What can cause a midlife crisis? One factor brings to mind the timeless Styx song, “Too Much Time on My Hands.” An empty nest results in significantly more free time than you’ve had in years. Middle-aged men need constructive hobbies because idle minds are the devil’s playground.
One hobby I’ve enjoyed over the last ten years is smoking meats on my Big Green Egg. Transforming Boston butts into succulent, smoky, and delicious pulled BBQ has become my specialty, with at least 200 butts cooked. I want you to dive into a healthy hobby, so I’ll share everything I’ve learned about smoking butts on my Big Green Egg.
You don’t need an Egg to smoke meats. They are pricey, especially my XL, and I have one only because it was a Christmas gift from my employer. You can find a variety of smokers. The Smoked BBQ Source wrote a great article on 7 types of smokers. All of my tips apply to most smokers.
My tips for smoking Boston butts
1 – Don’t stress out
Boston butts have three wonderful attributes: they are very forgiving, inexpensive, and always on sale. I never pay more than $1.59 per lb and often less. So, if you screw it up, which is really hard to do, drown it with Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce and let it ride. Or feed the Q to your dog. He’ll love it, and it’s cheaper than dog food. You may have to smoke a few mediocre butts on your way to perfection.
2 – Skip the overnight cooks
I lost many nights of sleep before I learned this lesson. Your nitpicking mother-in-law is coming for dinner Saturday night, and you want the BBQ to be fresh, so you stay up all night Friday. Brother, it’s not worth it. But don’t wait until Saturday morning, either. You might be calling Grubhub.
Put the butts on Friday morning if you’re home, finish them that night, stick them in the fridge, and sleep like a baby. Your in-laws will never know you reheated the BBQ. It’s a fair statement that most pulled pork you’ve eaten in restaurants was reheated. And don’t be afraid to smoke the butts a week in advance and freeze the pulled pork. More on that…
3 – Fill up your smoker
Don’t smoke one butt if your smoker has room for two. Don’t cook two when you can do four. The math is simple. The prep work takes a little longer, but four cook just as easily as one. It’s like carpooling. Your Jeep Cherokee hauls four people as well as it does one. The result is several pounds of delicious, inexpensive meat you’ll enjoy many times.
Again, don’t fear freezing the leftovers. More to come…
4 – Prep the night before
You’re not doing overnight cooks, but do yourself a favor and prep the night before. Clean out the smoker, and make sure you have lump coal, pellets, or your fuel of choice, wood chunks, and beer. Go ahead and coat your butts with mustard and rub. The mustard is a bonding agent for the rub. You won’t taste it.
In ten years of smoking butts, I can’t say I have a favorite rub, so I buy the cheapest rub possible. I’m sure an award-winning BBQ master will ding me for this comment, but it is what it is. Put your butts on a V-shaped rib rack you’ve sprayed with cooking spray (fat side down) and put them in the fridge. Now clean up your mess to keep your spouse happy.
You’ll thank me for this tip the next morning when you don’t have this work to do.
5 – Be patient with the fire
You’re getting all the benefits of my mistakes. It’s early a.m., your butts are ready, and you’re sleepy. You want to light the coals and take your butt back to bed. Forget about it. An easy mistake is rushing the fire. Let’s pause and talk about lighting your fire. This advice is specific to people with smokers using lump coal rather than pellet smokers.
Put your hickory, maple, mesquite, apple, or cherry wood chunks at the bottom of the smoker and cover them with coal. Leave a little space at the top, place 3-4 Weber lighting cubes in the coal, and light them.
Then I recommend using a chimney – a large, vented steel cylinder filled with charcoal and stuffed in the bottom with paper from the coal bag. Set the chimney on the lit cubes and wait 20-30 minutes. When the chimney coals are burning white and orange hot, put on thick grilling gloves and dump them over the other coals. Wait 15 minutes until all the coals are burning nice and white.
But it’s still not time to put on the meat and go to bed. Close the lid and adjust your vents. Shoot for a dome temperature of 225-250 degrees, and once you hit it, put on your meat. Use a Bluetooth meat thermometer with probes for at least two butts and one to monitor the grill temp. Set the thermometer to alert you if the temp falls below 225 and over 250. Close the lid and stick around for a while. Ensure the temp climbs back to 225-250 degrees and stays there. I babysit my Egg, adjusting the upper and lower vents until I’m confident the temp is stable.
Hear this in bold, italicized font – do not open the lid until your meat hits your desired temp. More on temp in a second, but you don’t want to lose your smoke, and raising/lowering the lid plays havoc on temperature regulation. Relax. Stop being so Type A and trust the process.
You may ask, “Will I have to add more coal to the smoker?” I’ve never had to add more coal to my XL Egg, including my longest cook of 20 hours, but I’m sure you will with other kinds of smokers. This is another reason you must swear off the idea of overnight cooks.
This section is longer than others because fire is the most critical aspect of smoking meats, especially long cooks for Boston butts.
