One hundred degrees to go. I have a pork shoulder smoking on the grill, and the internal temperature just reached 104°. In a few – or perhaps many – hours, the temperature will reach the sweet spot, around 200°. That may sound seriously overdone if you are unfamiliar with low and slow barbecue, but let me assure you, magic happens when a pork shoulder is given enough time and_just_enough heat to allow the collagen to melt and the meat to reach succulent glory. While it may take ten hours to get the meat cooked, pulled apart, and piled on a bun, a pulled pork sandwich is a gift from the gods of smoke and fire. A gift all the sweeter, perhaps, because of the effort involved in creating it.
I’ve smoked several pork shoulders over the years, with mixed results, but I’m getting better at aligning the barbecue stars. I no longer get nervous about the cooking temperature being too low or the meat’s internal temperature rising too slowly. Those sessions when I added coals to the fire to bump up the heat and speed up the process were the lessons learned by a younger, less experienced pit jockey. I was concerned with getting the meat on the table in time for dinner; I had to please the family, the guests. We have a schedule, dammit! Of course, rushing a pork shoulder to doneness yields little more than arid porcine hunks that must be chopped rather than pulled. It would have been better on those nights to order a pizza. Everybody likes pizza. Nobody likes dry pork.
The most sinister part of true pork shoulder smoking is “the stall,” and it has been the downfall of many a pit practitioner. The stall is a phenomenon that occurs when a pork shoulder reaches around 160°. The temperature has slowly, steadily risen over several hours of careful grill management, and you think you are on a perfect glide path to 200°, when everything stops. For an hour, two, or even three, the internal temperature of the meat doesn’t change. Progress stops, and, sometimes, hearts break. The first time it happened to me, I was frantic and desperate for a solution. I chose more fire, boosting the temp to a forge-like 400°. As the Grail Knight said, I chose poorly. What I needed was patience. I should have maintained the heat around 250° and waited, but I was naive and desperate to please my family. They were polite as they gnawed on the leathery bits of pork, but I knew I had failed in my quest for barbecue glory. Lesson learned.
This morning, I woke a 7 a.m. to get the wood chips soaking and the coals started. By 8, the temperature in the grill was 250° and the meat was resting on a steel grate, swathed in a blanket of smoke. I worked out, showered, enjoyed a breakfast of eggs, sausage, and blueberry muffins prepared by my daughter, and now I’m sitting in my backyard tapping away on my keyboard. All the while, I’ve been monitoring the temperatures, adding a few coals to keep the cooking temperature around 250° and adding handfuls of wet wood to keep the smoke billowing. That’s one trick for the serious pit master: get up early and avoid the rush. I hope the pork will be ready for dinner around 6 p.m., but if it’s not – if it decides to be stubborn and not want to surrender it’s collagen in a timely manner – I have a standing order with Domino’s. No worries.
As I sit watching the blue-gray curls of cherry wood smoke waft from the edges of my grill, I hear a violin playing in a nearby backyard, and it’s lovely. It’s my neighbor’s son playing. He’s quite good, but he misses a note or two, here and there. Nothing a bit of practice – and patience – won’t fix.
We are all just practicing, aren’t we? Just trying to figure out the right way. I suspect there is no real right way. All we can do is keep trying, manage the heat, make use of the smoke that sometimes gets in our eyes, be patient, and hope that you get a decent sandwich out of it. If that doesn’t work, order a pizza.
Happy Memorial Day. As someone more eloquent than I once said, thank you to those who sacrificed all, those who sacrificed some, and those who still sacrifice to preserve our freedom.