Smoking a Pork Shoulder on a Charcoal Grill

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All About Pork Shoulder

Many people prefer pork shoulder because the skin surrounding the shoulder keeps it much juicier than other parts of the pig. Pork is an unprocessed source of both fat and protein that can be an incredibly tasty addition to any paleo or ketogenic diet. Pork contains all nine essential amino acids necessary for your body’s maintenance and growth. If you’re a bodybuilder, athlete, recovering from surgery or simply want to build muscle, you’ll want to try out this recipe sooner than later.

Traditionally, pork has been rubbed with spices such as cumin, chili powder, dill, caraway seeds, fennel, garlic, paprika, rosemary, sage, cayenne, thyme and coriander. Besides peach nectar and clove, brown sugar and apples have proven to add just the right amount of sweetness to this meat.

Also called the “picnic roast” or “picnic shoulder,” pork shoulder is not to be confused with pork butt or Boston butt. While pork shoulder is cut from the thinner, triangle-shaped end of the shoulder, pork butt or Boston butt comes from the thicker end above it. Both are taken from the front limbs. The actual rear of a pig, on the other hand, is called ham.

One of the best things about pork shoulder is that it’s really hard to mess it up. Pork shoulder is an incredibly forgiving slab of meat and becomes more tender as it cooks. When it comes to grilling and barbecuing pork shoulder, lengthy cooking times are your friend. Even if the meat stays on the grill a few minutes too long, it won’t turn dry or rubbery.

Video

Grilled Pork Steak

 Step 1. Mix a marinade and let the pork steaks ba

  • Step 1. Mix a marinade and let the pork steaks bathe in it for a few hours refrigerated – overnight works great. 
  • Step 2. Take the pork out of the fridge and bring it to room temperature. Meanwhile heat your grill to medium-high (about 400 F  for gas or 375 F for charcoal, coals will have a faint coat of ash). If using a grill-pan indoors heat it over your stove top on medium-high heat.
  • Step 3. Scrape off the marinade from the steaks and grill for 5-8 minutes on each side, depending on how thick they are. Under 3/4 inch around 5 minutes per side, well over an inch close to 8 minutes per side. Season with salt and pepper a little before you flip them (first side) and a few minutes before you remove them from the grill. 

Pork shoulder steak is food safe when the internal temperature reaches 145 F.   

You can grill pork steaks until up to 160 – 180 F for well-done before you take them off the grill and let them rest for a few minutes, the meat juices should run clear. You can loosely cover them with foil during the rest.

Smoking

Time and Temperature – How do I know when my butt is cooked?

No matter what your hardware is, you want to be cooking at 225° for about 1½ hours per pound. The time is very variable, and depends on your exact piece of meat and environment, so you’re going to be judging when it’s done by internal temperature. Use a probe thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, and plan to call it finished when it reaches 195°‒205°.

225° is widely considered the Holy Grail of smoking temperatures, providing the perfect level of controlled, low heat to slowly soften and melt the connective tissue without drying out the lean meat. Of course, as with all things barbecue, there’s still a lot of debate: many meat geeks will argue that 250° is better, if for no other reason than because it speeds up the process. I always recommend 225° when smoking pork for novices. Also, invest in a good thermometer for reading the internal temperature of your grill.  Check out our main page for thermometers here. The factory temperature gauges on grills are rarely reliable.

Keeping your smoker or grill at an exact temperatu

Keeping your smoker or grill at an exact temperature can prove troublesome for newbies, but don’t let it scare you off. In no time at all you’ll dial in how much fuel and oxygen your grill or smoker requires. From there, it’s just a matter of figuring out how often you need to add in more fuel (briquettes). As long as the smoker stays between 225° and 250°, you’ll be fine. If ambient temperature spikes do happen (as they do), reduce the ambient temperature to keep things under 300°. There’s enough mass here that a few short spikes won’t ruin a smoked pork shoulder. This is also a good reason to pick up a nice WiFi thermometer (like our wining pick, Signals by ThermoWorks). It could save your butt.

The Stall – Why is my pork taking so long to smoke?