6 – Don’t worry; everything is fine
I freaked out during my first long cook with Boston butts. Of course, it was an overnight cook, and I was tired. When the butts hit 160 degrees quickly, I thought the cook was proceeding nicely. Then something happened. The temperature probes got stuck – for an hour. Was the dang thing malfunctioning? Finally, the temp rose a few degrees but hung out in the 160-170 range for several hours. If this were a video, I would emphasize “hours” with wide eyes and slowly draw out the words.
Like every person who has smoked a butt for the first time, I encountered a scientific phenomenon called “pork butt stall.” BBQHost has a good article about pork stall and a few strategies to get around it. I’ve never tried shortcuts, so if you do, let me know what you did and your results in the comments.
7 – When will the butts be ready, already?
Fair question. Many BBQ sites advise pulling the butts off the smoker at 200-203 degrees, which is fine if you serve them within an hour. Double wrap in heavy-duty foil and let rest until serving time. But if you have time, I have a better suggestion.
- Pull the butts at 194 degrees (set your Bluetooth thermometer for an alert)
- Double wrap in foil and wrap in old towels
- Put old towels in the bottom of the smallest cooler that will hold all of your butts, and place the butts in the cooler
- Stuff extra towels around the butts for better insulation
- Close the cooler lid and walk away for four hours.
I know, this is another exercise in patience.
Science again. Raw meat is about 75% water, and when meat cooks, muscle fibers compress and contract, squeezing out the moisture. When you cook to 203 degrees and serve immediately without wrapping and resting, much of the moisture spills out on the cutting board. You’ll lose 10 tablespoons of liquid with no rest and only 2.5 teaspoons with a short rest of 40 minutes.
But when you pull at 194 and follow my instructions above, the meat continues to cook while redistributing juices within the meat. When you remove the butts from the cooler four hours later, the juices are safely immersed into the meat where you want them.
8 – Pulling the meat
It’s time for your patience to be rewarded. Cover your kitchen counter with a couple of layers of wide butcher paper. Unwrap a butt and perform the bone test. Say what? You’ve achieved perfection if you can pull out the bone as easily as the government pulling 30% out of your paycheck. Be careful. The meat is still hot. I use kitchen-grade plastic gloves.
Now start pulling, chopping, and sampling! How was it? Let me know in the comments. I prefer pulled over chop, leaving most of the fat chopped and mixed in. Later when you reheat, the fat will keep your Q moist. And delicious.
9 – Storing and reheating your BBQ
Finally, how do you store and reheat the leftovers? The USDA recommends that cooked meat remain in the refrigerator for no more than 3-4 days. I vacuum seal what I freeze and use a permanent marker to write the date and weight on the package. I’ve reheated four ways and have discovered my favorite method. But I’ll share all four with the first three beginning in a thawed state:
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Allow thawed meat to sit at room temp for 15 minutes. Put BBQ in a casserole dish or deep aluminum pan. Add one tablespoon of Coke or Dr. Pepper and mix in. Wrap in foil and leave a small opening for the steam to escape and cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 165. Reheat all leftovers to an internal temp of 165.
- Use a crockpot instead of the oven, still using Coke or Dr. Pepper.
- The microwave is also a viable option if you’re eating lunch solo. I’d say put it in a microwave-safe dish like most people advise, but don’t you know that? Add a little Coke/Dr. Pepper (broth, apple juice, or BBQ sauce are also fine), cover tightly with plastic wrap, and nuke for two minutes. Microwaving is fine, really.
- My favorite method for reheating 1-2 pounds of frozen BBQ is in boiling water. Remember, the frozen Q is in a vacuum-sealed bag, and you’ll leave it there for the boil. I credit Buz and Ned for this method. Head over there and see what I’m talking about. This is the easiest method; the BBQ is still moist and delicious because you kept the fat. Believe in the boil.
Shhh…here’s my secret BBQ sauce recipe
You may not opt for sauce if you’ve hit a home run. I don’t use sauce because my Q is usually moist and delicious, so why hide the flavor I worked so hard to craft? And don’t get me started on people putting ketchup on a perfectly grilled steak. But I serve pulled pork at gatherings, and the commoners always want sauce, so I oblige. Using a bottle on the grocery store shelf is not in my DNA, but it’s close. My recipe is a blend of the thick Kansas City-style sauce and the thin Eastern NC vinegar-based sauce. One sauce unifies all people. If only politics were that easy.
So, the recipe.
- Start with an 18oz bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s regular sauce
- Squeeze 5oz into another container – do not throw it away! Wasting SBR sends you to purgatory
- Add 2oz of apple cider vinegar (remove the plastic lid thingy)
- Add 3oz of water
- Splash a few drops of lime juice
- Sprinkle in crushed red pepper flakes
- Shake, rattle, and roll!
Play around with the recipe using more vinegar and water for a thinner yet still sweet and tangy flavor. But don’t give away the secret sauce by serving it with the SBR label. Everyone raves about my sauce, but I’ve never told anyone the recipe until now. Only you and I know.
Wrapping it up
Don’t let too much time on your hands tick away at your sanity. Find some fun, productive hobbies. Smoking meats is a great hobby to try, and you’ll be a rockstar with family and friends. Let me know how it goes. Oh, go ahead and enjoy your beer.
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