Whether you’re a year round griller or someone who doesn’t grill at all, there is no mistaking that as a society, we eat a lot of pork! That’s why I have partnered with the National Pork Board and Weber Grills to give you some tips and tricks to cooking pork perfectly. With so many cuts to choose from, there is truly something to please everyone. I know personally, as summer is near, my desire to get outside and grill definitely grows. Gathering outside with family or friends to eat a great meal certainly is the best kind of therapy.
Choosing Your Cut
I think we all have our favorite cuts but we shouldn’t be afraid to broaden our horizons! Pork tenderloin and chops can be grilled or cooked indoors in no time at all and are excellent when we are busy and in a rush to get dinner on the table after work. A pork shoulder or a rack of ribs is perfect when we have extra time to do some low and slow cooking. Whether you are smoking pork for the first time or are a seasoned expert, the National Pork Board is definitely a great place to find information to make sure your pork comes out perfect every single time.
One of the most versatile cuts of pork that I love is pork shoulder. Also known as pork butt or Boston butt, this large cut is perfect for low and slow cooking on my smokers. Even if you don’t have a smoker, it can easily be cooked in the oven, a slow cooker, or a pressure cooker to achieve great results as well. A 7-9lb pork shoulder can feed a whole bunch of people dinner and you can still have plenty of leftovers to repurpose over the next few days. Even better yet, I love to vacuum seal some leftovers to have another time.
Prepping Your Meat
To be honest, pork is really a blank canvas and the options are endless for how to season it. The right marinade or dry rub will bring out the best in your finished product. Dry rubs use a combination of color, sweetener, flavor, heat and salt bases. Rubs are applied to the pork before cooking. How long before depends on the cut you choose.
Marinades on the other hand combine dry spices with liquids. Marinades often utilize oil, vinegar and sometimes other condiments along with dry spices. In order to achieve optimal flavor in the end product, the pork must sit in the marinade for at least several hours prior to smoking. I love marinating smaller cuts such as chops and tenderloin. For larger cuts, I often season the meat with a dry rub a few hours beforehand or even the night before I am going to put it on the smoker.
Choose your Flavor
When smoking a pork shoulder, a lot of people love to use sweeter rubs but when I know I’m going to have a lot of leftovers, I truly enjoy doing a more classic “Texas style” rub of kosher salt and pepper with minimal other seasoning to create a more basic canvas to be able to turn it into other dishes during the week. There is no rule here. The most important thing is that you go with a flavor profile you love.
There are hundreds of commercial rubs on the market that are outstanding on pork, or you can even make your own.
Some cuts of pork may need to be trimmed prior to seasoning. In the case of pork shoulder for instance, some people like to trim the majority of fat off of it prior to seasoning. I like to leave a decent portion on it, and I will even score the fat with a knife being careful not to cut into the meat itself. This allows me to get the rub or seasonings into those cut portions which gives me more surface area to create a nice flavorful bark resulting from the smoking process. The bark and the flavor the fat provides is just fabulous when mixed in with the pork when shredded or chopped.
What’s your smoking style?
I’ll be the first to admit, I am fortunate to have a large number of grills/smokers. I’ve always been that gal that wanted to be able to master cooking on just about anything. The way I look at it, it’s just about managing fire and heat by different methods. People ask what my favorite is and honestly that is a really hard question. Whether it’s a wood, gas, or charcoal grill, I love them all for different reasons.
Gas grills are great when you want to fire a grill up fast. One might argue that you can’t smoke meat on a gas grill but that isn’t true. There are tubes and boxes you can buy to light wood chips in to create some flavorful smoke to use on your gas grill. In fact, I just recently bought a tube for my gas grill to try some low and slow cooking on it.
Pellet grills require electricity but are like an outdoor oven where you can set the temperature and for the most part, walk away from it while the grill maintains a pretty consistent temperature. Because it is burning pellets made of wood, you can get some great smoke flavor in your meat. Some pellet grills struggle to get to temps high enough to sear meat with but there have been many advancements in this field and now, a number of pellet grills are capable of reaching adequate searing temperatures.
Kamado style grills are versatile ceramic charcoal burning grills that you add chunks of wood to if desired to create a more specific wood flavor. These grills can smoke food low and slow or sear at very high temperatures. In my opinion, they are the most versatile of all. Because of the ceramic they are so well insulated and you can maintain a consistent temperature easily. There is no electricity needed and temperature is managed solely by controlling airflow through vents on the top and bottom of the grill.
One of the most affordable style grills are kettle style grills. Though many lack insulation to make them ideal to do consistent long cooks in freezing temperatures, they are great to use when the weather is warm. By creating different heat zones in a kettle and regulating the airflow through vents in the top and bottom of the grill.
So, which grill is my preference to cook a pork shoulder? I prefer either my kamado grill or my pellet grill. To be honest, if I had two identical pork shoulders cooked on each grill, in a blindfolded taste test, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference in the end result. The important thing is that you cook on what you prefer to cook on, not what I necessarily like to cook on.
Choose Your Flavor
Like different seasonings complement different proteins better than others, different types of wood complement different proteins better than others as well. Fruit woods such as alder, apple, cherry or pecan are certainly more delicate than options such as oak, hickory or mesquite. I often will combine two different types of wood to smoke with such as hickory and cherry.
You have to realize, the amount of flavor we get from wood chips, chunks or logs, will be relational to the amount of time the pork is actually on a grill or smoker. Surely a pork shoulder that has been smoking for 10 hours will have more of the flavor from the wood burning vs perhaps a pork chop that is cooking for 15 minutes. Granted, there are a ton of factors that come into play here. The thickness of the meat, the temperature of the grill, the moisture level in the smoker, the length of time we are cooking and many more. Can you just cook over charcoal with no additional wood added? Absolutely! At the end of the day, charcoal is actual wood and it will still provide plenty of flavor.
