part two: brining, smoking and the almighty pellicle
Yesterday we posted part one about our purchase of two Boston Butt pork roasts.
The first was from the pastured Hereford/Berkshire pigs at Lamppost Farm; the second was unknown pork of confined upbringing, most likely Duroc or Duroc/Berkshire breeds purchased from my local butcher.
These two roasts come from opposite ends of the pork roast spectrum – the commercial roast being much leaner. My commercial roast had some gnarly fat marbled through the center; the fat on the pastured roast was like a rooftop after a heavy, heavy snow – perfectly drifted on top. The pastured roast was also nicely marbled throughout. Each roast was bone-in and weighed about 3 pounds.
An indulgent bit of wandering: it’s fascinating how quickly America switched gears from being a country where lard was the primary cooking fat to an animal fat-phobic country using industrially processed vegetable oils. Did you know it all began in WWII? During the war, lard was urgently needed for military applications and citizens were urged to switch to “more healthful” vegetable oils for cooking. By the time the military no longer needed the lard, the consumer market for lard collapsed and the old-fashioned fattier breeds of pigs were no longer profitable. Breeders began breeding and selecting animals that would build muscle rapidly for meat and pork production switched from pastured animals on small farms to centralized, industrial confinement operations. Learn more about the powerful impact the blending of modern advertising methods, government and corporate interests had on American society in this exhibit of wartime posters from an online exhibit from the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library. Love these posters!
OK, OK, back to the pork. As my goal is to really let the flavor of the roasts shine, I kept the spices, brining and rubbing really, really minimal. I brined both roasts in a simple solution of brown sugar, kosher salt & water for about 8 hours. I figured if I got the smoking part right, that would add plenty of flavor (although some of those Chinese 5 season powder rubbed roasts look phenomenal).
Our smoker of choice, budget and availability was a Weber charcoal grill, a
good digital thermometer, hardwood lump charcoal, apple wood and two aluminum foil pans. Not very sophisticated some would say, but you true McGyvers probably think we’re over-equipped.
We arranged the charcoal around the outside rim of the round grill, leaving space for a round drip pan in the center. We lit the charcoal, burning it uncovered about 25 minutes until the coals looked
ashy white. Once the coals were white, we put in the drip pan and added chunks of soaked & drained apple wood on top of the charcoal.
On the grill, we placed the two roasts in the center above the drip pan and
placed a tin filled with water beside the roasts. To monitor the internal temperature of the meat, we inserted the probe of a digital meat thermometer in the
thickest part of the meat, away from the bone.
So now, the guessery begins. We put the roasts on about noon and smoked them until just after 3:00. The smoking went remarkably well, except we did struggle a little with keeping the charcoal burning on one side and the temperature up. I slipped a dial thermometer inside the grill vents to
check the temperature of the airspace inside the grill, but it only reads to 222°. There were times the temperature dipped to 180° – apparently fire building is a skill we need to work on a bit more. I fussed over my non-burning charcoal, opened the lid too many times and clucked like the smoking newbie that I am, but it all came to a supremely satisfying end.
I wasn’t confident about my thermometer readings, so I finished the roast in a 350 oven for 15 minutes until my thermometer showed an internal temperature of 160°. Since it only took 15 minutes to reach 160°, I probably didn’t need the oven finish, but we weren’t taking any chances.
A really important part is to let the meat rest for a minimum of 15 minutes before carving – it’s hard to resist ripping into something that looks that gorgeous and has tormented you for over three hours with smells so tantalizing, but RESIST THE URGE!
Now, let me thank Mrs. Wheelbarrow, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn for making an emphatic point about developing the pellicle before smoking the meat. This is THE secret, I believe, to a successful smoked roast. I heeded their advice and after removing from the brine allowed my roasts to rest uncovered in the refrigerator overnight so the meat surface would develop that dry tackiness that helps the smoky flavor adhere to the meat. Both roasts ended up with a beautiful red exterior that made the ends the most fought over pieces on the platter.
We have not been fans of smoked foods. Oh sure, we love an occasional smoky BBQ, but smoked cheese and other snacks are usually a pass. I would never think of smoking when deciding how to cook a roast. Yet, after smoking these roasts, I’m looking at everything in our kitchen thinking it should be smoked immediately. It’s probably the special combination of hardwood charcoal, apple wood and DIY seasoning, right? Then I realize my entire experience with smoked foods is from holiday gift baskets of stale, unheard of brands of gourmet foods.
Now that I’ve seen the light, I can’t wait to take on almonds, my beef bacon from February and some home-made cheese for starters.
Come back on the 15th for part three: what we ate, how we ate it and an undisputed winner.