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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Banjo's NC Style Pulled Pork BBQ using the Big Green Egg

Note: after posting this, I found a lot of formatting issues because I copied it from a document. I'm working to correct this problem.  Also, please note: I've realized my post was poorly written previously, and thus caused some confusion regarding temperatures - confusing meat temperature with egg chamber cooking temperature. I'm working to correct that and am sorry for the confusion I have caused.

This isn't an approach to cooking fast BBQ. It's an approach that yields the most flavorful and moist BBQ. This requires extended times at lower temperatures. The times must be extended because the lower temperature takes longer to make the meat tender. Thus this cooking method targets 24 hours at 180 - 190 dF for the egg chamber while maintaining the meat temperature at about 160 dF. Note the USDA (5/24/11) has just recommended 145 dF as a safe temperature for pork - this is the meat temperature, not the egg chamber temperature. I've not cooked it in the Big Green Egg at this meat 145 dF temperature yet, as it would probably take 48 hours to get it both tender and pasteurized at this low a temperature.


You are trying to solve several things when you cook BBQ:
  • Pasteurize the meat.
  • Tenderize the meat
  • Retain moisture
  • Retain fat
  • Smoke the meat to add flavor

This post is designed to produce the most flavorful BBQ while being tender, and higher cooking chamber temperatures don't meet that requirements - it results in dried out BBQ.

Start around 6:00 PM Day 1, Pull Off around 6:00 PM next day. Elapsed time approximately 24 hours.

during cooking time should not be high and/or gusty, as it will cause excessive temperatures.I like 24 hours for personal preference. I find it works well, and the start and stop times are convenient enough I can do it during the week if I want.

Note: This doesn't include a rub, and doesn't include a sauce. If using a rub, put on at least 2 hours before placing meat onto grill. Try tasting all of your BBQ without a sauce. If it needs a sauce, then it hasn't been cooked properly.

Cooking with the BGE:
With the lid closed, the BGE is an OVEN that burns charcoal. Repeat after me: With the lid closed, the BGE is an OVEN! I have a lot of people ask how to cook a turkey on a BGE - I tell them: With the lid closed, the BGE is an OVEN so cook times and temperatures just like you would in your kitchen OVEN.  However, if you have air flowing through the cooking chamber at a high rate, then it functions more as a convection oven than a regular household oven.  Convection ovens, because of the air flow, are moving hotter air by the food all of the time, instead of having it just layered around the food; this can reduce the amount of time necessary to cook some foods.  It can also cause foods to dry out faster than a regular oven.

Hot fires give off a lot if infrared energy, which can be absorbed by the part of the meat facing the hot coals. So usually you will need something to block the infrared from directly reaching the meat - aluminum roasting pans work well. The bottom damper controls the amount of air coming into the BGE. This determines the amount of oxygen allowed to reach the fire and thus the amount of combustion from taking place. Too much air results in a too hot fire. Too little air will result in a too cool fire. Too little air can cause fire to die.

Restarting a fire is a big hassle, and to be avoided - you'll have to take the meat off, the grill off, relight some charcoal - avoid it.

The top damper controls the amount of air leaving the BGE. It too controls combustion. If you have the bottom damper right, but the top too closed, then not enough exhaust air can escape, therefore not enough fresh oxygen can enter, and the BGE can go out.

The top damper should be open slightly more then the bottom damper. This is because air expands when heated, thus the exhaust needs a bigger opening then the inlet damper in order for the same weight of air to move through both dampers. At the temperatures we are cooking in, the dampers are really close to being shut. If you have an old BGE, then your seals around the lid and base units may leak too much, and allow too much oxygen air flow into the BGE, resulting in too much heat. The bottom damper (the whole slide arrangement, top, sides and bottom) in particular needs to be watched for air leaks; if you can't get your temperatures down low enough, the inlet air damper is probably leaking air around the seals. No seals are encountered with the exhaust damper.

Currently, none of the exhaust dampers supplied or purchased from the BGE company will allow you to shut down the exhaust enough. Some, even though they appear to be completely closed, are so constructed that even when they appear completely closed, oxygen air will start to go down one side to feed the fire, and exhaust up the other side with a too high temperature.  For this reason, you need to find something else that isn't combustible, like a flat piece of steel, or a ceramic tile.

