The pork shoulder may be the world's simplest cut of meat to cook. Simpler than steak. Simpler than brisket. Simpler than ribs. But simple doesn't mean simple-minded. You'll need to know about some essential gear and techniques to get it right.
In a nutshell, you season the hell out of it and cook it at a low to moderate heat for 3 to 6 hours (2-1/2 to 3 hours at 350 degrees; 5 to 6 hours at 250 degrees.) What emerges from your smoker or grill gives you a bodacious blend of crisp crust, luscious fat, and meltingly tender meat.
Thanks to its generous marbling, pork shoulder lends itself to a variety of live fire cooking methods, including indirect grilling, smoking, and spit-roasting. The advantage of these methods is that you get both a crisp crust and moist, tender meat.
Roast it right:
- Smoking, aka, barbecuing: This is the preferred method of the American South, using a low heat and a long cooking time (in other words, "low and slow"), and always done with wood smoke. You can achieve this in several ways: firing your pit with logs, or tossing soaked hardwood chunks or chips on a charcoal fire. Keep the cooking temperature in the 225 to 275 degree range. Look for a dark "bark" (crusty exterior) and reddish smoke ring just under the surface.
- Indirect grilling: As the name suggests, the food is cooked next to, not directly over, the fire in a covered grill working at a moderate (325 to 350 degree) heat. This speeds up the cooking time and gives you a super crusty exterior and unlike smoking, you can do it on a gas grill. Yes, you can toss soaked wood chips on the coals (or in a gas grill's smoker box) to produce a smoke flavor.
- Spit-roasting: Few sights on Planet Barbecue are more inviting--or hunger-inducing--than a pork shoulder rotating slowly on a turnspit next to the fire. The meat browns, crisps, and best of all, bastes itself. But don't take my word for it: spit-roasting is the preferred method for cooking pork shoulder in Puerto Rico, Tuscany, Bali, and just about everywhere in between. Spit-roasting is usually done at higher heat than indirect grilling or smoking--350 to 400 degrees. Time is shorter, too. Recommended for Spiessbraten, Balinese Roast Pork Shoulder, and other dishes that don't traditionally require a smoke flavor.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.