A lot of Minnesotan’s want to give that ground hog a good burial right now. It weren’t too long ago, yonder in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the wily rodent emerged from his earthen hollow and declared for us all an early spring. And spirits leapt. Turns out tho one, Punxsutawney Phil, is full of crap. Yup. Ever since then it’s been one blizzard after another. Up here in Minnesota lately, driveways have been lost for weeks. Squirrels buried and orphaned. Icicles stalactites draw longer from the roof than the Trump administration. And the sun seems like a distant relative of whom you can’t quite remember their face. Welcome to March in Minnesota.
I woke up the other day with a sincere hankering for some good BBQ. Being the Keeper of the Coals that I am, I knew it was within my duty spectrum and skill set to do something about it. Now to get a good BBQ on in this inhospitable parallel, you must first dig out your pit, as shown in the accompanying photo. Some days this is as easy as taking to it with a little whisk broom. A few swipes of your fairy tale wand and you’re good to smoke. Other days not so much, and full-on, shovel action is required. Such was the case this Sunday last. I dug and I dug. And I dug and I dug some more. And eventually, whilst the crisp six below wind swept off the frozen pond, I had myself a pit proper again. I employed the propane assist on my vintage 1997 Weber Performer to get things cracking. I like that feature. Not as poetic, perhaps, as the political section stuff up the aluminum arse of a charcoal chimney, but nay, it is a manly way to light one’s charcoal for sure. And whilst the smoke curled in kind there, I gave a few final finishing touches with the snow shovel and headed inside to assess the pork shoulder. Come with me won’t you. Come check out this butt!
That’s one pork butt you see there. It was so big, I felt compelled to lop it in halves to spare a little time on the cook. But more, to increase surface area to garner more bark. An old pit keepers trick I’ve used many times. The rub today is probably our current favorite pork butt and rib rub, from the good folks at Miners Mix. If you’ve not tried their products yet, well you’re missing something out of your lives. That’s all I can say. They’re legit. As good as rubs come, we think. And no they don’t pay us anything other than send us a few bottles now and then. Good stuff. Anyhow, we liberally seasoned the bone-in butt with Maynard’s Memphis Rub and set her on the Weber kettle, indirect, for the next 7 hours. We dug out. Now we’re diggin’ in!
The technique we used here, as you can just make out in the photo, worked really well. We used the old stock grate that came with the pit, you know the stainless steel kind with the hinged trap door deals on either side. It was the perfect tool for this smoke. Under each hinged door, we set one charcoal basket with some hickory wood, some lit charcoals and some unlit coals, making two little minion baskets, you might say. As the cook progresses, all you need do is knock the ash off the coals now and then and add more unlit briquettes as necessary. Maybe some more wood too. It sort of just keeps rocking on like that until thy meat lands gently on the hallowed shores of succulence. 195 to 205 internal. Or until that bone comes out clean.
A Matter of Time
Pork shoulders take some considerable clock however. These kind of smokes are not for the easily bored or the impatient. They are for the loiterers among us. Those who can tarry in a view for hours on end and still think well of their lives. Butt smokes take time. Time to flip up your feet in your favorite chair, tip your hat over your eyes, and let yourself drift into the heavenly land of nod. Time to watch the game, or a movie, or even both. Time to chase the cat around, or the baby. Time to loiter with a lovely periodical in the little pit boys room until your legs go numb. Indeed, time to let up on the accelerator pedal of life for a while, and just be…
Time to do what ever you want really. And that’s what I love most about butt smoking. The time it takes. You see, when you take the time to smoke a butt, you’re really stealing some “me time” in a most hectic world. Even your people will tend to leave you alone if they know your cooking them supper. BBQ is hard work after all! Must leave the pit master to his calling, they think. And a wise pit jockey will do his kindest to water that weed!
Behold, Mount Pork Hath Risen! Succulent, hickory smoked pulled pork courtesy of the Weber kettle and a goodly amount of time. Quality time, patron to the pit. Amen.
March in Minnesota. Don’t believe a ground hog!