When cooking, the outside of the BGE will be too warm to leave your hand on for more then 5 - 10 seconds, but won't burn you just to touch. It will take it a while to reach this temperature, maybe 30 minutes. Calibrate your hand! Do this by moving your hand through the exhaust flow, each time at the same speed and height. Learn to use this instead of a thermometer. The air inside the BGE can become stratified, and thus fool a thermometer; the exhaust is pretty well mixed, and gives a better overall temperature indication. Thermometers can fall out of calibration - your hand never will.

After you've placed your meat on, the temperature should stabilize in about 10 minutes. That's when you would make adjustments. Don't make big adjustments - tiny tiny adjustments. Adjust, wait; adjust, wait. Opening the dampers increases the heat; closing makes lower temperatures. Having too open a top exhaust damper can cause a low pressure in the BGE, causing air to pull in more air through the bottom inlet damper. It will also pull in from leaks around the bottom damper, bottom damper seals and lid seals even though the bottom damper is completely closed. Wind and gusts also cause this same event, so in windy times, close down the inlet damper more then usual. If you've completely closed the bottom damper (with no air coming in, the fire will starve for air and go out - if your seals are good) and the temperature stays too hot, then you've got air leaks.

The BGE is an OVEN. You are cooking in an OVEN. Nothing you are doing here is magic - you can do the exact same thing in your kitchen oven, if you can get the temperatures low enough, but without any smoke flavor. You can cook turkeys here, at the very same temperatures and time as in the kitchen, because both are OVENS.

Learning to Cook BBQ
Get a notebook of some sort - spiral wound small is better. In it, record the date, the environment (windy, temperature, rain, etc), the weight of the meat, the cost of the meat, the starting time, the ending time, how easy/hard it was to pull apart, how much moisture, how much smoke. Use this to troubleshoot and make corrections.

Cooking in strong gusty wind should be avoided, as it will cause big temperature swings as more air is sucked out of the BGE, thus drawing more fresh oxygen air into the combustion chamber.

Never, ever, let your lid stay up causing a hot fire! If you do this, and then close the lid, you have a hot fire that is starving for oxygen. If, at this point, you were to open the lid, the oxygenated air would rush in, the fire would flash and you could get burned! I've lost hair on my hands and arms from this!

If you let the BGE get too hot, it's difficult to bring the temperature down, and will take considerable time. That's because, if you were to shut the dampers down now to cool down the fire, you may starve the fire too much, with the result that it goes out. So you should  step-down-close the dampers - close a little, wait 10 minutes, close down some more. However, you may have already toasted whatever you were trying to cook.

At the start of cooking, when the meat is cold, the meat is more forgiving to temperature swings then if at the end of cooking.

I prefer to use deboned pork so I can put the maximum meat onto the grill surface. It's also a lot less work and faster to prepare after cooking has finished.

On my BGE, there are 4 total ceramic inserts. The bottom most (1), then a small plate with air holes (2), then a larger ring collar (3), then a final ring collar (4). I place charcoal up to the top of the larger ring collar (3) and bottom of the final ring collar (4).

Cooking BBQ:
BBQ is Pork. BBQ is Pork Shoulder (whole shoulder, or split into two pieces, it becomes the 'Butt' and the 'Picnic'). Pork is cooked done at 145 dF per new USDA guidelines, but the references in this post will refer to 160 dF as the internal meat temperature target. At some point I intend to do some testing at the lower temperatures, but have not done so yet.

Use a meat thermometer.

Good BBQ has a lot of moisture. Fat is flavor. Fat renders out at increased temperatures, just like butter out of the fridge - it runs out. Lower temperatures retain more fat. I use very lean pieces of Pork, and need as much of the fat to be retained as possible.

The higher the temperature of the BGE and the longer the cooking time, the higher the internal temperature of the meat. The meat will reach a plateau temperature and will hold there as long as there is enough moisture remaining to wick away heat. As soon as the moisture is gone, the internal meat temperature will start to climb. This is the same way your body functions - moisture wicks away heat, keeping you cooler. If you loose all of your moisture, your internal temperature will climb.

Too low a cooking chamber temperature and without long enough time will result in the meat not being pasteurized, which is dangerous.  Therefore, you need to have the meat come up to the 160 dF temperature for a sufficient length of time to pasteurize it (see USDA for details on this).

