Don't stress out - it's easier than you think. Most people run into problems due to a few reasons. One, the cooking time is often underestimated. Secondly, the temperatures involved are often misunderstood. Finally, the wrong method of cooking is chosen. Here's how you can get better results from your next, or first, slow smoked Boston Butt!
The Easy way to Smoke a Boston Butt!
Go buy a Boston butt, rub it with seasonings, apply any extra flavor add on's such as mustard sauce, mop sauce, etc. Cook on a covered grill or smoker using indirect heat at about 225 - 250 degrees until an internal temperature of 195 - 205 degrees is achieved. While doing so, maintain the cooking temp, hit with a mop sauce every once in a while, and keep the lid closed as much as possible! Plan on at least an hour of cooking time per pound, maybe more. Then, when the internal temperature is achieved - pull easily with a fork and serve up - it's that easy!
No, I'm not kidding, it really is that easy. But for the sake of making sure I pass on all of the info... here's the long version.
First: consider the cooking method - when you slow smoke a Boston butt, or slow-smoke anything, you are not grilling. You are going low and slow with hickory smoke! That means you need either a smoker or a covered grill that you can set up for maintaining a lower cooking temperature using indirect heat. There are gas and charcoal pieces of equipment that can handle the job. I've had some tasty slow smoked pulled pork from both full sized smokers as well some cooked on traditional Weber style grills.
A smoker uses low temps and smoke, off-set grilling often has a higher temperature - that's just the nature of the game, smokers and grills have adjustable air-flow vents. You can use them to maintain and adjust air flow and temperatures.
So, that's smoking... then what's grilling? Easy, grilling is cooking over direct heat. Think of it as broiling in your oven, only upside down, and with charcoal, wood, or gas. Off-set grilling is the same thing but the meat is not directly over the heat. On square grills that means heat on one side, meat on the other. On round grills, that means meat in the middle with the charcoal and wood set up in a halo manner.
Cooking Times and Temps:
You can bank this fact: Cooking Times Vary! Let's say you get your temps between 225 - 250 degrees. The average time for smoking a pork butt on a smoker at that off-set temperature is about 90 minutes, give or take a few minutes, per pound. So, plan on anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half per pound. That means a five pound but may take about eight hours to smoke and reach an internal temperature of 195 - 205 degree! I've actually taken larger butts and cut them in half which helped lower the cooking time.
Every Butt is Different: Every pork butt is different. Different animals, different fat level, different butcher, and etc, etc. So you need to take that into account as well. Some butts take longer to smoke and "stall" during the process - meaning they hit a certain internal temp and level out for a period of time before continuing the temperature rise to the desired 195 - 205 degrees.
What's Happening: The slow smoking "barbecue" process raises the temperature in such a way that causes much of the connective tissue to break down. That's what turns tough cuts into fork pulling tender barbecue goodness.
Here's Some Stuff I use and things I do:
- I rub my buts down with my favorite rub and coat them with a mixture of mustard and apple cider vinegar. All of that in a foil pan, covered, and stored in the fridge overnight.
- I use an offset smoker most of the time, a large covered grill some of the time, a bullet style smoker only once in a while. All personal choice.
- I prefer charcoal and hickory chunks. But, I've used gas grills with wood chips as well. Both with success.
- I have digital thermometers so I can keep an eye on Cooking chamber temps, internal meat temps.
- I smoke my butts fat side up.
- I use a mop sauce - only a few times - I always have a water / drip pan.
- I avoid sweet sauces during the smoke process.
- Sometimes - often due to weather - I've pulled a butt off the smoker and wrapped it in foil - and moved the entire butt in a large foil pan or baking pan to the kitchen for finishing off in the oven.
- Hand towels, that are not guest bathroom quality, are essential!
- When you mop the butt, rotate the butt.
- I always have excess charcoal, wood, gas, etc.
- I've raised the temperature to 300 degrees in order to shave off a hour or so - but I try not to go above 300 degrees.
All of that info means this.
- Maintain a cooking/smoking temp - 225-250 degrees.
- Plan on 1 or 1 1/2 hours per pound.
- Aim for an internal temp of 195 - 205 degrees.
- If it does not pull easily with a fork, just smoke for a few more minutes, you may be in a stall. But, try to stick around the 195 - 205 internal temp for great texture.
Here’s the great debate! Do you sauce things up before serving? Or, do you let your guests add their own sauce? I’m a big fan of letting your guests add their own sauce. This way they get the full flavor of a properly seasoned and smoked Boston butt. Let them add their desired amount of sauce.
I hope all of this info makes sense. You'll figure out your best temps, times, mop and sauce recipes, seasoning combos, and start playing with different types of wood. Every time you smoke a Boston Butt things will be different - even wet or dry weather can slightly alter cooking times. But I think you will find that the process will generally go as outlined above.