The Ring Of Fire
The lightning bolts shot jaggedly through the early morning sky, and the thunder boomed with a deafening authority, whilst our fellow patron stirred restlessly in his bed. It was 5:30 in the blessed morning, the hour of the butts, as it were, and time then to light the fires three. Three pits and 55 pounds of marinated pork shoulder. An estimated 15 hours of cooking lay ahead. A day of smoking bordering pert near biblical – a life event and utopia in meat. But the rain storms which parlayed through the night, and lingered into the morning, did not dampen the resolve of our faithful patron, and caretaker of the Track-Side Pit.
“Hark“, he belched, “I am a patron of the pit, I won’t let a little rain and lightening keep me from my appointed rounds! ”
Thus tarps were strung, and wind breaks sought, as he trimmed his pits towards the tempest. A pit keeper always finds a way, you see. And soon, the rains dissolved, as if in submission to a warm, blue sky and passionately curling plumes of hickory smoke. The fires hath ignited, people, and the games were on.
It seems our fellow patron was throwing a party for 200 of his closest friends. So like any man would, he bought a bunch of meat. Pork shoulder to be exact. Fifty five pounds of it. Glory be! This turned out to be a fair share and quantitative mass to exceed the capacity of his off-set smoker. And so about two days ago, naturally, he came knocking at my door. A patron has got to back another patron’s play, don’t you know, so I let him drive off with my beloved 22.5 WSM. I told him to treat it as if he were dating my offspring. He obliged heartily, and made off in a cloud of gravel dust.
The meat load exceeded the capacity limits of his off-set, and the WSM too, which I didn’t think was even possible, so somewhere along the way, he managed to scrounged up yet another smoker. A wee little electric model from the MECO company. A pit keeper proper will find a way people. Every time.
Turned out three pits were just right. Three smoking vessels set up for business, wrapping in a picturesque, smokey arc about his man chair, forming the hallowed BBQ dwelling and smoke camp our fellow patron lovingly coined, “The Ring Of Fire“. And the Triple Pit Smoke Out of 2014 was thus official. And by high noon, a total of 7 pork butts with adorning drip trays were already 5 hours into what would be a 17 hour marathon smoke. A hickory scented campaign of which would ply and test the very fabric of patience that which loosely clings to a tender soul. Smoking butts is a time-rich indulgence, and lest your butt be of the wee sort, it will extract some considerable clock out of your day. It will. The scope of common sense would harken it not even worth the trouble. But to an old-time pit jockey, this is what we live for. This is what we do! And what did here, you might say, was a whole lot of nothing. I digress.
That’s the nature of good BBQ. That is, at heart of the matter you will find a soul on the scenic path. For there are quicker ways to cook dinner in this world. Those of us who do it over wood and coals, and low and slow, quite frankly are in no hurry. Nay, we cherish the rising tendrils of blue-tinted smoke, and the longer the cook endures, well, the more we revel in its hearty spoils. The more we savor the journey. The process. It is our privilege to take that which we love, in this case, BBQ, and extend the moment for the moment’s sake. To hold the sun by the tail, and try to pause it there, hemorrhaging in a pastel sky. Ho hurries. That’s how we roll. Anyways, long about five in the afternoon, ten hours total thus far into this smokey campaign, the internal temperatures of the butts were hovering in around the 165 degree range, and you know what that means. Or maybe you don’t. If you are not familiar with the art and science of smoking the big meats, what happens around 165 is what meat maestros affectionately refer to as “The Stall“. And it’s always an interesting time.
At around 160 – 165, basically what happens is your meat forms a union and it goes on strike. It refuses, most times, to rise in internal temperature. The thermal doldrums of conventional BBQ. And it tries a man. What happens, they say, is the water in the pork is cooked out at that point, and the collagen begins to render. And tough begins to turn tender. It’s where the “magic happens”, pit keepers like to say. And for a while, sometimes even a greater while, the internal temperature gets stuck. And it appears on the surface of things as tho no progress is being made, even tho it is. Eventually tho, and reluctantly at that, the temp starts climbing again, and finally exits the stall, some times hours later. If you’d like to know more about the science of what is going on here, and it is some very interesting stuff indeed, we’d refer you to this article by one, Meathead, who explains it very nicely. Anyways, I went to pay our fellow patron a visit during the stall. To offer support during this trying time, and to partake in some of his smokey ambiance he had going on at the Track Side Pit.