The lower the temperature you cook at, the longer it takes the meat to reach the desired temperature and to tenderize. However, cooking for too long dries out the meat. Your goal is pull-apart tender, and maximum moisture. Adjusting temperatures and length of time will affect this. Better meat is always produced at lower temperatures that yield safe pasteurized meat, and will require longer times. Since we want the meat to reach a temperature of at least 160dF, then we need an oven temperature more-then 160 dF.

The meat is muscle; the muscle fibers have a protein wound around them. This protein is tough.

The best BBQ doesn't need any sauce. Learn what it taste like before adding sauce. I recommend leaving sauces and rubs off when just starting out, so you can better judge the quality of your cooking efforts on the meat.

I always take the skin off. I do this because it otherwise adds a lot of grease to the BGE, it keeps the outside 'bark' from forming where the skin is intact, and it keeps the smoke from getting to all sides of the meat.

Moisture that moves from the inside of the meat to the surface (sweating), will dry there (Maillard Browning). There is a lot of flavor here! This is called 'bark', as in 'tree bark'. It will be a little tough, like beef tack or jerky.

Smoke will produce a pink ring on the inside of the meat, just below the surface. This is done; the pink indicates smoking, not rawness.  It is a chemical reaction from the smoke.

Lump charcoal is preferred. Briquettes sometimes have chemical binders to keep it together. You can make your own lump if you want to - ask me how!

Do not use lighter fluid, use olive oil instead, sprayed onto a couple of pieces of paper, balled up and put under a chimney lighter.

When pouring the charcoal into the BGE, try to keep all the fine dust particles out - they inhibit air flow at first until they burn away.

Big pieces of meat don't change temperature real quick, so some temperature excursions can be tolerated without ruining the BBQ. For that same reason, you can also add/subtract time without too much of an impact. For instance, maybe you'd prefer to pull the meat off at 22 hours instead of 24 hours, or go to 25 hours - both should work out fine.

 Take the meat out a couple of hours in advance and leave it on the counter uncovered, placing into a pan or foil 'boat' to capture any runoff. The internal temperature straight out of the refrigerator is around 36dF to 40dF, which is really quite cold to start cooking with. Any bacteria build up during this time will be killed off during the cooking/pasteurization process. I generally avoid punching or pushing holes into the meat for spices, as that would transfer some of the outside bacteria into the inside; however, cooking long enough to pasteurize should prevent a problem if you like to put herbs into the meat, or inject the meat.

I don't like to handle raw meat as you will contaminate everything you touch.  Envision it has having paint on your hands, and everything you touch will have a blot of contaminated paint on it.  I always wear latex gloves. I go through multiple gloves during one cooking session. I never want to touch anything with gloves that have touched raw meat. Sometimes I put on multiple pairs of gloves, other times I just pull off a dirty pair and put on a clean pair. This also keeps the meat clean - I'm not moving some contamination to the meat. 

When checking internal meat temperature, always insert the probe into the middle of the meat, at the thickest point of the meat.

  • 2 - 10# bags of lump charcoal. Publix carries Duraflame, which works well, if you prefer briquettes. They also sell lump charcoal. One bag is more then enough.
  • Hickory chunks
  • Olive Oil (used to soak paper placed under chimney starter)
  • Charcoal starter chimney
  • 2 boneless pork shoulders from Costco. About 12 - 15 lbs total weight.  Will cost around $25 - $30. About 1/3 of the weight will be lost during cooking. No skin.
  • Zip-Lock Freezer bags. Quart size recommended.
  • Large aluminum roasting pans from Costco. These are very large, and will need to be collapsed somewhat in order to fit on the BGE.
  • Ceramic tile large enough to use as an exhaust damper.
  • Work gloves that will allow you to work over coals. Preferred length is up to elbows. Can be bought at BBQ Galore store.  
  • Pliers to remove grill from BGE. (optional)
  • Some sort of rack to sit into roasting pan to keep pork from making direct contact with roasting pan.
  • Needle nose pliers to poke some 1/2" holes in roasting pan.
  • Heavy Duty aluminum foil.
  • Chlorox wipes for wiping up counter surfaces where raw pork may have made contact.
  • Very large forks (2) used to pull meat apart after cooking. You can use your hands instead, but it will be very hot. (optional)
  • Large mixing bowl - large enough to hold 10# of meat for mixing in spices and sauce.
  • Chef's large knife used to cut some outside 'bark' as it can sometimes be tough. (optional)
  • Large chopping block
  • Small cooler and ice to hold raw meat for transport from Costco to home. Meat can be held in this for several days if preferred.
  • Enough ice to replenish as it melts. Drain off liquid so meat isn't swimming. Will need to be sanitized afterwards.
  • Hamburger buns.
  • Food tongs.
  • Small, instant read digital meat thermometer for checking internal heat temperature.
  • We are going to be cooking at very low temperatures, with a very low air-flow, so it's important that the BGE be clear of ash to start with so nothing restricts the air flow, except the dampers.
  • The fire will, for the most part, burn in the middle of the charcoal, in an inverted cone shape. As it burns down, some charcoal will fall inwards from outer edges. Hickory chunks should be placed near the center, intermixed with the charcoal from the bottom up.

