Who doesn’t love tender, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth, smoked pulled pork? But traditional cook times for this unique cut can have you up in the wee hours of the morning checking your smoker. Thanks to accurate temperature tools and careful monitoring of the temperature of both the smoker and the meat inside it, we were able to cut 7 hours off of traditional smoking times while preserving all of the flavor and most of the moisture and silky texture.
The Skinny on Cooking Pork Butt: The USDA recommends that pork be cooked to an internal temperature of 145ºF (62.8ºC) to be considered safe to eat. But every griller worth their salt knows that cuts rich in collagen like pork butt need to be brought to much higher temperatures (typically between 195 and 205ºF [91 and 96ºC]) to properly break down the connective tissues. What’s more, dissolving the collagen into gelatin and successfully rendering the fat usually requires lower sustained temperatures during the cook than turkeys or roasts. This is what gives the resulting pulled pork meat its signature moist and silky texture.
Why Low and Slow? The anatomy of this cut is what determines its optimal cooking method. The pork butt is a sub-primal cut of the pork shoulder. It is a heavily worked muscle. Because of the load bearing activity of the shoulder muscle, the protein fibers of the butt are very tough, with loads of connective tissue. But though the butt starts tough, those who take the time and effort to tenderize it are amply rewarded with a deep, rich flavor.
“Pork shoulder is the lead of culinary alchemists, just waiting, itching to be turned into gold.” -J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, The Food Lab
“Low and slow” experts typically recommend keeping the internal air temperature of your smoker at about 225ºF (107ºC) during the cook. But it can take as long as 18 hours to bring the internal temperature of the pork up to its 195°F target at that temperature.
We wondered, is it possible to achieve similar results with a higher smoker temp?
The Kitchen Experiment: We took two pork butts of similar size and weight, prepared them in exactly the same way and cooked them in two similar smokers. But one was cooked at the recommended “low and slow” temperature of 225ºF (107ºC), while the other was cooked in a smoker brought to 300ºF (149ºC). We wondered:
1. How much longer will it take for the pork smoked at 225ºF to reach its target temp than the one smoked at 300ºF?
2. What will be the difference in taste and texture?
Which Thermometer? For this experiment—and for successful smoking in general—we needed to measure both the internal temperature of the meat AND the surrounding air temperature of the smoker. We could have used multiple DOTs or ChefAlarms for this purpose, but we settled on the ThermaQ, because of its two-channel capacity and its ability to set both high and low alarms (more on this in a minute). We used a High Temp Air Probe with a Grate Clip to monitor the smoker temperatures, and Smoke House Stainless Overbraid Probes to track our internal meat temperatures. As standard practice, we also used our handy Thermapen Mk4 to help find the location of the coldest internal temperature in the pork for accurate ThermaQ probe placement.
Meat Prep: Each pork butt was taken directly out of the fridge, rinsed, and patted dry. Our butts were boneless and needed extra help staying held together, so we tied each of them with kitchen twine. Tying the pork helps equalize the density throughout the meat for more even cook. We also rubbed each butt generously with dry rub—we used I Like Pig Butts and I Cannot Lie spice rub from Pork U (it was fantastic). Both pork butts were at about 45ºF (7ºC) when they were placed into each smoker.
The Cook: With the ThermaQ probes in place, each butt was placed fat side down so the fat could act as a barrier between the heat source and the protein, and help the meat retain its moisture. We checked the air temperature of the smokers and internal meat temperatures hourly to track the progress. We didn’t spritz the surface of the pork with any liquids—we just let it be.
Monitoring the Smokers: We set high and low alarms on each of the ThermaQs—a high alarm of 250°F (121°C) and a low alarm of 200°F (93°C) for the smoker set to 225°F; and a high alarm of 320°F (160°C) and a low alarm of 280°F (138°F) for the smoker set to 300°F. Maintaining a steady internal temperature in your smoker over the extended period of a slow cook can be a challenge and require some fire craft. On more than one occasion our high and low alarms helped us know we needed to tend the smoker fires to keep our cook temperature consistent throughout.
The Stall: Even with our careful attention to our smoker temps, we still experienced what “low and slow” experts call “the stall.” When smoking meats like beef brisket or pork butt over extended periods, the internal temperature of the meat can seem to plateau or stall at around 160ºF (71ºC)—it can even drop slightly.
The stall happens as a result of something called “evaporative cooling.” It’s the same mechanism that allows sweat to cool down the body. Sweat works like this: when moisture sits on the surface of the skin, it’s evaporated by heat energy given off by the body. So when the water changes from liquid to as form, it absorbs a significant amount of heat energy…creating a cooling effect…. Inside a cooker, the piece of meat is sort of sweating too. It’s losing moisture to the air in the form of evaporation. Interestingly, air turbulence and humidity has a greater impact on evaporation than actual temperature—and since there’s a huge amount of air movement in a smoker, the evaporation is quite significant.
