As for anything, whether it's fishing, hunting, prepping, or anything I cover....take anything I say with the proverbial grain of salt. I am not a professional. I am not perfect. Contrary to what people may thing, I don't know everything.
I like to learn. And, if there is a resource or a lesson to be learned...I am all ears.
So, if you are looking to get started on smoking meat...maybe you are looking for a tip...then maybe this will help you.
I started smoking meat just over a year ago. Now, I have been a griller all of my life (it seems). I have dabbled in BBQ for some time, but smoking is something that took more time than I was willing to devote, until I had 3 kids. Now I either don't have time to do other things outside of the house, or I am trying to avoid something outside the house.
Anyway, let's talk about smoking a boston butt. In this case, we are going to be smoking a 5-7 pound butt. This process, if done the way I am outlying, is going to take 4 full days. So, budget time accordingly.
Take any pan/pot deep enough to set the butt in fully and put in a cup of kosher salt. Then, run warm water into the pot. You want just enough water to dissolve all of the salt, but not too much where it will run over when you submerge the butt. When the salt is dissolved, place the butt into the solution and top with water. You really want the entire butt covered, but if the pot isn't deep enough, you can always flip the butt.
Cover the pot and place in the refrigerator. If you don't have a top, plastic wrap or aluminum foil will work.
Let this butt brine for 25 hours, minimum, but 48 hours is preferable.
At the end of the brining session, place a colander in your sink and dump the but into the colander and let it drain.
After the butt has drained (you can also pat dry if you are in a hurry), place in a glass pan. This will help you transport the butt later, but also make it easier to gather any rub that doesn't make it on the meat the first time as well as help with cleanup. Now, liberally rub the full surface area of the butt with your selection of dry rub. I have been using the Grill Mate's pork rub. I don't think you can really go wrong with a good dry rub, but that's the one I use because it is easy to find and I usually buy 3 at the time. Speaking of which, if you don't use the whole can of rub, then you haven't used enough. Take your time and make sure to lift every fold and cover every square inch of pork with the rub.
Let it sit for in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.
I find that the best time to actually start smoking is at 8pm 2 days prior to your meal. That is, if you are planning to eat on Saturday afternoon, start cooking at 8pm Thursday night. Why is time important? It will allow you to start at 8pm, restock the grill with coals at midnight, and allow you to sleep until morning. By the time you get up, the temperature will just start ramping down from the full consumption of the coals. More on that later.
Make sure to have a roof over the grill. Why? Well, I have bad luck and it usually rains at some point. Rain will make it impossible for you to maintain a good temperature.
I don't own a smoker...yet. I do own a combo gas/charcoal grill. For smoking, I use the gas side to hold my utensils. The charcoal side has 3 different racks. One is an adjustable rack which you can adjust from right on top of the coals to the middle rack level. The middle rack has two grates which are removable. I have an upper rack which I remove, as it will touch the meat when the door is closed.
With nothing in the grill, I will place more charcoal in the bed and space them out. We want a nice uniform distribution of coals, but not too many. There should be just enough that each will touch the other without having any stacking.
One the adjustable rack, I will place a disposable aluminum pan. Int that pan I will place a 50/50 mixture of apple cider vinegar and water. The bigger the pan, the less you have to check it and the more heat it will store when the grill is at temp. The only draw back is that the larger volume of water will take a much longer time to get to temperature.
Using a charcoal can, fill can up with charcoal, start the charcoal (with lighter fluid) and let the charcoal begin to burn.
While the coal is getting started in the can, I remove one of the 2 grates from my grill entirely. This will allow me access to the water pan. I will wrap the other grate in aluminum foil and replace it back on the grill.
When the flames have died down from the charcoal can and the top coals are beginning to turn grey/white, I will then dump them into the grill and spread them around with a fire poker.