Cleaning BGE: - completely clean out. Remove grill and all ceramic inserts, then pull out all ash. Does not need to be washed. Reinsert all ceramic components.

 Spread some aluminum foil on your counter, large enough to hold the roasting pan. Form a 'boat' (lip all the way around) so no juices will run out onto counter or floor. Place pan into 'boat'.

Punch 1/2 inch holes all around bottom of aluminum roasting pan (needle nose pliers work well) so heat and smoke can bath meat from bottom up. Put the meat onto the rack in the roasting pan. Make sure the two (2) pieces of meat don't touch each other (or minimize best you can). Don't stack or overlap, as this will slow heat and smoke transfer to meat.

Fill BGE with lump charcoal up to the top of the ceramic first ring collar (3 - see 'Cooking with BGE' above if this isn't clear ). Intermix Hickory wood chunks or shavings as you add charcoal.

Open completely the inlet air damper (bottom of BGE) for starting charcoal. Be sure to slide to almost closed (about 1/4 inch opening) later as temperature starts to climb towards your cooking temperature of 180 - 190 dF.

Remove any exhaust dampers while starting charcoal. Be sure to slide to almost closed (about 1/4 inch opening) later when smoking meat!!!

Place grill onto BGE. Fill chimney starter with charcoal. Loosely ball up 4 - 5 paper towels. Soak paper towels with a small amount of olive oil, then place under starter chimney, placing chimney onto grill towards center of grill. With lid open, light the paper towels. OK to slide towards back if BGE handle is in path of exhaust. After flames die down, it's OK to close the lid of BGE. Leave in chimney with BGE lid closed, checking periodically, until all coals are ignited. It will take about 20 minutes to light all charcoal in chimney. Remove chimney and set on non-flammable surface. Charcoal is still in chimney. Using pliers (grill will be hot), remove grill so you can add charcoal from chimney. Pour lit charcoal into BGE, trying to keep concentrated in center of BGE. Set empty chimney starter aside on non-flammable surface.

Using pliers (grill is still hot), place grill onto BGE. Close lid immediately - your goal now is to keep the charcoal from running away into a high heat, so you want to control the amount of air allowed in to BGE. Close bottom damper, leaving 1/8 to 1/4 inch opening. Close top damper, leaving about 1/4" inch opening. Leave to settle out for about 10 minutes.

Open lid. Quickly place roasting pan with meat onto grill. You may need to collapse in ends of roasting pan to get it to fit. Make sure the BGE lid can completely close. Quickly close lid. Recheck dampers to ensure proper setting: 1/8 to 1/4 open, with exhaust damper slightly more open then inlet damper.

You can put a thermometer in the lid if you like. Temperature should be somewhere in the range of 180 - 200, but not more then this. Some thermometers can get out of adjustment easily. Run your hand through the exhaust to feel the temperature. Always do this, at the same height and speed, so you can 'calibrate' your hand and begin to know what's normal for this style of cooking.

For the first couple of hours, run your hand through the exhaust every hour, to ensure it's not too hot. After 3 - 4 hours, you can pretty much be confident it will work for the remaining time without any further damper adjustments.

Unless the wind changes, you should not need to make adjustments to the dampers after the first hour or two, but sometimes you may need to make an adjustment.

Always make slight adjustments, then wait 10 minutes before determining if this was enough or too much. First thing in the morning, again check your exhaust temperature by running your hand through the exhaust. Adjust dampers as needed. See 'troubleshooting' below if your fire has gone out.