You must practice the virtue of patience when you hit “the stall.” All of the tough connective tissues in the pork need this extended time to fully break down into gelatinous goodness. Take it on faith, once enough moisture has evaporated, the internal temperature will start rising again! In the meantime, the inside of the meat is becoming increasingly more tender, and the exterior is developing its thick, sweet, crusty, chewy, jerky-like rind, or “bark”. So many good things going on inside and out!
History: During our stall, we had some time to do some research. One other thing we wondered about pork butt was: Where does that name come from, anyway?
The cut is, as we’ve said, from the shoulder of the hog, nowhere near its rear end (the anatomical “butt” of the animal is actually the ham). Turns out, the name comes from the name of a barrel. In the early nineteenth century, New England was a pork-production powerhouse. Shoulder was the least desirable cut and was routinely packed into wooden barrels and shipped out across the country for processing. The barrels came in different sizes (the hogshead, the tierce), but the ones pork was packed into were of the size officially known as the “butt.” These 126-gallon (477-liter) barrels filled with pork came to be known as “Boston Butts,” a term that was soon applied to the meat inside.
Our Results: Eventually the internal temperatures of both butts started to rise again. And not long after the subsequent rise, they reached their target of 195°F. As we’ve already indicated, the pork smoked in the higher temperature smoker got there much, much faster. Both butts were placed in their smokers at 8:55AM. The higher temperature pork reached 195ºF at 6:20PM—9 hours and 25 minutes total cooking time. Our lower temperature pork didn’t reach 195ºF until 1:10AM—a whopping 16 hours and 15 minutes! Six hours and 50 minutes longer.
Resting: Just like any other cut of meat, resting is an important step with pork butts. The protein fibers are allowed to relax out of the higher heat environment and reabsorb moisture. We wrapped our pork in butcher paper and held it in an aluminum foil pan for about 30 minutes. The butcher paper is more porous than foil and allows the surface of the pork butts to breathe. Wrapping the butts in foil after cooking can cause the bark to get soggy.
Shredding: After resting, both butts were ready to fall apart on their own. After snipping the twine holding the meat together, we started shredding. To shred you can just use your fingers, forks, or Bear Paws like we used. The Bear Paws make easy work out of this process. After shredding, our pork was finally ready to eat.
Taste Test: So could we taste a difference? The short answer is, yes. The roast at the higher temperature actually had more browning on its exterior, which had excellent flavor. The pork cooked at the lower temperature still developed good bark and browning. But the real difference was in the texture. The lower temperature cook allowed the connective tissues to come up to temperature for breaking down much more gradually, and was held in that temperature range for a longer period of time. The result was protein fibers that were melt-in-your-mouth tender, silky, and juicy. There was a noticeable difference with the protein strands in the pork from the higher temperature cook. Because the protein was denatured faster, and the meat felt a bit more stringy. It had a firmer texture against your teeth and didn’t seem quite as moist. But despite this, the roast cooked at a higher temperature had phenomenal flavor from the rub and bark.
Our Recommendation: The true “low and slow” smoking process would definitely be more suitable for barbecue competitions and those with more discerning palates; but for a backyard barbecue, we found the faster process fit the bill. Most people likely won’t detect the subtle differences in texture and the time savings were significant. If you’re smoking your pork butt for a family reunion or other similar event, it may well be worth it to save yourself some time and crank up the heat in your smoker.
Keys to Success: Once again here are our keys to tender and tasty pulled pork:
- Rinse and pat dry your pork butt
- Apply your favorite dry rub
- Prepare your smoker to your chosen smoking temp: 225°F for the traditional “low and slow” method or 300°F for the expedited technique
- Place the tip of an alarm thermometer probe (like ThermaQ with the Smoke House Stainless Overboard Probe) in the center of the meat (you can easily find the cold center of the meat with an instant read thermometer like the Thermapen Mk4)
- Place an Air Probe on a Grate Clip to monitor the air temperature of your smoker right down where the meat will be cooking
- Set the internal target temp for the meat to 195°F
- Set high and low alarms on your ThermaQ (if you have one) to about 25°F above and below your smoker temp
- Monitor both the internal meat temp and your smoker temps to make sure you keep a consistent cooking temperature
- Allow plenty of time for the connective tissues to break down—be patient during the stall!
- Pull your pork when it reaches its target and wrap it in paper to let it rest
- Shred and serve (no BBQ sauce needed!)
Let us know what works for you in the comments below!