Let the grill warm up to it's full temperature. The time to achieve the proper temp depends on a lot of variables like outside temp, volume of water in the pan, size of the grill, etc. Just be patient. We don't want to put the meat into the grill until the charcoals have burned off any unsavory additives that help them start. If the grill is over 250 degrees, use the vent on the side of your grill to moderate the temperature down. We want the temperature to be between 170-200, if possible. Remember, low and slow.
Final Meat Prep
You can do many unique things to customize your own butt. Here is what I like to do. I like to add some fresh herbs, particularly kosher salt, fresh cracked black pepper and minced rosemary from my herb garden.
Then, I will cut an "X" in the fat cap...the white side of the meat. I will cut it down to the muscle. Then, I will pack the "X" with brown sugar. I will also liberally sprinkle sugar on the remainder of the cap and rub it down. As the fat renders, it will mix and dissolve the brown sugar, which will then coat the entire butt. As the fat runs out later in the cook, this sugar/fat mixture will turn into a char. As you will find when you take your first bite, your mind will be confused on how something so savory can be so sweet.
The last step before putting the meat on the grill is to make a smoke pouch. Take aluminum foil and place a handful of your favorite wood chips in to the center. Then, wad it up and poke holes on the opposite side. I use apple wood, but you may prefer pecan, peach, mesquite, etc. Walmart sells bags of these smoking woods for pretty cheap, but the selection may be limited. I have only seen applewood and mesquite. Place the pouch under the meat and directly on top of the coals.
Place the meat on the aluminum foil covered grate and close the lid.
Keep in mind that the temperature will drop substantially in that first hour as you have added 7 pounds of meat and some wood chips. It will take awhile for the heat to normalize again. Do not add more charcoal. Take a note of the normalized temperature. Again, the lower the better. If it burns too hot, it won't be as easy to moderate....which means you have to check it more often. Most importantly, you won't produce as good of a product. We want to cook it slow so that the outside remains moist while the inside is fully broken down. This can only be achieved by keeping the temp as low as possible, while being stable, for a long period of time.
Check your meat every few hours. I find every 4 hours is about right. As I stated earlier, 8pm on a Thursday night before a Saturday afternoon cookout is perfect. At midnight, open your grill door and inspect how your coals have been cooking. You want the coals to have been burning uniformally. I will usually take my poker and rearrange all the remaining coals. This will move unburned coals to be in contact with other hot coals, redistribute hot coals evenly, and uncover hot coals from under ash, where their heat may have been wasted. Now, restock your grill with coals. Just as we did initially, we don't want to overpack the grill. Just place as needed. You want a nice flat coal bed.
Pull out your smoke pouch and refill. Replace back in the grill. Top off your water pan. An important note about the water pan. It is critical to use a water pan to keep the meat moist. It is also important to keep it topped off. If you allow it to run all the way down, you will have two things happen: when you refill, it will throw off the temperature because it will take a long time for the grill to normalize its temperature AND most importantly, deprive the meat of it's moisture.
Repack the "X" in the fat cap with brown sugar, if needed.
Now, close the lid and monitor the temp. When it stabilizes, go to sleep.
Get up at 6. Chances are, the temperature will have dropped to around 140. Different grills act differently, especially with all of the variables. Weather is usually the largest variable. The colder it is, the harder to maintain a good temperature. My grill will have burned through all the charcoal, but the combination of it's size, metal makeup, and the water/meat inside of it will allow it to hold temperature really well. Typically it will still be 140 after a 6 hour layover.
Use your charcoal can and start another batch. Repeat all of the initial grill prep steps.
Repeat this process until 3pm on Saturday.
Take a glass pan to the grill. Man up and use your hands. Do NOT poke the meat. Pull the meat off the grill and let it sit and rest for 30 minutes.
You will have a product that exhibit the following qualities:
- The bone should pull right out of the meat
- The meat should be easy to shred with two forks
- The meat will be delicious and a group of 15 should eat the entire butt in one sitting
But, before that happens, do yourself a favor. Get a blackened section of the top...an area of brown sugar and charred fat goodness....and enjoy a single bite that makes all of the work worth it.