What is the take home lesson here? This is supposed to be fun! The joy of cooking is experimenting with things like time, temperature and different flavors to create a meal that in the end, we are proud of.
Temperature Temperature Temperature
The final temperature that is recommended that our cut of pork should be depends on the cut of pork it is. I think that’s a common misconception especially in the world of BBQ. I hear stories all the time about how people think that the pink “smoke ring” on meat means it is not cooked enough. Sometimes it is just because people need to be educated.
Finding the correct pork cooking temperature is the final step in creating a perfectly juicy, tender cut of meat. Pork today is very lean, making it important to not overcook and follow the recommended pork cooking temperature. To check doneness properly, use a digital cooking thermometer such as the Weber iGrill Mini to measure the temperature at the thickest part of the cut without touching any bone. Once you have reached the desired internal temperature, remove from heat and let it rest for three minutes.
Fresh cut muscle meats such as pork chops, pork roasts, pork loin, and tenderloin should measure 145° F, ensuring the maximum amount of flavor. Following these pork cooking temperature guidelines will not only result in a safe eating experience, but also preserve the quality of your meat for a juicy, tender, delicious meal.
For cuts such as pork shoulder/pork butt/Boston Butt, pork belly and pork ribs, the finished temperature will be much higher than 145°F. Pork shoulder is typically cooked to an internal temperature of 185-190°F where it becomes easily shreddable or choppable and the bone slides right out. Pork belly much like shoulder is usually cooked to an internal temperature of 190°F. At that temperature, the meat is typically fork tender and the fat renders nicely and it makes for a great bite. Pork ribs such as Loin Back Ribs, St. Louis Style Ribs and Spareribs are done somewhere usually in the 190-203°F range.
Whether you are a seasoned professional or a novice griller, one of the most important tools you can benefit from is a good thermometer and timer to use when cooking. It’s insurance to know when your pork and any meat for that matter is cooked perfectly. I had the chance to try out the Weber iGrill app connected thermometer and it’s a great tool to make smoking meat easier and it’s definitely convenient!
I just cooked a pork shoulder for 2 people… and my week is made!
Pork shoulder is affordable and probably one of the most forgiving cuts of pork you can cook on your grill or smoker. At an average weight of 7-9lb you are usually looking at having food for more than one meal. But guess what? Pork is so versitile! The day I finish smoking the pork shoulder I typically have some pulled or chopped pork with some sides to eat.
Sometimes I like a pulled pork sandwich with sauce on the side that I can add myself and other times I enjoy it without the roll on a plate, preferably with a side of pickles. Don’t feel like making your own bbq sauce? In a pinch, I like adding a bit of apple cider vinegar to a store bought BBQ sauce so it isn’t as sweet or thick. I just warm it up on the stove, mix it together and voila!
From the leftovers there are a ton of meals you can easily create. One of my favorites is tacos. Heat up some tortillas, add some of the pork and top them however you like. Even with some onion, cilantro and lime they are fabulous. Play with different sauces or salsa to give them some extra flair. Have cheese on hand, why not make some pork quesadillas or enchiladas?
Kick your morning omelette up a notch by folding some pork and vegetables into it. If that’s not your cup of tea, how about making some pork fried rice? With a little bit of soy sauce, onion, veggies and egg it will taste better than any take out. It’s a blank canvas and your only limit is your imagination as to what you can create.
Pork shoulder is one of the most forgiving pieces of pork you can cook. There are many different methods by which to smoke one and all of these are perfectly acceptable. For my cook, I rubbed the pork down with mustard prior to seasoning liberally with a commercially bought BBQ rub. I then smoked the pork at 250°F until it was at least 190°F internal. When the pork reaches 190°F, I take a probe and slide it into the pork shoulder at different spots to check for tenderness.
When inserting the probe there is too much resistance, I cook it another 5 degrees or so. The majority of your pork shoulders will be easily shreddable at 190-195°F. If you go to shred your pork and some isn’t shredded as easily as you like, just chop it up! I did not wrap this pork shoulder during the cook at all, and just let it ride until it was finished. Periodically through the cook, I spritzed the pork with apple cider vinegar to keep the outside from drying out too much. By not wrapping the pork I was able to achieve a beautiful bark on the outside of the meat.
Alternatively when cooking pork shoulder, you can wrap the meat at 160-165°F and then continue cooking until the pork is finished. This helps to expedite the cooking process during the stall. If you are unfamiliar with the stall, it is a period of time by which it seems the temperature on your larger cuts of meat seems to rise very slowly for a number of hours before rising more steadily. There is a great article on Amazingribs.com here if you’d like to read more about it.
Whether you wrap your pork or not during the cook, after I pull it off of the smoker, I do prefer to wrap mine with some foil if it isn’t already wrapped, and let it rest for at least an hour prior to pulling. If you want to keep the pork warm to eat later in the day, wrap the pork in foil and either hold it in an insulated cooler until you are ready to eat. If you don’t have a cooler, you can also hold it in the oven at 170°F until needed.
When you are ready to eat, shred or chop the smoked pork however you like. Honestly, I often do a combo of both. I pull it apart in larger chunks then take my cleaver to it. For an extra layer of flavor, sprinkle a bit of your favorite rub on the pork after it’s pulled or chopped and mix it in.
Regardless of which method you choose, there is one thing that is certain. Pork is delicious and following these simple tips, you’ll be on your way to making some outstanding meals.
Please check out more valuable information at the National Pork Board at www.pork.org/grilling including many great recipes, buying information, techniques, and more.
Want another great pork recipe? Check out my recipe for Smoked Sweet and Spicy Pork chops here.