Sometimes, when you place the meat into the BGE, if it's been deboned, smaller pieces can be moved away from the main meat piece. Those will cook quicker, so you can take those off around noon, which would be 18 hours.

At around 6:00 PM, remove roasting pan with meat, quickly close lid and close all dampers tight to preserve charcoal for future use. Your goal here is for the coals to go out, so you want to starve the fire by eliminating inlet oxygen.

Take roasting pan and place into some aluminum foil, otherwise the holes will let grease leak onto everything as you walk to kitchen. Place aluminum wrapped pan onto something in kitchen to keep from direct hot contact with countertop, such as cutting board.  I sometimes put it onto top of stove if stove isn't in use.

Take the internal temperature of the meat and record it in your notebook. It should be at around 160dF. Let it sit for 10 - 20 minutes for meat to cool down some. This reduces internal expansion of hot liquids in the meat, so less fluids will drain out.

Set meat onto large cutting board, one piece at a time. Using two very large forks (salad serving style), one in each hand, pull in forks in opposite direction to separate meat into small sizes suitable for placing onto hamburger buns. Place into very large mixing bowl. After all meat has been pulled apart, add whatever spices and sauces you want on the meat, using forks to pull up from side bottom and onto top of middle, going around the whole bowl several times until thoroughly mixed.

Using food tongs, fill up each Zip Lock Quart bags about 3/4 full with meat, until all meat has been placed into bags. You can keep out any for immediate consumption if preferred. 

Decide how much you want to freeze. On those bags, push meat flat into bag until bag is as flat and wide as possible. This will aid cooling in freezer and allow it to freeze faster. Place bags to freeze into freezer, do not stack on top of each other. Try to arrange so air can touch all sides of bag for fastest freezing.

It's best when hot off of the smoker. If you would like to reheat, place onto platter, put into microwave, heat at 20% - 30% power, so you don't heat up too fast. This allows maximum moisture retention, which is your goal.

If you've redone several times and it's getting dry, then you can add a little bit of melted butter or bacon grease - better would be to throw it away and cook up another batch! Figure on 1/3# per person, twice that amount for active teenage boys.

Bottom of meat is rock hard - over cooked: Too many holes in roasting pan, fire too hot, fire too near roasting pan.

Meat is dry: Take meat off sooner, or cook at lower temperature, or both. Cooked at too hot and/or too long, or both.

Meat doesn't fall apart. Not cooked long enough or cooked at too low a
temperature or both.

If you've overcooked and it's dry, throw it away and start over. If you can't do that, add melted butter (better yet is bacon fat grease) and mix it in prior to adding spices and sauces.
Meat has a bitter taste on the outside. This is creosote, and if whole chunks of wood are used, is caused by not allowing enough air to feed the fire. Use less wood chunks, or burn the fire hotter.

Everything was OK when I went in for the night, but on checking in the morning, the BGE exhaust was cold - my fire had gone out (I've only had this happen once). Well, this won't be your best BBQ, but you will want to try and salvage it. Close all dampers. Open the lid, using the meat thermometer, read the temperature of the meat. If the temperature is very low (say around 100 or lower), you may want to refire the grill using the methods above,
starting with lighting charcoal in the starter chimney, or move to a kitchen oven at finish at 325dF. If the meat is at 120 or more, then I would probably move it into the kitchen and finish in the kitchen oven at a lower temperature setting.

If you use the kitchen oven and your goal is still to make pulled pork BBQ, then set the thermostat for the lowest setting, and place an oven thermometer onto the same shelf as the meat so you can get an idea how it's cooking.  I would set it for at least 220dF, as kitchen ovens can vary around a lot - sometimes as much as 50dF. You may not end up with pullable BBQ; you may have to slice it or chop it instead. Continue to heat until you get the internal temperature to 160dF, then take off and prepare. Higher temperatures will cook quicker, but I would suggest not exceeding 275 or 325, depending on how big a hurry you are in. I can't give you any estimated times, as there are too many questions about how long it may have already cooked before the fire went out.  If the temperature was below 100dF and you don't want to wait, then set the temperature to 325dF, and cook until meat thermometer indicates 160dF, at which point you can take off and chop the
meat. The longer you can leave the meat cooking at 220dF, the more tender it will be, being careful not to dry the meat out (internal meat temperature will start to climb without oven
temperature being any higher).

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