So things are going well so far. You’ve got the heat dialed in, the internal temperature of the meat is steadily rising, and you’re mentally setting a dinner time, but then something happens: the temperature just sits around 150° and won’t move. There’s nothing wrong with your thermometer – you’ve encountered The Stall.

As the muscles cook, they contract and push out water starting around 110° and finishing around 160°. That water gradually makes its way to the surface of the meat and starts cooling the meat through evaporation, much like your body cools by sweating. Around 150°, this cooling starts to cancel out the cooking power of the 225° environment. At this point, the pork can’t cook until one of a few things happen: the water cooks off, you wrap the meat in foil to prevent evaporation, or you crank up the heat.

2 Hacks to Fast-foward Past the Stall

2 Hacks to Fast-foward Past the Stall

Your first option is to do nothing until the meat has exuded all the water it’s going to. This might take 2 to 4 hours, but the results are well worth it. This period is perfect for developing collagen on the interior and bark on the exterior. If you’ve got the time, just grab another drink and let it be.

 Aside from maintaining consistent pit temperature

Aside from maintaining consistent pit temperature, the biggest thing that newbies struggle with is the Stall. It’s the time where everything seems to come to a halt and no matter what you do the meat’s temperature doesn’t increase. This arouses contempt into the stomachs of your guests — you begin to panic because you told them they would be dining on delicious BBQ come 6pm — lucky for you, you know better and prepared in advance for the Stall. Bravo.

If you haven’t gotten it by now, we’ll summarize: the Bark is the best part of a pulled pork.

It’s crispy and salty, a little spicy…and just jam-packed with smoky flavor. Every crunchy bite is a treat and pulling apart the bark of a pork butt with your hands to reveal all that gooey, juicy and fatty pulled pork is incredibly satisfying. You can break up the bark and mix it in with all that shredded pork…or just rip off big, salty chunks and chow down with your fingers.

#1 Higher Temperature

The Stall happens because the cooking power of the smoker comes into balance with the evaporative cooling of the water. You can beat it by pushing on the cooking power side of the balance. Crank up your heat to about 310° and keep a very close eye on your temperature readings. Once the meat gets up to about 170°, bring the heat back down to 225° to glide into a smooth finish.

The downside of this method is that it’s high-risk. Overdo it, and you’ll ruin your meat. You also miss out on prime collagen development time, making your meat a little less tender.

#2 The Texas Crutch

The Stall is caused by water evaporating into the air, so you can beat it by removing the air. It sounds like it should be a wrestling move, but the Texas Crutch is to wrap your meat tightly in aluminum foil for two hours or so. This keeps the water from evaporating and shuts down The Stall.

The downside is that your meat is now braising instead of smoking. Nothing wrong with a good braise, but it’s not what we’re going for here. The Texas Crutch inhibits the formation of bark, so if you love that stuff, you might want to avoid this move.

Finishing – When is a Pork Done?

Target internal temp is 195°‒205°, but you should augment the number by feeling the meat. Grab the bone with a protected hand and give it a little twist. If the bone moves really easily, you’re ready. If it still offers resistance, you need a little longer to pull it properly. If you’re cooking a boneless butt, use a fork to gauge resistance. If the meat pulls right apart, you’re there.

Cooking Internal Temperatures for Pork Doneness
ChopsTenderloinButt (Shoulder)
Pull Temperature 138 – 140 °F 135 – 137 °F 195 – 205 °F
Done Temmperature 145 °F 145 °F 200 – 210 °F
Rest Time 3 – 5 min 15 min 30 min

If you’re used to cooking steaks, you might be thinking about carryover heat and pulling your smoked pork early to coast into the good zone. That’s a concept that doesn’t really apply here. Carryover is an issue when the inside and outside of your meat are at radically different temperatures, like a rare steak with a 400° exterior. Here, the inside of the meat is 200° and the outside is 225°. They’ll equalize a little, but not enough to matter.

Holding – My Pork is Done, What Now?

Smoked pork butt is a wonderful thing, but there are no guarantees.

Maybe you get a long stall, or maybe it cruises through quick. Maybe your smoker was a little cold, or a little hot. In any case, you should start your pork shoulder with plenty of time to spare, and be prepared to hold it for serving later.

