Jul 12 2010

Pulled Pork Tips

We did our third big pulled-pork event this weekend.  Actually, it was our third and fourth: we did a whole hog — a big one, about 330 pounds live-weight — and took half of it to a birthday party in Angel’s family and the other half to my niece’s wedding reception.  I guess we’re getting the hang of it, because it went more smoothly than before, even though we cooked more meat.  People at both parties raved about it — even people who didn’t know we’d cooked it, so I assume they were being honest — so I thought I’d share a few things we’ve learned.

1.  Start with good meat.

I can’t stress this enough.  When people ask me how we make it so good, I tell them, “It’s all in the hog.”  That’s pretty much true.  All we do is rub it down with salt and pepper and cook it until it’s done.  Most of the flavor and texture comes from the hog: the breed, how it lived, what it ate, and so on.  There’s a good article that talks about “food provenance.”  He points out that wine snobs understand that everything that goes into a bottle of wine affects the taste, starting with the soil fertility and variety of grapes, through the amount of sun and rain they get, right down to the type of cork that’s used.  People typically only think that way about wine, but other foods are bound to reflect the same influences.

If you buy conventional pork from the store, it comes from a hog that was bred over the generations to be as lean as possible, lived inside on concrete slats,  and ate nothing but a grain mixture all its life.  It’s no surprise that it tastes different from a hog that was bred to be a little fatter so it could handle the outdoors in winter and summer, lived on dirt and dug for roots, and drank from a creek.  The meat from those two hogs will be as different as a fine bottle of wine is from a box of wine, for many of the same reasons.

2.  Rub with salt and pepper.

You could add other spices, but the meat tastes so good I think it’s unnecessary.  I can’t say how much to use, because I just grab some.  We grind the pepper up fresh, but I don’t suppose that makes much difference.  If you use pre-ground pepper, you’ll probably just need to use more.  It’s hard to use too much on these big chunks of meat, since most of the meat isn’t on the surface.

3.  Cook it slowly.

We pack as much as we can into each roaster and cook it at 250, so it wound up taking about 18-20 hours.  Kabrick’s cut it into about 10-pound sections, so 2-3 of them fit into each roaster.  They also separated the ribs from the other parts, because the ribs cook faster.  That was nice, because we were able to start shredding the rib parts while the others were finishing.

You’ll need a good meat thermometer, so you can cook it to 205 degrees internal temperature.  That seems high, since pork chops should only be cooked to about 145; but 205 is the point at which the collagen that holds the fibers together breaks down.  At 205, the meat just falls off the bone and you can pull it apart with ease.  Even at 195 you have to work a lot harder to shred it, so the temperature is critical.  Go much past 205, and it’ll probably start drying out.

4.  Get some Bear Paws.

Bear Paws are awesome.  We had them last time, but we hadn’t really gotten the hang of them yet.  I think we were trying to use them like forks: stick one fork into a chunk of meat, and use the other fork to pull off shreds.  That’s not right.  You have to put one up against the meat, and then reach through it with the other one and pull as much through as you can grab.  It’s easier to do than to describe.  (Next time I’ll take some pictures or video to demonstrate.)  Once we got the hang of it, we shredded the whole thing in about three hours, and our hands didn’t hurt from pulling at it with forks.

5.  Save some juice.

When you pull the meat out of a roaster to shred it, pour the juices into a large stockpot or something to cool.  Most of the fat will rise to the top.  When you’re ready to put the meat back into the roaster to keep it warm, skim the fat off the juices until you get down to the dark pork broth.  (Chickens love the fat.)  Dip about a quart of this broth back into the roaster.  That’s to help keep it moist, so if you’re planning on a long day, you might use more.  It’s got a ton of flavor, so it adds some of that too.  If you’re going to add barbecue sauce (sacrilege!), you may want to pour some of the juices off first, so it isn’t too soupy.

That’s about it.  Do all that, and you should have pulled pork everyone will be talking about.  If you’re stuck on step #1 without a source for good quality hogs, contact us.  We have some going to market every few weeks, and we can set you up with one (or a half), custom butchered to your specs.

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