

Strangely, I still didn’t get much “flavor” from it: I couldn’t detect any of the strong ingredients in my marinade (as Meathead Goldwyn had warned), and I was still using the mild hickory chips.

Still, this pork made a great standalone sandwich, and as with the prior attempt, a dollop of bbq sauce accentuated it nicely.  Mrs. Dynamite pronounced “PULLED PORK SUCCESS.”

I’m not sure if the second attempt was more successful because of the marinade, which could have helped the moisture factor – or if it was simply because I used a more reasonably sized piece of meat this time.

As usual, I am eager to hear my readers’ suggestions and experience with smoking pulled pork.   What temperature do you smoke at? What finishing internal temperature do you aim for?  Which wood do you prefer?  Do you dry rub or marinade or inject?


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