Sunday, August 7, 2011

Xan and Paul: Pulled Pork!



Oink! Oink Oink Oink Oink Oink Oink Oink!

That's ten pounds worth of oinkers, which is actually the smallest amount you can get at Costco in the form of pork shoulder.  Ah pork shoulder, the intersection of two most delicious things.  Oink!  Read on for the Saga of the Most Delicious Way of cooking the intersection of two Most Delicious Things...

A detour for those who want to learn more about meat science.  You know, there was a time when I didn't understand meat cuts.  I thought it was just a bunch of random pieces to learn the characteristics of.  But actually there's a simple logic to meat properties. (Oh, speaking of meat properties, please take a detour from the detour and watch this excellent short film.  Or perhaps this visual guide to Mr. Oink is more up your alley, brought to you by The Onion, America's finest news source. ). Anyway, let me lay it out for you:
  • Plants don't move much, so they can store their energy reserves in tough, relatively inert starches.  But animals must react quickly to their surroundings, which means they are made up of more volatile, reactive (read: detectable to our tastebuds!) chemicals...and in particular, fat packs more energy per pound than starch, so that's how they store fuel.  In making energy more readily available to themselves, animals thus make themselves more flavorful to us.  Eat that, vegetarians!
  • In particular, the parts of the animal that do a lot of work need to have a stand-by energy store in those places, i.e. fat.  On the other hand, they also need a denser support structure of connective tissue to hold everything together.
  • Thus, you can loosely reason from "part of the animal" to "properties of the meat."  In particular, animals use their shoulders a lot, which means they're very fatty (delicious) but also full of connective tissue (not so delicious).
The main connective tissue protein of interest, collagen, you really don't want to eat.  Fortunately it has the nice property that at high temperatures it dissolves into gelatin, yum!  But if the temperature is too high (i.e. in the vicinity of 212) too much of the water in the meat will up and leave.  So typically we cook shoulder at something like 200 degrees for a long while, to give the collagen time to get up to temperature and melt away.
Because shoulder is so delicious (and cheap!), I make a lot of stews and braises with pork and beef shoulder; these cook for maybe a couple hours.  But pulled pork is cooked a lot longer -- like all day -- and it ends up much more falling-apart-y.  Which is good, since you have to pull it afterwards.
Anyway, so moving along with the Saga, I decided to make a big lot of pulled pork to take down to the beach with the family back in June.  The first step was to find an awesome recipe.  Accomplished!  The next step was to find the meat; the recipe calls for a 4-7lb shoulder.  7 pounds is a lot of meat, in case you aren't clear on this, but I figured we need to feed a lot of people at the beach.  And I figured, Costco will sell pork shoulders on the big end, because it's Costco, right?

But when I got to Costco, I realized they had outsmarted me.  Costco's goal isn't to sell big, it's to embiggen.  And because pork shoulder is already sold in large sizes at regular supermarkets, the only way Costco could embiggen it was to pack two shoulders together.  So I ended up with two 5-pound cuts, which was absolutely the smallest they had.  Ah well, like I said, we had a lot of people to feed.

Next, the cooking.  The recipe called for cooking it in the oven, but of course dad wouldn't hear of it.  So he fired up his grills (not a typo) and off we went.  We started the pork on the old Weber.  And this is where things started to go wrong.  

A grill is not a plant, okay? So will someone please explain to me why the sprinkler system came on and watered it liberally when I wasn't looking?  

You know, that's exactly what you would do if you wanted to cool off a hot piece of metal as fast as possible.  Like, if there was an overheating reactor core in there somewhere, SOLUTION=WATER IT!  But like I said, a grill is not a plant.

In any case, that wasn't fatal because it was only supposed to be on there for a couple hours of initial cooking.  Next we put it on the gas grill for the main cooking.  The gas grill is nice because you can hold it at a controlled temperature for the hours and hours needed to cook the pork.  

Unless of course the gas runs out at some unspecified point in the evening.  I'm actually getting really tired of this story so let me just say that the pork wasn't done until we were getting really tired early the next morning.  And then we had to get in a car and drive to the beach. And then it was time to pull it.  Here's before:

And after:

Finally, to go with, I made some Eastern NC-style vinegary bbq sauce and dad also made some delicious Kansas City bbq sauce.  And then it was time to eat it!  And boy was it good.

So there you have it.  I keep a spreadsheet of all the food I've made, and to date this is the first and only food I awarded a full 5 stars.  For those of you who loved this, which is everyone who ate it, you guys should be able to replicate this pork exactly with the right equipment, now that I've given you such detailed instructions.  You will have to ask mom about the proper schedule and positioning for a sprinkler system though.

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