My cousin Michael has a smoker. I’m jealous of this. One of the Charcutepalooza projects was to smoke salmon, and smoked salmon is one of my absolute favorite foods. Smoking salmon is a process – you have to put a bowl of ice in the smoker to create cold smoke, and even then it’s tough to regulate the temperature – but I still wanted to try it.
I’m not willing to buy my own smoker, though, at least not now. Michael paid $350 for his. But now that I know he has it, I may stop by with a couple of salmon steaks and a bag of ice someday.
But for now, I just wanted to see how the smoker works. So last weekend I watched Michael make his pulled pork.
The smoker is just a standing oven that sits on Michael’s front porch. Inside are three racks. On the right is a compartment that holds hickory or mesquite wood chips to flavor the meat.
The day before, Michael smoked two 14-pound Boston butts at 220 degrees for 20 hours. Boston butt is actually a shoulder cut of meat that gets its name from the barrels called “butts” that the meat was packed in around Revolutionary War times.
Before the meat started cooking, Michael also filled the side compartment with hickory chips, and, in place of the lower rack, set a bowl filled ¾ of the way full with a mixture of 50% apple juice and 50% vinegar.
This bowl is essential to making good pulled pork because it catches the drippings from the meat. “That’s like gold, everything that’s in the bottom of that pan,” Michael said. “That’s what’s going to make it or break it.”
The drippings, apple juice, and vinegar actually became the base for Michael’s sauce. He added this mixture to a large pot and cooked it over high heat until it reduced around 50 percent.
Then he stirred in a 72-ounce jug of barbeque sauce – “a cheap, basic sauce,” he said – and about ¼ cup of maple syrup (real or pancake syrup), 1-2 tablespoons of a smoky barbeque rub, 5 shakes around the pan of Old Bay, and about 1/8 cup of hot sauce.
The sauce isn’t an exact science though. Most of those quantities are my estimates. Michael just threw the ingredients in, tasted, and adjusted.
He said his finished pulled pork sauce is North Carolina-style because vinegar is one of the main ingredients. Sure enough, when I tried it, I tasted the acidy bite of the vinegar, as well as the sweetness and heat from the syrup, hot sauce, and spices. I went back to the pot for three more spoonfuls – with a clean spoon , of course – just because I liked the taste of the sauce.
While the sauce cooked, my uncle and Michael pulled the pork.
I tried to help. But the reality is that I probably slowed them down with my questions.
“Do you keep the skin? It feels kind of tough.” Yes, Michael said, that’s what it makes it good.
“Do you keep this part? It looks a little gray.” He looked at whatever was in my hand and told me to throw it away.
“Ew, this feels like fat.” The fat isn’t tough though, he said. It softens in the smoker and gives the pork flavor, so sometimes I should keep it.
Michael had two huge pots of pulled pork for Mother’s Day when we were done. He added a couple of ladles of sauce, maybe about ½ cup, to each pot. Later, he served the rest of the sauce on the side, so people add more to their tastes.
Right before I left, Michael had some final parting words about smoking meat. He looked in the sink at the pan that held the apple juice, vinegar, and drippings. Perhaps he was also thinking of the smoker outside.
“You’ll definitely need Ajax,” he said.
Do you ever use a smoker? What do you serve with your pulled pork?