By Chef Ken Dempsey
If you know me at all, you know I spend A LOT of time out in my BBQ pit. Even as I am writing this at 10 p.m., there are two pork butts (pork butts are actually shoulders, often referred to as Boston Butt) in my Weber smoker right now to be devoured by colleagues for lunch tomorrow. I have tried and failed at many BBQ experiments more than I would like to admit, but through these failures, I have learned extremely valuable lessons. But let’s be honest, even less than perfect BBQ is better than no BBQ. Although there are many more, I have picked just five tips to share with you all from what I’ve learned when it comes to smoking pork butts.
1. Picking the butt
“I like big butts and I cannot lie.” No seriously, fat is flavor, so look for about a 10-lb butt that has an even, solid, white cap.
Don’t buy a boneless butt. I’ve purchased some without realizing they were boneless and wasn’t happy with the end result. It wasn’t as tender or juicy as it should have been, The bone aids in cooking by helping the collagen and fat to melt evenly; coating the meat to make every bite MOIST… there… I said it!
Find a butt that’s vacuum sealed juices are reddish in color. That red color is myoglobin, which, long story short, is a natural tenderizer. It’s also a sign of quick packaging, indicating the butt is still fresh.
2. Trimming the Butt
People ask me what they should trim from their butt. Nothing! Don’t trim anything from the butt. There is nothing that hurts me more than seeing a respectable magazine or TV show tell people to trim all the fat from meat. You can’t trust these people. Remember this—Fat is Flavor. Can I get an AMEN!
3. Don’t Rub the Butt (at least not yet)
Some people are going to disagree with this, but hear me out. I’ve spent countless hours, hundreds of dollars, and many wasted ingredients on the perfect BBQ rub only to be disappointed by the end result of a carefully smoked pork butt. The problem is I could never taste all the cumin, celery seed, onion powder, garlic, or any other seasoning for that matter. The reason why is an insanely long smoke time. Smoke is a powerful ingredient and requires a little thought when it comes to how to get other flavors to shine. There are basically three flavor profiles that remain on a pork butt with any significance over such a long cook time: salt, pepper, and heat (like a cayenne) so save your rub for later. I now start by seasoning the butt with only Kosher salt and coarse pepper and it makes all the difference!
4. Rubbing the Butt (now you can rub the butt)
I have what I think is the perfect rub for nearly everything I smoke including chicken, ribs, turkey, and even shrimp. It’s a little sweet, a little spicy, a little herby … and I still use it on pork butts too. I just wait to put it on right before I wrap the butt (about 6-7 hours in), which does 2 things: (1) it prevents the smoke from overpowering and drowning the seasonings in the rub, and (2) it allows all the seasonings to marry with the natural juices from the rendering fat and collagen, thus creating an insanely flavorful sauce.
5. Resting the Butt
This is really important. After your butt reaches the final destination temperature of about 195 degrees (this temp can vary a bit but ultimately, it’s done when it’s done), leave the butt wrapped and let it rest for at least 2 hours off the smoker. (This is a good time to bust out the smoked sausage and cheese because you need patience with this one). Keep it whole until right before you pull it. I generally wait until the last possible second to pull it—like right before we eat. In fact, if I’m only using half the butt, I will only pull half and pack the other half away for later. This keeps the butt from drying out and helps maintain optimal flavor.
I have started making kind of a natural BBQ sauce that I mix back into the pork right after I’ve pulled it. This sauce really enhances the juices already in the meat and has a very natural flavor. Mixing this sauce with the pork really negated the need for a BBQ sauce on a sandwich in my opinion.
To make this sauce:
In a medium sized sauce pan, take the reserved juices from the smoked butt (in the foil wrappings), 2 TBSP brown sugar, 2 TBSP white vinegar and cook on medium heat until reduced by half. Mix back into the pulled pork and gently combine.