When I decided to get into competition barbecue last summer, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I had to find the right flavor profile and develop a consistency for my ribs, do a ton of a lot of work to get my brisket up to snuff, and figure out just what the hell competition chicken even was. The only thing I thought I had in the bag was pork shoulder—pulled pork has been my most successful meat throughout the years, and just mentioning I'm making it ensures a crowd of hungry eaters will descend on my backyard to get their fair share.
So it was with some surprise that my first competition found me in thirteenth place out of twenty in the pork shoulder category. I brushed that off as some bad luck with the judges, convinced myself my pork was still awesome, and went into my second competition with the same recipe. The results that time around were even more devastating, landing us at number forty-two out of forty-nine. There was no longer any denying that my pork wasn't all I thought it was, and I went back to the drawing board to find something that could bump me from the bottom to the top.
It's Just Barbecue Science
Taking anywhere from ten to sixteen hours to slow smoke, pork shoulder is a hell of time investment, and time is unfortunately one thing I find myself lacking too often. So instead of going blind into testing pork shoulder procedures, I did a little research on the science of slow cooking and found just about everything I was looking for in this article by barbecue aficionado Meathead Goldwyn.
My biggest problem was that while the meat I was turning in had an excellent bark—the dark crust that forms as a piece of meat is cooked low and slow—it was also rather dry. What I learned from Meathead's article was that this intensely awesome bark forms as moisture slowly leaves the surface of the meat, which dries out the outermost layer, creating the thick, slightly chewy, but delicious, crust. Most of this happens during the long period of the cook often referred to as the stall—the meat maintains a steady temperature for an extended period of time due to the slow process of surface evaporation, which, in turn, cools the meat.
While the outside dries out, there's enough moisture and fat within the pork butt to keep it moist throughout a long cook. When pulling a fully cooked shoulder and mixing the bark and innards together, you essentially get the best of both worlds—juicy meat and crunchy bark. When choosing pork pieces to turn into the judges, my issue was that I wanted each piece to have that flavorful bark, but by selecting outermost pieces of pork, I was also only presenting the driest bits of the lot. So I had to go back and find the right balance of bark and moisture to make my pork competitive. What I found is a process that's more consistent, faster, and, best of all, results in a pulled pork with a rich, juicy texture.
Selection and Prep
The pork shoulder commonly comes in three different cuts—the full primal shoulder, the subprimal Boston butt (the blade cut), and picnic (the lower shoulder cut). For Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions, just about everyone uses the butt half of the pork shoulder, which has less connective tissue and a slightly more neutral flavor than the sweeter, hammier picnic.
To do a side-by-side comparison of cooking methods, I picked up two seven-pound Boston butts and injected them with an apple juice, vinegar, and salt solution to provide additional moisture and flavor. Once injected, I rubbed them down with a barbecue rub whose sweet overtones complement its heat and earthiness.
I fired up the smoker to the standard barbecue temperature of 225°F, threw both butts on the pit, and let them go.
Foil, Friend of the Pitmaster
For this test, I was looking to wrap one butt in foil and leave the other naked once they hit the stall. This happened around the 165° mark, about five hours into the cook. At this point, even though the bark was forming nicely, it was still much lighter than I was used to. I worried what would happen if I wrapped it up before I was totally happy with the crust, but knowing that I first and foremost needed to improve the quality of the meat, I ventured forth.
As the unwrapped butt sat at a toasty 165°F for many hours before its internal temperature began to rise again, the foiled butt burst through that stall and hit the final 198°F mark I was shooting for in just three hours. This meant the total cooking time clocked in at nine hours, about five hours before the unwrapped butt.
So how does foil make the butt escape the "stall?" Once wrapped, all that moisture is trapped inside the foil. With no place to escape, the humidity jumps up to nearly 100%, effectively ending the cooling effect of surface evaporation.
With this method, I felt pretty confident that my pork would be juicy throughout, but was left a little dismayed when I saw the soft and light bark of the foiled butt sitting next to the glistening, dark black bark of the unwrapped butt. All feelings of remorse faded as I pulled the meat from each butt and saw the difference a little foil made.
The meat of the wrapped butt was considerably juicier at the surface and pulled in thicker strands that retained their moisture for longer—a must when a judge may well be eating your pork between ten and twenty minutes after it was pulled. In comparison, the unwrapped butt's meat was noticeably drier and had a stringy consistency.
After pulling both shoulders, I pumped up the moisture even more by incorporating a barbecue sauce considerably thinned out with an apple juice- and vinegar-based mixture. The wrapped butt's meat held up well to this treatment and was enhanced, while mixing in more liquid made the unwrapped butt turn kind of mushy.
Movin' on Up
I felt confident that I'd nailed the texture by wrapping my pork up, but I was still unhappy that the bark was so soft, diminishing an essential element of the dish. So when it came to my first competition of this summer, I took my lessons and made some adjustments on the fly.
Instead of wrapping the shoulder at the start of the stall, I let it sit until the bark had darkened to my liking. This added an hour or two to the cook, but it was well worth it: The final shoulder was most certainly the best I've ever smoked, with a blackened and flavorful bark paired with meat that was juicy from surface to center.
I went into that competition hoping for a bump up to the middle of the pack—I wanted to set a realistic goal, since I was competing against a group of seasoned pros in a field of fourty-five teams. So it was a nice (okay, elated) flip from last year to learn I placed eleventh in pork, helping me reach a solid ninth place overall. Of course, landing in the top spots is what I'm gunning for, but I'm confident that it's just a matter of light tinkering before this recipe starts sending me home with the trophies to back up the pride I have in my barbecue.