He was hard at work when I got there, sitting in his folding man chair, considering the curvature of his belly button or something. I knew he was probably concerned for his plunder tho, not to mention a bit weary from ten hours loitering in the ring of fire, so I did what any good patron would do, I brought him a Dilly Bar. Ah yes, the venerable Dairy Queen stand-by. The ice cream swirl on a stick and dipped in chocolate gastronomic wonder, one of which brought a large smile to us both, as we sat back and watched the smoke curl together. It was clear, he enjoyed some company no less than the Dilly Bar. And understandably so. A man, you see, is particularly receptive to the good things in life when his meat has stalled. Any little victory he will take.
“I’ve been out here since 7 AM“, he croaked.
“Oh yeah“, I said, quizzically
“Yeah“, he continued, “I would have started earlier if it weren’t for the lightning storm this morning”
He slurped a big chunk off his ice cream, and added, “But I had to man up and get it done. The heck with the storms, I’m a Patron of the Pit!”
I finished off my dilly bar, and looked at all the pits puffing serenely into the muggy, Minnesota sky. The rains long gone now. It was a beautiful sight indeed. A train loaded with heavy coal suddenly rumbled by, rattling the earth like a waking volcano, rhythmic and pounding, yet some how soothing and therapeutic. It rumbled for a couple of minutes until it finally tapered into the distance and silence flooded back to the track side pit.
I tossed my ice cream stick into the trash, and yammered, “You know, you can go inside once in a while if you want to. These pits can baby sit themselves for a while.”
“Oh, I can’t do that“, he countered, “The wife thinks I’m working hard out here!”
“Crikies“, I croaked, “Yes, you mustn’t mess with that illusion! Good move old boy!”
This is one of the greater acts of deviance in the BBQ condition. The oft held high esteem for the pit master as being some sort of wizard that which requires long and protracted hours of manning the pit. If you value the quality of your supper, you’ll leave the pit keeper alone to do his duties, you see. This notion that he should be left alone out there is maybe only one half-engendered by circumstance and myth perhaps, but more importantly, it is widely accepted as truth by the significant other. Thus releasing a man for the duration of his smoke-out to do what ever he bloody well feels like. And this might explain, when you think about it, the occasional need for a pit keeper to smoke a 17 hour pork butt. Savvy?
Pit Hijinks and The Final Pull
We enjoyed some mutual agreement and insight there on the patio, and I lingered a bit more, I must say, legs crossed like a gentleman of leisure, watching our fellow patron’s acute talent for pit craft. He did something of which I don’t reckon I’d ever seen the likes of before in backyard BBQ. Lifting the lid to the little electric smoker, tongs in hand, he sought to manipulate the pork shoulder residing in there. Plumes of hickory smoke bellow out as he attempts to muckle on to the meat. And most of it he does, except for piece that prematurely pulled, you might say, and shot head long into the sky. And there it went, a good-sized chunk of smokey pork, a sandwich’s worth at least, launching skyward like a hickory scented meat missile. Up up up it went, until it too stalled at the hand of gravity, rotated slightly there against a lovely, Minnesota sky, crickets chirping, and made henceforth its return trip to earth. Now here is where it gets interesting. That glob of dripping pork landed smack dab in the middle of a piece of tin foil, one that our fellow patron had rolled out on a side table there just prior. It plopped to foil with a metallic thud, followed by a wiping of the patron’s brow, and I think a couple of hallelujahs were uttered too, just cause.
“Nice show!” I belched, “You could take this act on the road!”
Anyways, we lamented a spell more about the mysteries of stalling meat, and then I bid the man farewell. I had places to go, and things to do. OK, not really, but the bugs were coming out, and it was getting late. He understood, and thanked me kindly for the visit and the ice cream. And I left him to his own devises , there amid the curling smoke, sizzling pork, and another choo choo train building in the distance.
