Pulled Pork – Smoking without a Smoker

The Challenge: To produce smoky succulent pulled pork sandwiches without using a smoker.

I do not own a smoker. It’s on the list, but the model I am most interested in, the Big Green Egg, costs about $500. Since that’s about five times the cost of my trusty Weber Bar-B-Kettle, I will have to make do with what I have for the time being.

The problem with trying to smoke meats in the Weber is mainly one of temperature control. I have had a very hard time getting a nice cool fire to smolder for several hours. Either the fire gets too hot and burns the dry rub, or it goes out too quickly and the meat never reaches tenderness.

After several tries at smoking both pork shoulders and beef briskets on my Weber grill, I decided to take a new tack. I would smoke the meat for a couple of hours to infuse it with smoke flavor, then move it to the oven where I could attain a controlled environment for the rest of the process.

I attempted this feat yesterday, and the results were mixed. With practice, however, I think this method could produce authentic tasting smoked barbecued meats.

The process breaks down into four main steps.

  1. Cover the meat with a dry rub and let the spices infuse the roast
  2. Smoke the meat at low heat on the grill for 1-2 hours
  3. Roast the meat at low temperature in the oven until fork tender
  4. Shred the meat and cook slowly with a vinegar sauce

Beginning to end, I think this roast took me about 9 hours over two days.

Step 1: Dry Rub

Mix up a dry rub to taste. I have made this a bunch of times and never with the same rub twice. Always in the mix are paprika, brown sugar, cumin, can cayenne.

My roasts do tend to get a little caramelized, so perhaps less brown sugar would be wise

After rubbing the meat all over, let it rest, covered, in the fridge for at least an hour. Some recipes recommend letting it sit for as long as 8.

Dry Rubbed

Dry Rubbed

When the roast is properly infused with dry-rub-goodness, get out the charcoal and start the grill. Take some smoke chips (I used Hickory, but I’m sure other woods would work as well) and soak them in water to prepare them for use.

Last summer I started using hardwood charcoal. I like it better than briquettes, but it is more expensive and requires a chimney starter. A chimney starter is a good investment in any case, since it precludes the use of lighter fluid, saving money in the long run and eliminating the lighter fluid taste.

Step 2: Smoke

When the coals are ready, pour them out of the chimney and pile them on one side of the grill. It’s probably a good idea to cover the grill and let them ash over and cool off a bit before putting on the meat. If you have an oven thermometer that you don’t mind getting smoky, you want the temperature to be about 250 degrees, and even as low as 200 would probably be ok.

When the fire is ready, put a drip pan filled with water on the far side of the grill from the coals, and put the meat on the grill as far from the fire as possible. Drain the smoke chips and place on top of the coals. Cover the grill. It should start smoking like a chimney. Adjust the vents on the grill to maintain a nice slow burn.

To keep the meat moist, it is traditional to “mop” the roast while it smokes. There are probably as many ways to make a mop sauce as there are barbecue cooks. I don’t think it matters too much what you do here. I usually make mine out of about 1 cup beer and 1/2 a cup of cider vinegar, with a little mustard mixed in. Maybe some Worcestershire Sauce. Since I always have some dry rub left, I tend to mix some of that in too. Mop (baste) the roast about every 30 minutes or so with a basting brush.

Continue this process until the fire burns out. I got about two hours out of my coals. After one hour, I added some more smoke chips to really infuse the meat with smoke flavor. As the fire dies out, preheat the oven to 250 degrees



Here you can see the roast ready for some smoke. It was hard to get a good picture since there was so much smoke coming off of the hickory chips. Notice the drip pan below the meat. We conveniently had eaten a cherry pie from A Baker’s Wife the night before, and the disposable aluminum pie pan made a perfect drip catcher. Also, the cherry pie was amazing. They use sour cherries, exactly how I like it. They don’t have a web site, but they did win Best Bakery from City Pages in 2008.

Step 3: Roast

So at this point I was pretty much winging it, but I put the roast on a roasting rack in a 13″x9″ glass roasting pan. I poured about 1-2 cups of water in the pan and put it in the oven at 250 degrees. I continued to mop the roast about every half hour, expecting it would be done in an hour or two.

I was wrong.

Five hours later we we getting ready to head out to a friend’s birthday party, and the roast was not yet “fork tender”. Not having much of a choice, I pulled the meat out, shredded it by hand, and threw it in my slow cooker to deal with later. The meat did come apart, and it was tender, juicy, and very smoky, but I was expecting it to fall apart in my hands.

In the slow cooker

In the slow cooker

Pulling pork is hard work. I thought my hands were going to cramp up the whole time. I have a couple of theories about the lack of fall apartness:

  • The roast I had was never going to gain that consistency, that’s just how it is with pulled pork
  • The oven temperature was too low
  • It really does take 12 hours to barbecue pork

I think I could probably compromise a bit on the oven temperature. Going up to 300 or even 350 degrees might greatly speed up the breakdown of the connective tisue without overly drying out the meat. I would certainly want to keep a close eye on it and baste more often. It might also make sense to use a higher temperature and put the roast in a large, covered dutch oven with a little water. This would almost certainly prevent the roast from drying out and would probably speed the dissolution of the collagen. It’s an ongoing experiment.

Step 4: Get Saucy

To complete the pulled pork experience, we need to coat the meat in a vinegar based barbecue sauce. You could just use store bought sauce here, but after 8 hours, that seems like a cop out.

I made a quick homemade BBQ sauce out of ketchup (not as much as you would think), brown sugar, cider vinegar (more than you would think), Worcestershire sauce, and Chili Garlic Paste, which I put in just about everything.

Cook the sauce in a small saucepan until it’s hot, then mix it up with the shredded pork in the slow cooker. Heat the mixture on low heat for an hour or two, until the meat is thoroughly coated in sauce.

That’s it. Spoon it out onto warm rolls and enjoy a well deserved smoky pork sandwich

All done

All done

Normally I would serve this sandwich with cole slaw, but in order to healithfy the experience a bit, I made a spinach salad with fat free yogurt dressing. Heresy, I know, but I did candy some cashews with what remained of the dry rub.

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