Back to Basics with Pork Shoulder: Easy and Affordable

Back to Barbecue Basics

Pork Shoulder BBQ

Intimidated by low and slow barbecuing? Aspiring pit master, meet pork shoulder. It’s flavorful, forgiving, amply feeds a crowd, and best of all—it’s easy. Nearly failproof. Confusingly, it’s sometimes called pork butt or Boston butt, suggesting that the cut comes from the rear of the pig when it’s actually from the shoulder. But this porcine puzzle is easily solved: Sailing ships departing New England stocked barrels of inexpensive cuts of salted meat in barrels called “butts.” The name has stuck.

Pork shoulder is one of the most versatile meats in the marketplace, sometimes selling for as little as $1.99 per pound. Rich in collagen and intramuscular fat, this cut is popular among most of the world’s grilling cultures (except those that eschew pork for religious reasons). Yes, you’ll find amazing renditions from the Philippines to Mexico to Germany and the American South. Ah, yes…the American South…especially the Carolinas, where pork is revered.

If you’re new to pork shoulder, read on. Here’s everything you need to know to get started.

Pork Shoulder BBQ

What to Buy: Look for a pork shoulder, preferably bone-in, that is well-marbled, anywhere from 4 to 7 pounds. Heritage breeds like Kurobuta (the pork equivalent of Kobe beef), Red Wattle, or Duroc are preferred. Hopefully, you can buy them at local farmers’ markets or through connections with your butcher. There are many excellent online sources as well.

Whiskey-Brined Pork Shoulder

How to Prep: You have many options here. If you have time, brine the pork by combining 1 cup of kosher salt and 1/2 cup of brown sugar with 1 gallon of water. There’s lots of room for creativity. You can add apple juice or cider, molasses, or even pickle juice to the brine. Soak the meat in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to 24. Brining relaxes the coiled proteins in the meat and makes it more tender.

If you choose not to brine the pork, season it generously with your favorite rub. (We put the meat on a rimmed baking sheet before coating with the rub.) For a better crust, season the meat a few hours before grilling.

Some pit masters like to inject their pork shoulders with a simple injection sauce—a mixture of apple juice and melted butter is popular.

If the pork shoulder comes with skin, you can trim it off before barbecuing. (It is tough to chew unless the fat is thoroughly rendered and it is chopped into small pieces.)

Warm your favorite barbecue sauce on the side burner or your grill or on the stovetop.

Korean Pulled Pork

The Cook: Set up your smoker or charcoal grill for smoking/indirect grilling according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Heat to 225 to 250 degrees. If cooking with charcoal, place wood chunks or wood chips, the latter soaked for 30 minutes in water, then drained, on the coals. Place the pork shoulder on the grill grate. Grill until the internal temperature of the meat reads 190 to 195 degrees 4 to6 hours, depending on the size of the shoulder. (Use an instant-read meat thermometer.) Baste the meat with the barbecue sauce, if using, the last 30 minutes of cooking. Remove the meat from the grill or smoker and let the it rest, loosely covered with aluminum foil, for 20 to 30 minutes. When barely cool enough to handle, separate the shoulder into fist-size chunks. Pull into shreds, discarding the bone, any lumps of fat, or other unappetizing bits. Taste, then season with additional rub or barbecue sauce. Serve hot on toasted buns. (If desired, you can hold the meat, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, up to an hour or two in an insulated cooler.)

North Carolina Pulled Pork

Other Things: Another iteration of pork shoulder is blade steaks, which cook more rapidly. Score the fat around the periphery of each steak, then season and smoke for 30 minutes over low heat (225 to 250 degrees). Transfer to an aluminum foil pan, then pour in 6 to 8 ounces of soda pop or another liquid. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and cook until tender, about 1 hour. If desired, top the steaks with onions before foiling them.

Pork shoulder can also be cut into chunks and served in tacos, stews, chili, and other soups.

See some of our favorite pork shoulder recipes below. Any questions? We’ll be happy to answer them on Social Media!

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