Pork butt is one of those meats that takes a long time to barbecue. It contains lots of fat and connective tissue, and it takes hours of low, slow cooking to render the fat and break down the tough collagen into gelatin, resulting in meat that's tender, juicy, and easy to pull. Most people plan on cooking pork butt for 1-1/2 to 2 hours per pound to an internal temperature of 180-190°F or higher. This can take 14-16 hours for a large, bone-in butt.
Sometimes you just don't have that much time. One way that people get around this problem is to cook pork butt overnight. Using the method described in the Brisket - Midnight Cook topic, you can put the butts in the cooker at night, go to bed, and finish cooking them the next morning. Unfortunately, there are times when even this method is not feasible. On those occasions, the solution may be to accelerate the cooking process by using aluminum foil.
Aluminum foil is a controversial topic in barbecue circles. When discussed in conjunction with brisket, aluminum foil is sometimes derisively referred to as the "Texas Crutch". Some people will say, "I'd rather not have pork butt at all than to cook it using foil." That's OK—I respect that view and I'm not trying to convince anyone that they must use foil. In fact, using foil does have some drawbacks, which I will discuss in a moment. Still, foil can be a useful tool in situations where you want to shorten the cooking time or prevent meat from becoming oversmoked.
The process is simply:
Foil traps heat and moisture around the meat, accelerating the rendering of fat and the breakdown of connective tissue into soft gelatin. In effect, the meat is gently braised in the foil, sort of like pot-roasting.
The downside to this process is that the butt is not exposed to the dry heat of the smoker long enough to develop the dark, chewy "bark" that many people like. What little "bark" there is will become soft during cooking inside the foil. The meat may also lose some of its smokiness during foil cooking. Some people will apply more smoke than usual to the meat while it's in the smoker to compensate for this effect.
I cooked the two pork butts below on December 16, 2001 using the method described above. These 7-pound butts would have normally taken 10-14 hours to cook, but using this method the cooking time was cut to less than 7 hours.
As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.
Prepping & Rubbing The Butts
I bought two untrimmed, bone-in pork butts in Cryovac at my local warehouse store. The combined weight was about 14 pounds. I trimmed the excess fat and "false cap" (a very thin layer of meat concealing a very thick layer of fat) from each butt. Don't be shy about trimming off the fat—it's hard to remove too much, since there's so much intramuscular fat in pork butt.
After trimming the meat, I sprinkled on a heavy amount of KC Rib Doctor rub and let the butts dry-brine overnight in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator.
Firing-Up The Cooker With A Bottomless Coffee Can
At 9:00am the next morning, I removed the butts from the refrigerator, applied a little more rub, and let the meat sit at room temperature while firing-up the smoker.
I lit the cooker using a variation on the Minion Method. I lit about 25 Kingsford charcoal briquettes in a chimney and got them good and hot. I placed a small bottomless coffee can in the middle of the charcoal chamber and filled the chamber with unlit coals. I put the hot coals inside the can and then pulled out the can with a pair of pliers.
By about 9:40am I was ready to begin smoking.
Loading The Cooker
I put one large- and one medium-sized chunk of dry apple wood and 3 small chunks of dry hickory on the hot coals. I assembled the cooker and poured a gallon of hot tap water into the water pan. I put a pork butt on each cooking grate and put the lid in place. All bottom vents were wide open as was the top vent.
At 10:00am the cooker was registering 183°F, and at 10:30am it was at 244°F. My target cooker temp was about 250°F, so I started cutting back on the bottom vents, setting all three to 50%. The top vent stayed fully open throughout the entire cook.
As described at the beginning of this topic, my plan was to cook the butts to 150-160°F, then foil and return to the WSM to finish cooking to an internal temp of 205°F. I did not turn or baste the meat during cooking.
Here's how the temperature and vent settings went for the cooking session. Note that I began measuring internal meat temperature at 1:30pm and foiled the meat at that time.
Note that the vent percentages represent the way I set the vents at the time indicated.