The Smoke De Force endured into darkness. With great resolve, numerous lovely beverages in hand, and an I-Pad on his lap, our fellow patron stayed the course. The smell of slow-smoked pork mingled with the earthy aromas of a summer’s night, and the sound of a pit keeper slapping his forehead for the carbide-tipped mosquitoes which prospected there. At one o’clock in the morning, 17 glorious hours later, he pulled the last butt off the pit and retired to bed. It had been a long day indeed. But a good day, as day’s go, where the wood smoke also rises. Amen.
They looked like meteorites swaddled in tin foil, and smelled nothing short of ridiculously wonderful. Each butt marinated over night and seasoned in raspberry chipotle rub, from the Wayzata Bay Spice Company, before the smoke. It was enough to make a hungry bloke mist over, it smelled so good. Later it was pulled to perfection, and set forth unto our people, with no less than three home-made BBQ sauces, of course, representing each end of the heat spectrum, and a little honey mustard sauce some where right in the middle, for those who just can’t make up their mind. Rounded off with a dollop of cool home-made slaw, Carolina style. Man! And the masses of people were thus pacified.
17 Hour slow smoked pulled pork topped Carolina style with homemade coleslaw and touch of sauce. Man oh man! This is what BBQ is all about, people. It don’t get no better.
Every once in a while, a pit jockey develops a hankering to cook something big. Something epic. A festering itch not particularly, nor suitably scratched via anything you’ll find in the simple realm of hamburgers or hot dogs. Nay, it is a bit more involved than that. It usually requires big, obscene chunks of pig, and it usually takes protracted quantities of precious time. And such was the case today, under gorgeous, blue, Minnesota skies, and darting tweety birds, that we would mark off an entire day from the calendar for the simple pleasure of slow smoking some meat, and then of course, ingesting it at day’s end. It would be a long and taxing day, and would test my wares of loitermanship, beverage reservoirs, and patience with the pork. I was motivated, tho, you see. I had the itch to go big. We’re talking slow-smoked pulled pork here, and BBQ pork ribs. Its everything we get into BBQ for in the first place. The real thing. And it’s what we’re called to do! Let’s get after it shall we.
So it was, I arose on my day off at the most ghastly hour of 5:30 in the blessed morning in which to ply my craft afield. Still in my man pajamas, and whilst the morning sun caught the dew off the freshly hewn lawn, I stoically gathered my coals in one accord, taking flame to the political section that which made residence up the rusty arse of the old, charcoal chimney. Smoke signals soon spiraled aloft, declaring the day’s journey in meat thus embarked. And speaking of bark, lets head inside and rub the butt down again.
First on the pit is the eight pound bone-in pork shoulder, often called the “butt“. I know. What can you do. Anyways, the evening previous, the shoulder/butt was slathered in a cheap mustard, and hit with a commendable mass of Grill Mates, Sweet and Smokey Rub. Then we wrapped it in plastic, and left it alone in the fridge to marry over night with its new flavors. And here this morning, it’s time to hit it up with additional rub yet again. The rub is one of the most significant contributions you can make to the flavor profile of the pork, so do it up good. Ye need not hold back here. For the more liberal the rub, the better your bark tends to be later on down the road. And most pit keepers worth their tongs, always aspire for a robust bark.
The fire bowl of the Weber Smokey Mountain was set up accordingly. A chimney full of fiery coals dumped right smack in the middle of a ring of unlit coals. For you newbies, and budding pit masters alike, this is what we call the Minion Method. And it is an extremely effective technique for long, sustained smokes. To learn more about this method, and you really should if you plan on delving far into the BBQ arts, do read our write-up, The Long Burn: The Method of Jim Minion, to get the low down on this classic technique.
Anyways, the butt was gently placed on the lower grate of the WSM, fat side up. Tossed some hickory and apple wood chunks on to the coals, put the lid on, and then did the only sensible thing I could think of at the moment – I went back to sleep!
