This summer, I have dedicated myself to learning how to grill over a charcoal fire. My only guides are Raichlen’s big, fat How to Grill and the advice in the Gourmet Cookbook, and a very useful podcast I downloaded from The Splendid Table‘s website. My first attempt to make barbecue baby back ribs a few days ago ended in a charry disaster. It became immediately obvious that controlling the heat of the coals was the key to success. Raichlen has a lot of useful information and so does Gourmet. But, after the ribs fiasco, I learned the most crucial bit of information from Lynn Rosetto Kaspar’s interview with the executive editor of Gourmet Magazine, John Willoughby. The most common mistake in barbecuing is putting too many brickettes on the fire.
So, before I tell you what I did, here’s Raichlen’s instructions:
Grilling Method: Indirect grilling
3 to 8 hours for marinating the meat (optional); also, allow yourself 4 to 6 hours cooking time
6 cups hickory chips or chunks, soaked for 1 hour in cold water to cover and drained
For the rub (optional)
1 tablespoon mild paprika
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the barbecue
1 Boston butt (bone-in pork shoulder roast; 5 to 6 pounds), covered with a thick (1/2 inch) layer of fat
10 to 12 hamburger buns
North Carolina–Style Coleslaw
1. If using the rub, combine the mild paprika, brown sugar, hot paprika, celery salt, garlic salt, dry mustard, pepper, onion powder, and salt in a bowl and toss with your fingers to mix. Wearing rubber or plastic gloves if desired, rub the spice mixture onto the pork shoulder on all sides, then cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 3 hours, preferably 8.
If not using the rub, generously season the pork all over with coarse (kosher or sea) salt and freshly ground black pepper; you can start cooking immediately.
2. Set up the grill for indirect grilling and place a drip pan in the center.
If using a gas grill, place all of the wood chips in the smoker box and preheat the grill to high; when smoke appears, reduce the heat to medium.
If using a charcoal grill, preheat the grill to medium-low and adjust the vents to obtain a temperature of 300°F.
3. When ready to cook, if using charcoal, toss 1 cup of the wood chips on the coals. Place the pork shoulder, fat side up, on the hot grate over the drip pan. Cover the grill and smoke cook the pork shoulder until fall-off-the-bone tender and the internal temperature on an instant-read meat thermometer reaches 195°F, 4 to 6 hours (the cooking time will depend on the size of the pork roast and the heat of the grill). If using charcoal, you’ll need to add 10 to 12 fresh coals to each side every hour and toss more wood chips on the fresh coals; add about 1/2 cup per side every time you replenish the coals. With gas, all you need to do is be sure that you start with a full tank of gas. If the pork begins to brown too much, drape a piece of aluminum foil loosely over it or lower the heat.
4. Transfer the pork roast to a cutting board, loosely tent it with aluminum foil, and let rest for 15 minutes.
5. Wearing heavy-duty rubber gloves if desired, pull off and discard any skin from the meat, then pull the pork into pieces, discarding any bones or fat. Using your fingertips or a fork, pull each piece of pork into shreds 1 to 2 inches long and 1/8 to 1/4 inch wide. This requires time and patience, but a human touch is needed to achieve the perfect texture. If patience isn’t one of your virtues, you can finely chop the pork with a cleaver (many respected North Carolina barbecue joints serve chopped ‘cue). Transfer the shredded pork to a nonreactive roasting pan. Stir in 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the vinegar sauce, enough to keep the pork moist, then cover the pan with aluminum foil and place it on the grill for up to 30 minutes to keep warm.
6. To serve, mound the pulled pork on the hamburger buns and top with coleslaw. Let each person add more vinegar sauce to taste
Here’s the Vinegar Sauce:
2 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons ketchup
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar, or more to taste
5 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
4 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Combine the vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper, and white pepper with 1 1/3 cups of water in a nonreactive medium-size bowl and whisk until the sugar and salt dissolve. Taste for seasoning, adding more brown sugar and/or salt as necessary; the sauce should be piquant but not quite sour.
Now, my efforts went something like this:
The one piece of equipment I contributed to the recipe is a pizza stone. I kept it close to the kettle and on it I kept a chimney of hot coals. Perhaps I learn to judge better how long it takes to start coals in the chimney, but far more coals were consumed than I used on the fire. I wanted to be sure always to have ready hot coals to add to the kettle over the five hours.
With a plan to put the pork butt on the grill at 2 pm, I prepared the rub early in the morning. I smeared the meat with it and then put it in the fridge for hours.
I followed the directions exactly, including soaking the hickory chips, up to the point that the coals were ready to put in the kettle. I closed the vents on the cover half way, but left the bottom vents fully open. Mindful of Willoughby’s advice, I put about 8 coals on each side of the drip pan. I threw on handfuls of hickory chips. Then I put an oven thermometer on one side of the grill, the pork on the grate and the cover on. Hickory scented smoke billowed out of the sides and vents.
I confess I lifted the lid about every 20-25 minutes, but that had the beneficial effect of allowing me to control the heat, which never rose above 350. I settled for that. Every half hour, maybe less often, I tossed in an equal number of glowing brickettes on either side, no more than 2 or 3 to a side at a time. After the first two hours, I noticed that from then on, the internal temperature of the meat rose about 10 degrees an hour.
After four and a half hours, I grew impatient. Within fifteen minutes, I had it off the grill and settling under aluminum foil. I kept the vinegar sauce at room temperature, so that after I had hand-shredded the meat (the rubber gloves are a big help with the hot meat), it didn’t changed the temperature of the meat much when I poured it over it in the rectangular pyrex baking dish. I put it back on the kettle grate over the dying coals and returned the lid. Meanwhile, I got the cole slaw ready.
To summarize what I learned from this process, first of all, I never had more than 8 to 10 hot coals on either side of the roast on the grill at one time. It’s true: it takes a lot less fuel to keep a fire at 300, 350 degrees, than I expected. Second, you use up a lot more charcoal than you actually use on the fire just to make sure that you’ve got coals when you need them. Third, I got over my hangup about taking the lid off and releasing heat. Taking the lid off is a good way to manage the temperature — not that I ever went over 350 degrees. Fourth, I went easy on the soaked hickory chips after the first big handfuls. I didn’t want too heavy a flavor. But they’re essential.
And the recipe’s guideline of shoot for 195 degrees is perfect.
The upshot: a 6 and 1/2 lb bone-in pork butt, grilled steadily at 350 degrees or a little below takes 4 1/2 to 5 hours.
Easily, one of the best meals I’ve made. Excellent recipe. I have friends coming over next weekend. This will work very well for four adults and four kids. The good news is that I won’t have to heat up the house with cooking. The bad news is that the temperature outside is supposed to reach triple digits. Grilling really is a sweaty job.
Next time, I think I’ll make a cole slaw with a light creamy dressing. After listening to the root vegetable piece on the same Splendid Table show, I like the idea of a creamy dressing running into the vinegar sauce and pork.
I’ll probably update this after I make it the next time, but my next big grilling adventure will be lamb. I’ve got to starting using up some of the thirty-five pounds of frozen lamb in my freezer.