Foiling The Meat
I took the first internal meat temperature at 1:30pm. The butt on the top grate registered 165°F, 5 degrees over the range I was looking for. I didn't check the temp of the butt on the bottom grate—I assumed it would be less than 165°F, but greater than 150°F.
I brought the butts inside the house and wrapped each in "Saran Wrap Premium" brand plastic film, followed by a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. (See my comments below about Saran Wrap and barbecuing.) I put a probe thermometer in one of the butts so I could continue to monitor internal temp. By the time I got the butts wrapped, took some pictures, and put them back into the smoker, about 13 minutes had elapsed.
Photo 4 shows how the pork butt looked before wrapping. Photo 5 shows the two butts in the process of being wrapped. The butt in the front is wrapped in Saran only, while the butt in the back is wrapped in both Saran and foil.
Saran Wrap & Barbecuing
Now let me say a few words about Saran Wrap and barbecuing. According to championship barbecue expert Paul Kirk, "Saran Wrap Premium" brand plastic film (previously sold as "Saran Wrap Original" and "Saran Wrap Classic") will withstand temperatures of 250-260° before melting. Other Saran products like "Saran Wrap Cling Plus" and other brands of plastic film may not stand up to these temperatures.
The most common use of Saran Wrap when barbecuing is after meat has been cooked. Cooks will wrap barbecue in Saran Wrap and aluminum foil and hold the meat in an empty ice chest or Cambro food service container until ready to serve. Some will refrigerate and later reheat the meat with the Saran and foil in place, keeping the temperature below 260°F.
Lots of folks are surprised to learn that you can actually cook with Saran Wrap, especially since the Saran package instructions state, "Not for use in browning units, conventional ovens, stovetops or toaster ovens." People assume that it will melt and ruin their food. But cooks like Paul Kirk actually use Saran as a casing for homemade sausage. Chef Paul cooks the wrapped sausage in a sub-250°F smoker until the meat sets up, then he removes the wrap and smokes the sausage until done. In fact, Saran is commonly used in restaurant kitchens as a casing for all sorts of food as they are being cooked.
I decided to wrap these two pork butts in "Saran Wrap Premium" followed by foil. I had heard that some barbecue cooks used this approach and I wanted to give it a try. In hindsight, I'm not sure it added much value to the process over just using foil.
You certainly don't have to use Saran Wrap—you can just use aluminum foil alone as I suggested at the beginning of this topic.
Done In Record Time
You'll notice in the table above that once I had the meat wrapped, I increased the cooker temperature by opening up the bottom vents, accelerating the cooking process even further. By 4:00pm the probe thermometer registered 206°F and these pork butts were done. Total elapsed cooking time: 6 hours, 23 minutes.
I allowed the meat to rest in the foil for about 30 minutes, then unwrapped it. If you click on the photo above to view a larger image, you'll notice that the meat is practically falling off the bone.
There was a lot of liquid trapped inside the Saran Wrap. The Saran held up very well, despite the fact that the cooker ran up to 292°F. It appeared that the foil prevented the Saran Wrap from reaching its melting point.
Using heat-resistant neoprene gloves, I easily shredded the meat for sandwiches and discarded any large fat deposits I came across. To enhance the overall flavor, I sprinkled a bit more KC Rib Doctor rub onto the shredded meat and mixed it in.
My cooking log notes that the meat did not have much tasty "bark" on the outside, but was extremely moist and tender. The flavor and aroma were good and the rub mixed into the pulled meat was a nice addition.
Now the big question: Is pork butt cooked without foil more tasty? In my opinion, the answer is yes. Still, this accelerated method may be right for you under certain circumstances. Give it a try sometime and make your own judgment.
How About Some Mustard Glaze With That?
I mixed up a batch of Danny Gaulden's famous mustard glaze and used it as a sauce over pulled pork sandwiches. This glaze is supposed to be applied to ribs or pork butt right as they come out of the smoker, but I forgot to do that. As it turns out, the glaze works pretty well as a sauce.
More Pork Butt Links On TVWB