About five hours later, two of which were spent belly-up counting little pigs jumping over white picket fences, I gradually came to, stretching like a lazy house cat in my soft, easy chair. Ah the rigors of BBQ. I scratched my belly and glanced out to the patio, gazed momentarily, and smiled. Nothing is quite so fine as waking up in your man chair to see your pit stoically puffing away in the afternoon sun. It calms a man, and settles well in his soul. It really does. Morale is always at a high, when wood smoke gently curls for the sky. Anyways, time to get up again. For there are pork ribs to prep. And here is how we did it.
The first order of business, naturally, is to remove that ornery membrane. That thing is on there tighter than a tick on a hound dog, but you can do it. The reasoning to remove it is two-fold. One, because chewing on it is rather like gnawing on the important end of an old, plastic fly swatter, and two, removing the membrane will promote better penetration by your rub and wood smoke. Say what you will, but this thing should be pulled off. The trick most folk do is slip a butter knife in on top of a bone, but underneath the membrane, wiggle it on in there, and pry it upwards. Then, and with a paper towel to assist in grip, thus peel the membrane down the length of the ribs. Mission accomplished. You might not get it at first, but after a few times, and a smattering of patience, you will wax of an old pit maestro, adept in your craft.
Once the membranes were peeled, we dusted over the racks accordingly. One in a fair amount of Famous Daves Rib Rub, and the other rack we made a bit more of a production of. Firstly, sprinkling on a light layer of brown sugar, then a layer of Grill Mates Sweet and Smokey rub, then yet another layer of brown sugar, to seal it all in. Mercy! At around five hours into the pork shoulder, we put these ribs gently on the top rack of the Weber smokey Mountain, and added a couple more chunks of hickory wood. Things were chugging along nicely now, and precisely as they should. Time for a lovely beverage and yet another pit-side repair.
Here is where most smoke wizards are at their very best. Down time. Frankly, it’s half the reason we BBQ in the first place. That hallowed slot of clock in which our feet thus prop like a gentleman of leisure, and all the world seems to spin fairly about thee. It is a time where a man proper can spend exorbitant and considerable amounts of it, doing seemingly nothing at all. It’s a case-in-point example, where as my elder brother would say, “doing nothing sure feels like something“. And it does. Just watching the smoke curl from the pit, with a cold beverage in hand, we are at once and assuredly at ease. Head master of our own protein-rich kingdom. For a while at least, and maybe more than that, we want for nothing else. Say what ever you will, but that is no small thing. And the cloud shadows quietly parade over the house tops and the thick green grasses below.
After fashion, about two and one-half hours I should wager, we wrapped the beautiful, mahogany-colored ribs in foil, along with a hearty splash of apple juice for a steaming agent. This simple trick will take your unruly pork by the hand, and escort it unto the savory realms every time. Reminiscent of taking them to the spa, if you will, and pampering every last muscle there. And an hour and half of this treatment is about all you need. Use your pit master instincts. Remove from foil, and place them back on the pit to tighten up a bit. Only during the final half hour did we lather on the Sweet Baby Ray’s Hickory and Brown Sugar sauce. Man! And yes, that’s chicken thighs you see there on the pit. Hey, we like meat!
Oh buddy! You must excuse us here whilst we make the acquaintanceship of this smokey pork rib. It’s for quality control reasons you see, and a pit master’s privilege.
Now this is what you call a most suitable bark on your butt. Mercy! To the uninitiated eye, it will parlay thoughts of great remorse in your behalf. Onlookers may even want to buy you supper, they feel so sorry for your mass of blackened rubble there before them. But this is how it should be. Ten hours of low and slow therapy, people, gently curling wood smoke, two naps, tweety birds, slanting sunbeams, and a good share of manly beverage, equals sublime smokey pork satisfaction. Or something like that. You know what I mean. The shoulder/butt was brought to 197 internal, until the bone came out clean. Mission accomplished. And amen.
*Let the meat rest a while before you pull it, to redistribute its delicious juices.