Pulled pork. Nothing gets barbeque guys, pit masters, or smoke hounds' juices flowing and mouths watering quite like a luscious, rich, fatty pig shoulder slowly cooked for hours over low heat. Slow and low baby, that's what it's all about.
I recently went to a locally well regarded place (A16
) best known for their pizza. I had tried to get a table there three times previous and never even could get to the bar. The night I was there, they were running a pork shoulder special. We squeaked in, arriving just before the doors opened at 5:30 on a Thursday. The place was packed by 5:45. The wine was good, and the ambiance was better. I figured I'm finally here and I'm going for the full experience. When the shoulder arrived I couldn't have been more disappointed. The cut of meat was tough and leathery, webbed together by elastic, stringy fat and connective tissue. After the meal as we left, I stopped and asked one of the kitchen staff how they'd cooked the shoulder special. She told me they cooked it for an hour at 400 degrees. This is not the way to prepare swine staddle. No thanks, next time I'll stick with the (stellar) pizza.
The shoulder can be tough cut of meat due to the high amount of connective tissue and fat. These qualities also make the meat very flavorful and moist when prepared correctly. Pork shoulder typically, I think probably, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 140°-160°F for 12 to 24 hours, in some cases longer. This will dissolve the connective tissue into gelatin and give you tender meat.
I've cooked more than a few pork shoulders the good, old fashioned way in my trusty Big Green Egg
. First, let me tell you that I love my big green egg. For those of you uninitiated into the wonders of the glorious BGE, let me explain. The BGE is a ceramic bbq/smoker. The ceramic construction is very efficient. It absorbs and holds in the heat as opposed to a steel cooker that radiates. The lid and body seal tightly. You control the temperature by manipulating two air dampers. Once you get the egg warm and you get to the temperature you want, the design of the egg keeps a very stable temperature and it cooks the hell out of anything. I can't think of a way to cook that is better. Cooking with a BGE is like playing a violin. I like, no I love the egg so much, I own three of the things.
There are a few caveats to eggery however. You have to pay attention to what you are doing to insure there are no temperature spikes or fluctuations, you may have to add more fuel, which means taking everything out from the top, hot and cumbersome, and the thing sends up more smoke (initially anyways) than Mt. Vesuvius which makes my neighbors act like little, Pompeian, Gladys Kravitzes. In the interest of apartment building harmony I use my beloved eggs as sparingly as possible.
This seems like a good opportunity to employ my new go to guy, the sous vide circulator. I am totally digging the sous vide method. Sous vide is french for "under vacuum" and refers to the way you prepare whatever it is you're fixing by first vacuum sealing in it in a plastic bag. You then take the package and cook it in a water bath. The water bath can be kept at precisely the temperature you desire for as long as you want. By keeping your food, in this case our delicious little strut of hog, securely enveloped in the blanket-like swirling waters, it cooks gently and uniformly. Using the Sous vide method, food is basically poached and can not be overcooked. By virtue of being vacuum sealed, the object of your culinary intent cooks in its own juices which do not evaporate and well, you can imagine how tender and lush this is. Meat or vegetables braised in their own juices, cooked to the perfect temperature, every time... Mmmm!
The Decisive Moments!
First, I started with an overnight brine consisting of 1 liter of water, 10% salt and 3% sugar (100 grams salt and 30 grams sugar) in the refrigerator. This is the only brine I really ever use. I've never been able to taste any benefit by adding booze, coriander, or anything else. KISS!
The following day I prepared a rub, just like I would if I was doing the shoulder traditionally. I've been reading David Chang's great cookbook, Momofuku and have been in an Asian inspired mood lately. Accordingly, I used a spice rub that reflected my eastern lusts. In the rub were powdered ginger, powdered hot mustard, 5 spice, granulated onion, granulated garlic, cayenne, sweet paprika, and ground black pepper.
Make sure your porcine friend is totally covered in spice, massage him good. You'll thank yourself for your benevolence later. Now, it's time for the vacuum.
Vacuum sealing the meat can really intensify whatever herbs and spices you add so, keep this in mind and be careful with your flavors.
This is what the package looks like after it has cooked thoroughly. Kinda ugly? I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder. Various sources say to heat your meat from anywhere between 60°C (140F) for 24 hours to 80°C (176F) for 12 hours. I decided to split the difference and go to 68°C (155F) for 24 hours.
Here's the finished roast before pulling.
Gotta pull your meat while it's hot!
My intent was for this to go into a ramen style soup, but, it's pretty damned good on a bun too! The only thing that's missing is some smoke flavor. I rectified that by doing a little tabletop smoking with another gadget, a PolyScience Smoking Gun. That's another tale for another time.
So now, that it's all said and done, my faith in sous vide is increased. Will this hurt my passion for traditional outdoor smoking? No way. I think the new technology is kind of akin to digital photography or using gps navigation. It's always better to know the traditional way but, in the end it gets you get where you want to be just the same, and without visits from the local fire department! Sous Vide is a powerful technique that produces delicious results.