I’ve never researched anything like the way I researched smoking a pork shoulder.
Pork shoulder — aka Boston butt or pork butt — is known as one of the most forgiving meats you can smoke. That didn’t stop me from obsessing about what I needed to do the first time I cooked one in June.
A little background: I know some accomplished cooks. In my family and in my circle of friends, there are a lot of people who throw down in the kitchen and on the barbecue. I’ve always felt a little behind and desired to improve as a cook.
When my propane grill kicked the bucket in the early summer, I looked for a kettle charcoal grill and was lucky enough to find a used one, in good condition, for $25. I bought new grates for it, used a little elbow grease to clean out the inside and she was good as new.
I wanted the kettle grill so I could also “smoke” on it. Sure, I use it for burgers and such, but I wanted to do pork shoulder, ribs and brisket, too. First up was pork shoulder.
I read everything about smoking pork shoulder that I could find. I watched YouTube videos and read up on how best to line up my charcoal. I looked at different ideas for a seasoning rub, settling on a mix that is apparently what Joe’s KC uses.
I purchased a 7.5 pound shoulder from Van Dyke’s in Atchison. About 24 hours before I planned on setting the shoulder on the grill, I applied my rub, wrapped the shoulder in plastic wrap and set it back in the refrigerator. I set up my grill that night so I’d have everything ready to go, which included getting my cooking area ready and setting up the snake method for my coals.
The snake method is simply a line of coals around the outside of your kettle grill. It’s designed to slowly burn through coals so that you’re keeping a constant temperature of 250 F inside your kettle grill. I placed hickory wood chunks on top of the coals for the smoke — enough hickory to last the first few hours.
At 4:50 a.m. on a Saturday I woke up and went outside to light 12 charcoal briquettes — Kingsford original with no additives — in my chimney. I then took the shoulder out of the fridge so its temperature would come up a little before going on the grill.
Once my chimney coals were ashed over, I added them to the end of the snake, placed a disposable aluminum pan filled with hot water under the cooking grate in the area I planned for my shoulder to help regulate heat and catch drippings, then placed the lid on to let the heat build. I used a cooking thermometer to check the temp and at 5:55 a.m., I was at 240 F — it was go time. I placed the unwrapped shoulder on the grate over the water pan and placed the lid back on.
That’s when the waiting game started. All my research told me not to open the lid, but it was a test of patience to keep that lid on. “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking,” as the saying goes. After two hours, I finally pulled the lid up to check the cooking temperature — still holding good at 240 F — and I sprayed a mist of apple juice over the shoulder, which already had a good looking bark forming.
That was the way things went the bulk of the day — check on things every couple hours and spray with apple juice. My snake method didn’t go quite as planned and the coals burned faster than I expected. My cooking grate has hinges on either end so you can open the hinges and add charcoal without taking the entire thing off. I used this to add to my snake and then just rotated the water pan and shoulder as necessary to make sure it wasn’t directly over the heat. I bought heat resistant gloves and they came in handy at this point.
My goal was to get an internal temp of 200 F. Things looked good until I got to 187 F, but my coals ran out of gas and the temp inside my grill fell. Soon, my shoulder’s temp began to fall, getting as low as 180 F. I leaned on the “Texas Crutch,” wrapping my shoulder in aluminum foil and placing it back on the grate. When my temperature still didn’t get higher, I threw another hickory chunk on the coals and it certainly helped. At 6:30 p.m., about 12.5 hours after the cook started, I pulled my shoulder off the grate with an internal temp of 200 F.
I kept it wrapped in the foil and wrapped it further in a pair of towels, then placed it in a cooler for one hour. At 7:30 p.m. I unwrapped it completely and smiled as the bone slid right out of the meat. The bark was good, the meat had a good smoke ring and I used my gloves to pull the meat apart. It was moist and had a great flavor that wasn’t overpowered by smoke.
I slept good that night, knowing I hadn’t screwed up my first pork shoulder. The next day I woke up ready to try ribs and a brisket — and wondering when it would be too soon to do another pork shoulder.