I positively love to poke at a live fire, coaxing a reluctant flame from wood and creating enough heat and smoke to cook a wonderful meal in the great outdoors. The relaxation afforded me by such a process can not be expressed in mere digital form. My mind becomes a primal thing, an instinctive instrument for mastering fire. The right amount of fuel at the right time combined with the right amount of air flow and a heat source creates fire – a perfect triumvirate that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I am a complex and fickle thing however, and cooking over a live fire can (and often does) take second banana to a slow smoked delicacy. An otherwise indigestible and tough cut of meat can be turned into a thing of beauty when slowly smoked in a WSM 22.5″ double racked bullet smoker. The key word here is “slow”, so if golf is something you can’t stand because it takes 4 hours to play a round – crafting true slow smoked BBQ may not be your bailiwick. On the other hand, if you like a hobby that involves drinking a cold beer, looking at a black pit emitting slow steady curling smoke and smelling like something just this side of heaven – then you may be a latent seeker of the smoke. Left alone with only your dwindling thoughts on which to quietly meditate, you may solve the worlds problems while slow smoking a meal fit for a king.
The other weekend I found myself with an entire Sunday that had nothing on the schedule. These are rare days indeed for me, and after clearing it with my beautiful wife – making sure there were no unknown trips planned for me that day – I settled in to a day spent with the pit.
The beginning of each “smoke” starts with proper preparation. I had decided on a pork shoulder and procured a beautiful 6.5 pounder from my buddy the butcher at the Italian market. The night before, I slathered it generously with a ballpark mustard based concoction I created a while back. I sometimes am partial to the “Dizzy Pig” company’s Dizzy Dust (readily available from them on-line), so I sprinkled this heavily on the meat. It adhered well to the slather. I wrapped up my prize with saran wrap and stuck it in the fridge (on a baking sheet as these things can get juice all over the inside of the fridge if you aren’t careful).
The next morning I slowly assembled everything I would need. There is no rush, only careful movements. This way you don’t forget anything. Plenty of briquettes, towels, wood chunks, a remote thermometer and of course, cold beer. Make a checklist for yourself and enjoy the process. One must figure on about an hour a pound so by 9am your fire should be lit.
Lighting the fire in a smoker is an art in itself. Do not do this without an open beer in your hands, lest the BBQ gods get offended. And they are offended mighty easily. Lighting the fire without a beverage in your hands is also referred to as a “Party Foul”. You want to be sure you have enough fuel to burn the whole (or at least most of it) time without creating too much heat. Enter the “Minion” method popularized by Jim Minion, smoker and BBQ aficionado extraordinaire. He lights his coals in the middle of a can surrounded by the rest and removes the can so that the fire slowly spreads outwards. My latest creation allowed me to do just that using a tube fashioned from heavy duty aluminum foil. When the coals get going I remove the tube and let nature do the rest of the work.
Add the wood chunks, these are your flavor elements. Match the wood smoke to your target food. Pork matches well with Oak, Hickory and Alder. Fruit woods also make an excellent choice. Once we close up the “pit” and the wood begins to smoke, check the pit temp and find your happy spot. This is where you will endlessly watch the BBQ and work on your beer. You want the pit to hit a steady 250 degrees. This is easily accomplished by closing down or opening the vents on your BBQ pit. Once we are at the desired temp, you can add the meat. Make sure you do this with no small degree of ceremony. There’s no rule here but to marvel at your creation while you send it off to be bathed in smoke. The next time you see it, it will be a beautiful mahogany color. A remote thermometer is quite handy to help judge the condition of your meat without opening the smoker. Pork shoulder “pulls” anywhere from 190 to 195 degrees, so if it’s pulled pork you are after (as was in my case), you’ve got to wait for it.
At this point one returns to his or her happy spot, preferably in the shade and preferably in earshot of some good blues or southern rock. The Alman brothers, BB King or the Black Keys are a good accompaniment. Put up your feet and focus on the smoke and the pit temp. Relax a while. Take a swig of your cold beer now and again. If you are more “type A” than this, you may have a BBQ journal and record the pit temp and the meat temp every 15 minutes. It won’t speed anything up, but it will give you the illusion of control somehow.
At the end of the process, the pork is finally at 195. Note that around 180 degrees, the mysterious plateau appears – and you are stuck at 180 for about an hour. As soon as she breaks through, you’ll quickly hit 195.
The meat is removed to inside quarters for the pulling. You’ll find this process quite relaxing as well. Some use their fingers while some use forks. The meat is pretty hot so you might want to use some gloves unless you have asbestos fingers. After you’ve pulled your beloved pork, the whole house will smell of smoky BBQ. The traditional sauce for this is a vinegar/tomato/sugar/pepper based remedy – made specially to cut the richness of the dish. Of course the actual ingredients folks use are hotly debated and usually closely guarded. Just throw some commercial BBQ sauce in there and cut it with vinegar to thin it out if you don’t want to join the debate.
The shredded pork is now added to kaiser roll sandwiches with coleslaw and enjoyed immensely with more beer more conversation and more accolades from friends and family.
Now keep the left overs to make beans, but by all means – if you’ve learned anything – don’t rush it. Slow BBQ is where all Southern wisdom comes from. And probably Mint Juleps.