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Smoke Signals: Your questions, answered

If you want to get smokin', read on. (Dominic Bracco III for The Washington Post)

Last Wednesday’s debut of Smoke Signals, my new monthly column on barbecue, garnered too many questions to answer. Here are a few I didn’t get to.

About two months ago, my boyfriend decided he wanted to start making pulled pork, so we each gave it a try. I attempted it first by putting a pork shoulder in my slow cooker with some water, cooking overnight (about nine hours), shredding, and reheating with my favorite barbecue sauce. It was great! Very moist, delicious; literally, the meat fell apart.

He then attempted it his way. He built a smoker using terra cotta pots (hot plate, wood chips, etc.) and smoked it at about 200 degrees for 10 hours. The meat (a 5-pound shoulder) was rock hard and not shreddable. We threw it away. His second smoker attempt was about 225 degrees for 10 hours, followed by two hours in the oven wrapped in foil at about 275 degrees. This time the meat was shreddable (though not as falling apart as mine), but it also 1) was dry and 2) tasted awful (it might just be that I apparently don't like the flavor of salty smoked meat). So my question is, what is he doing wrong? Why does his smoker not get the job done? Is there any way to make the smoked meat a bit moister?

Before advising, let me just say, that’s the sweetest thing I ever heard: his and hers pork shoulder. Beats bath towels.

As for a diagnosis of your boyfriend’s pork problems, sorry, but you describe two separate issues, both unclear. The first is, I don’t know exactly what sort of terra cotta contraption this is your boyfriend devised, so I can’t tell you how he can smoke the pork more effectively. The second is, only you and he can resolve your seasoning issues.

All’s not lost, however. Before helping, though, a scolding: Cooking a pork shoulder in the oven isn’t barbecuing. It’s baking.

Now, then, about this terra cotta thingamajig. Given that the second effort yielded a much better product, perhaps the cooking vehicle problem has been solved. But if problems persist, if you want to really smoke, spring for a smoker. I suggested a few last week.

As for seasoning, a lot of North Carolina pitmasters use nothing but salt to, as one of them put it to me, “blister up” the meat. They then season with either a thin vinegar-and-pepper sauce (Eastern North Carolina style) or a kethup- or tomato-based sauce (Western North Carolina style).

But if you want to avoid the salt, use a rub. Here’s one: 3 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of sweet paprika, 1 tablespoon each of salt, garlic powder, cumin, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder. Mix together, rub on the meat.

Cooking the shoulder over smoldering coals or indirect heat (meat on one side, fire on the other) for about an hour and a half per pound should keep it moist. If you want some insurance, “mop” it every hour or so. A mop sauce recipe: 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup white vinegar, 1 tablespoon each of red pepper flakes, coarse black pepper, salt.

I was thinking about getting my husband a smoker for his birthday. I’m leaning toward gas, so he doesn’t have to stay up all night and tend to the fire to be sure the temperature stays constant. Any that you would recommend? I know the food won’t be the same as with a wood or charcoal smoker, but how much of a sacrifice in taste is there?

“If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not bar-b-q.” So says the dearly departed Pete Jones in a huge billboard above his fabled Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C.

True, wood smokers are more trouble than a gas grill. But the soul of the flavor can’t be matched. ‘Course, there’s something to be said for a good night’s sleep.

CharGriller makes a fine entry-level gas grill. Some gas grills come with smoker boxes. You can also buy a smoker box (about $20). Make sure it fits your particular grill. Should you go the charcoal smoker route, maybe try the relatively affordable Weber Smokey Mountain (around $300); its tight seals allow you to keep a fire going for hours without fiddling and its water pan helps keep the meat moist. A pricier option is a ceramic cooker, such as the Big Green Egg. A small amount of charcoal and some wood chips will last a very long time, even, once you get the hang of it, through the entire night. They start at around $500 for the medium, but buy at least the large ($700) or you’ll be disappointed come party time. (Extra-large goes for about $1,000.)

Where can I find the best barbecue in DC and Maryland?

On this one, I will answer a question with a question: Where can you find the best BBQ in DC and Maryland? And, for that matter, Virginia?

By “you,” I mean anyone reading this or hearing about it. Let's get some conversation going about who makes the best ribs, best pulled pork, best brisket.

Write your recommendations in the Comments section at the end of this blog. And don’t just say what you like. Say why you like it.

That way, we can all help each other learn more about the barbecue offerings in the area – oh, yeah, and get a side that’s served at every barbecue, regardless of regional style: lively debate.

-- Jim Shahin

By The Food Section  |  July 28, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags: Jim Shahin, barbecue  
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Well, it's hard to say "The Best" about anything, especially barbecue, because, hey, have you tried them all??? And thankfully, there's a lot out there. Maybe not in out immediate area, but that's improving. Used to be almost none. Now we do have something to talk about. Unfortunately I haven't tried them all, so... In DC, Rocklands is doing a fine job with most everything they offer, nothing transcendental, but "real good." (Using the Vince Staten, Greg Johnson rating system). In MD, I've enjoyed Urban Barbecue too... also real good with most everything. In VA I'm going to deviate a bit and offer a "Really Good" for the East NC style pulled pork that you get at Barn Door BBQ in Upperville, at the Upperville Country Store. They are doing a lot right there. I can't give it a "As Good as I've Ever Had" which I reserve for the Greats like Wiber's and Allen and Sons in NC, or Gates in KC, or Lem's in Chicago... but it's really good!

Posted by: gb810 | July 28, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

I'm guessing that the boyfriend is trying to use one of Alton Brown's inventions from Good Eats. Alton built a cheap ceramic smoker out of two large terra cotta pots and a hot plate. Much cheaper than a Big Green Egg.

Posted by: TXAndy | July 28, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I'd strongly suspect that the guy's pork shoulders weren't nearly done. To shred, you've got to get them up to 185 or so and on my Weber at 225-250 that takes 12 hours on a good day.

Posted by: bflohl | July 28, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

This may sound crazy, but I've had some bad luck with my butts/shoulders over the past few years. My theory - and usually when I hear people say 'my theory is' I assume they don't know what they're talking about - is that the pigs these days are leaner and thus not as marbled as they used to be. As such, they aren't as tender and the pork doesn't pull well. I've noticed that over the past 5 or 6 years my butts and shoulders are getting tougher yet I'm still able to do a good brisket and pork ribs (using the Niman's).

I don't think it's me.

And best BBQ in 'DMV'? I tried what used to be O'Brien's BBQ in Rockville some time ago. Something good is now going on there.....

Posted by: washdcnative | August 1, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

In order - Great to know about Barn Door BBQ; I'll have to check it out. (BTW, I love your using Vince Staten's rating system. His book is phenomenal!)
You're likely right about the ceramic contraption being an Alton Brown invention.
The pork shoulders clearly weren't done, at least not the first time out. They'll get there.
My understanding is that pork is leaner than it used to be. But a pork shoulder, even these days, has plenty of fat. True, could be the pork. But I think you might be going through a rough patch. Keep trying. You'll get past it. And thanks for the note about O'Brien's.
Thanks, all.
- Jim

Posted by: jimshahin | August 3, 2010 11:29 PM | Report abuse

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