2 Hacks for Holding

Food service guidelines say that hot food should be kept over 140°F — lower temperatures encourage the growth of bacteria. Your smoked pork is well over that now, so you just need to keep it in an insulated environment so it holds onto that heat. You’ve got two devices around the house that can accomplish that right now.

#1 Using the Oven

The oven is the obvious choice. Set it as low as it will go, wrap the pork in foil tightly, and pop it in. The problem is that home ovens can’t really hold a low temperature that well. You’ve already got a thermometer in the meat, so keep an eye on it. Your oven might be OK, or you might need to cycle it: 15 minutes on the lowest setting, 30 minutes off, and don’t open the door.

#2 The Cooler Method

The better choice might be an ordinary cooler. Modern coolers, especially the fancy ones, are extremely well-insulated. Wrap up the cut in foil, a few towels, and put it in the cooler. If your weather is on the cool side, you can charge up your cooler by filling it with hot tap water first to heat it up. In any case, keep an eye on the thermometer.

For more adventures with a cooler, check out The Food Lab and see how to cook sous-vide steaks with a cooler!

Pulling

When it’s time to eat, start by removing the bone. It should slide right of the meat. Give it a tug and twist, it should come right out. You can then pull the meat apart into shred-like chunks, using claws, a couple of forks, or the old-fashioned way – with your hands.

Let’s cook the thing

Now that you’ve read all that, it is time to cook. To smoke your very first pulled pork on a charcoal grill, you will need:

  • A bone-in pork shoulder in the 5-6 pound range
  • Salt, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon per pound, depending on the crystal size (Use a larger volume of salt if the crystals are large.)
  • Salt-free rub of your choice. (I have been using Rocky’s Rub because the people at SnS sent it to me for free, but any nearly all of these will work if you omit the salt.)

The day before you plan to smoke your shoulder, take it out of the fridge and trim the fat as described above. Salt the pork on all sides, set in pan, and return to the fridge for 12-24 hours.

Photo: Claire Lower

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Remove the pork from the fridge and start setting up your grill. Arrange your charcoal in the snake formation as shown above. Your snake should be at least 24 briquettes-long, stacked two high and two wide, with some single coals along the top of the snake. Add your wood chips, a few every couple of briquettes, with most of them towards the beginning of the snake, and fewer on the latter half. Fill your chimney about 1/3 of the way full with charcoal, and light a lighter cube or some newspaper underneath the coals. Once the coals are mostly ashed over, dump them at the beginning of the snake (the side with more wood chips), set a drip pan in the center of your snake, and fill it about halfway with boiling water.

Set the grill grate over the snake, apply your rub to your meat, and set the pork shoulder over the drip pan in the center of the grill. Stick one thermometer probe in the thickest part of pork that’s at least an inch away from the bone, and another one near—but not touching—the shoulder. Close it up with the exhaust vent opposite from the hottest coals, open the intake dampener fully, and the exhaust dampener halfway.

Once your grill temperature reaches around 200℉, adjust your exhaust dampeners so they’re opened just a sliver. Let the temp stabilize, and adjust more if needed. If you need your temperature to rise, open the top vents a little more; if you need it to fall, close the bottom vents a bit (as you probably cannot close the top anymore with closing them completely). Keep an eye on the temp and make small adjustments as needed to keep things between 225℉ and 25o℉.

Smoke until your pork reaches an internal temperature of at least 194℉, rotating the lid every once in a while to keep the exhaust vent on the opposite side from the burning coals. (You won’t be able to see exactly where the coals are burning, so just move it a couple of inches every hour and a half or so.) Temp-wise, I know some people like to go higher, but none of my shoulders have ever broken 200℉, and all have been incredibly tender, juicy, and delicious. As long as that bone feels loose, you’re good.

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Once your pork is done, remove it from the grill with a big spatula or meat claws and get it on a cutting board or in a pan. It will look burnt, but it is not. It is smoked, and that black exterior is your delicious bark. Remove the bone, and shred the meat with two forks (or BBQ claws). I like to shred the meat as I go, rather than shred it all at once, but either way is fine. Serve with buns, coleslaw, your favorite BBQ sauce, and maybe some pickles, and be prepared to receive many compliments. You did it, and I am so very proud of you.

   

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