I’m NOT EVEN going to pretend to be a championship pitmaster. In fact, I’ve never cooked in competition before, nor do I have any desire to compete (seriously anyway). If you put me in a group of 1000 people who say they cook the best pork butts…I could be in the top 10%, and just as easy I could be in the top 50%. But the one thing I can PROMISE YOU is that in a group of 1000 pork butt smokers…you’ll have 1000 ways to do it and everyone thinks there way is the BEST. So with that said, I’m not a professional, I’m an enthusiast and just a guy who loves his BBQ. I’ve eaten BBQ pork butt sandwiches (in Blytheville we call them pig sandwiches) in almost every southeastern state in the USA including Kansas City, MO and each state (and sometimes area) has much different types of BBQ pork. Personally, I still think Arkansas has THE BEST pork sandwiches anywhere around. And while most BBQ is good, there is some great BBQ and some terrible BBQ. The absolute worst tasting BBQ I ever had was in both Kentucky and in Florida. It just didn’t taste good, didn’t look good and in some of the places, they served slices only instead of chopped or pulled…CHOPPED is my favorite. So I’ve eaten a lot of BBQ and I know what satisfies my “palate” and belly. It’s why I decided to start cooking/smoking my own BBQ.
Now that I got all that out of the way, I’ll explain my progression of how I cooked my first Boston butt back in 2013 and how my preparation has changed through various changes over the last 8 years. I’m going to go through those changes in this article and share what worked and didn’t work up until the present time. My current process is one that I have used pretty much the same way over the past couple of years and has worked well FOR ME, my family and friends that I’ve shared my BBQ.
The main reason I began smoking my own meat was that I was getting tired of driving 280 miles (a Blytheville round-trip) just to get a BBQ and then come back home. Yep, I did this trip many times going to Blytheville just for a BBQ. I finally decided in 2013 I would try and smoke my own BBQ. I went out and bought a cheap electric smoker and then used GOOGLE and YouTube to teach me what I wanted to know. I was not expecting to see so many ways to accomplish the same task. My first ever pork butt was basically an 8lb disaster (do you know how hard it is to mess up a butt…it’s near impossible, but I did it). For this first butt, I injected it with some concoction I found on the internet, I placed it into a pan and covered it with foil. I cooked/boiled it at 240 degrees (notice I didn’t say smoke) for about 8 hours. When I went to slide it out of the smoker, juice spilled all over our deck (this will really piss the wife off bad). My first pork butt was pretty much just mush! It was a complete failure.
The next few butts I stopped injecting. I would cut the fat off the top of the butt and leave the fat cap alone then use a slather of mustard to make the rub stick and put it in the smoker fat cap down at 240 degrees for about 4-6 hours, then I would wrap it in foil for about 4 hours, unwrap and let it finish until done (12-14 hours later). These turned out a little better, but still required a lot of hands on time and still kinda messy dealing with the wrapping midway through the cook.
As I did more and more cooks, I simplified my cook by eliminating the wrapping of the butt midway through the cook. I still slathered the meat with mustard and then applied a rub or rubs. I also began trimming the fat cap just a little, and when placing the butt on the smoker, I would start with the fat cap UP instead of down, and then a few hours into the cook…I would flip it over with the fat cap down. I also started checking the internal temps of the butt about 10 hours in…as I want the internal temp to be somewhere around 203-205 degrees which is great for making pulled (chopped) pork.
Now that brings us to about the last couple of years. I really do believe in the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) method. Whenever I smoke a butt or butts (I usually smoke between 3-5 at a time now)…The only thing I do now is to cut almost all the fat cap off, slather it with a light coat of mustard, then apply a light coat of rub. I’ll stick it on the smoker at 240 degrees meat side up (trimmed fat cap down), and smoke for at least 10 hours before I stick a wireless thermometer into it. When the butt hits 203-205 degrees, I’ll take it out and immediately wrap it TIGHTLY in foil and place into an empty ice chest for resting. I have left the butts in there for more than 5 hours before and them still be so hot you had to double glove to pull the meat.
Once the meat is pulled, I’ll place it on my large cutting board and begin to chop the meat into a medium chop. When the meat is chopped, you’ll lose a lot of moisture in the meat, so I like to sprinkle my favorite vinegar based hot sauce to re-moisten the meat. If I do more than one butt (and I usually do now)…I’ll take the remainder that we won’t eat, and place into containers for the freezer for later. In spite of what most people might think, the frozen BBQ if thawed and heated properly still makes a FINE BBQ sandwich, or can be added to baked beans, or even topping a baked potato.
Just some random observations about cooking butts.
- It’s tough to ruin a Boston butt when smoking for a long time (although I was successful at screwing a couple up).
- I use a mustard slather, but you can also use olive oil, molasses and sometimes just moistening the meat to apply the rub.
- To be honest, you could cook a butt with nothing more than salt and pepper as your seasoning. I know people that don’t use ANYTHING to season…they let the smoked meat speak for itself.
- You can use a small amount of habanero powder on the bottom of the butt for some “extra” kick.
- I prefer to use the bone in pork butts, I think bone-in adds more flavor, but also helps heat up the middle of the meat faster.
And my opinion about “PIG SANDWICHES” which was heavily influenced by Ronnie Penn of Penn’s BBQ. I ate his pulled pork sandwiches and was a loyal customer of his for more than 40 years…he was the BEST. Unfortunately, Ronnie passed away a few years ago, and now my favorite pulled pork sandwich/pig sandwich can be found at the Kream Kastle in Blytheville, AR. They have been in business for almost 70 years and although their sandwiches are different from what Penn’s served, they are still exceptional BBQ sandwiches. If you’re ever in Blytheville, check them out…you’ll be glad you did. And speaking of Ronnie Penn, I had a conversation with him the last year he was in business. I wanted to try and “pry” some tips from him on his BBQ. Honestly I forgot what he said about salt/pepper and whether he used salt and pepper (no other rubs), but I do know he smoked his butts in a charcoal pit, he did NO preparation and he sure as hell didn’t use a thermometer to check doneness. In other words, don’t complicate something that is so easy to do. He was my BBQ hero for sure.
OK, here’s my BOTTOM LINE…when smoking a pork butt, don’t get too caught up in the details or the process. You could literally buy the butt at the store, come home, take it out of the packaging and slap it on the smoker. The most important part of successfully cooking a butt is TIME and TEMPERATURE. I’ll say it again, the most important part of smoking a butt is TIME & TEMPERATURE. PERIOD, anything else is an enhancement which may or may not influence the taste. And finally…
In my opinion, the best pig sandwiches should have these qualities:
– – – The meat should be chopped.
– – – The bun should be toasted.
– – – The meat should be topped with dry/semi-dry coleslaw providing “texture”.
– – – The sauce should be a vinegar based sauce which complements the meat.
– – – The “kick” of the sauce should be noticeable, but not enough to detract from the entirety of the sandwich.