How To Cook A Pork Shoulder On The Grill: A Good Day's Work, For Once

A truth of the modern workplace is that you do a lot of tedious bullshit—meetings and reports and conference calls, spreadsheets and data entry and friggin' change-controls, office politicking and ass-kissing and -covering, long hours and long commutes and long/haggard/grey faces and exhaustion—for the production of results that are so hopelessly abstract as to defy both description and the attainment of any infinitesimal sense of actual accomplishment.

"What'd you do this week?"

"Oh, well, this week I submitted a request to approve testing of a cosmetic change to the application vendors use to submit requests for changes to the application vendors use to process orduhhhuhhuhh kill me, please kill me now, for chrissakes just kill me."

Rarely does the average workaday schlub get an opportunity to do a full day's work toward the production of an actual, tangible result. Rarer still is an opportunity for that schlub to accomplish that work without putting on pants. And rarer even than that is an occasion when the good result of that good work is a giant wad of sweet, greasy, smoky, juicy, salty pork.

With this in mind, and duly appreciative of it, let us now slow-cook a pork shoulder on the grill. It'll cost you most of a day, but that's OK, because a day that ends with pork and never includes pants can never be described as "wasted."

Here we go.


To begin, acquire a pork shoulder. These come in a few different formations, varying by butcher and regional custom and so forth—adorable cylindrical cuts tied neatly with twine; huge horrifying cuts with skin-covered sections of pig-leg jutting out of them; and so on. What you want here is an enormous block-shaped hunk of pork with a thick layer of fat (and possibly skin) on one side; this version of the pork shoulder goes by the anatomically disastrous name "Boston butt," and any butcher will know what that means if ask for it. (Which might cause you to wonder, not unreasonably, how exactly you would go about asking for a cut from the back-end of a pig, if "butt" refers to its shoulder. The answer is, why would you want to order a pig's ass from a butcher, are you some kind of maniac.)

Schlep your pork shoulder home and remove it from its packaging. Look at that gigantic wad of pig. It's like a Brinks truck! Elbow somebody in the arm, incline your head in the pork's direction, and instruct them to get a load of it. Now let's start turning that thing into delicious food. The first thing to do is rinse your pork shoulder with cold water and dry it with some paper towels. This will remove any blood or other assorted horror from the outside of the pork. Also, if you like, you can use a sharp knife to score the fatty side of the shoulder with a lovely crosshatched pattern; this is entirely optional and unnecessary, but it'll help the pork shoulder look more like the cover of a Martha Stewart magazine when it's done cooking.

Now, season your pork shoulder. The important thing, here, is to get lots—friggin' lots—of salt and sugar onto this thing; whether you want to accent them with some other spices is up to you. A particularly nice way to accomplish this is to dump several large fistfuls of dark brown sugar, several very large pinches of kosher salt, a couple of equally large pinches of freshly ground black pepper, and a bunch of powdered cumin and cayenne into a bowl, mix this all together with your hands (that you remembered to wash and dry after the last time you handled that large, disgusting lump of raw pork, yes?), and then kinda just press big fistfuls of this stuff onto the pork shoulder. If you wanna ditch the cumin and cayenne, or use white sugar or white pepper or the signature 36-spice blend you insist on describing to each and every single person with whom you have ever shared a cookout no matter how violently they roll their eyes and/or swat at you with rolled-up newspapers, suit yourself. The important thing is: salt and sugar. Lots.

A note, here. Some instructions for the roasting of a pork shoulder will tell you to stick your pork shoulder in the refrigerator and leave it, clad in its crumbly seasoning-armor, for hours and hours, or even a couple of days, to let the salt in particular pull a little curing action. Which, hey, if that's what you want to do, go right ahead, and enjoy your somewhat more ham-like pork on Wednesday or whenever. On the other hand, if you're not particularly invested in the eventual haminess of your pork shoulder and would like to proceed fairly directly toward consuming it, you can just wrap the pork shoulder in some aluminum foil (to keep the seasoning from falling off) and slide the whole thing to the side while you move on to the next steps, and everything will be fine.

Now, prepare your shitty charcoal grill for slow-cooking pork on indirect heat. This is basically the same thing you did when you made ribs: Pile some charcoal under one half of the cooking grate; stick a deep baking pan or aluminum foil casserole dish full of water under the other half; stick another small pan or disposable foil tray full of water on top of the grate, directly over the charcoal.

About those trays or pans of water. The first one, under the cooking grate, serves three very important purposes: Its water will evaporate over the next many hours, and this will keep the interior of the closed grill somewhat damp, which will help keep the pork shoulder moist, and also help keep the heat under control. Those are two important purposes; for its next trick, the pan will also catch the dripping pork fat as it renders, preventing this fat from catching fire inside the grill. Neat, yes? Yes! Goddammit, yes.

The second pan, the one on top of the grate, will also do a little bit of this—but also, it will serve another, also neat, purpose. When you clamp the lid on this grill, as you eventually will, you'll position the exhaust vent (or chimney) of the lid directly over this pan, so that from time to time you can come out to the grill, peek down through the holes of the exhaust vent, and see whether the water in the pan is boiling, or simmering, or doing nothing. This way you can tell whether the air inside the grill is hot enough, and adjust accordingly, without having to remove the lid. And, I mean, that is just neat-o as hell, isn't it. Shut up.

So you've got your grill all prepared and ready to go. Make a fire in that pile of charcoal. When the fire has worked its way inside the coals and they're mostly ash-covered and glowing orange—and if you can perform this step without being required to find and patronize some godawful grilling-hobbyist store or website—chuck some wet woodchips (hickory or mesquite or apple or whatever, it doesn't matter, but probably don't use chopped pencils) onto the charcoal. These will make smoke, which will make your pork shoulder taste smoky, which is always a winning quality in a pork shoulder.

As soon as you're done pitching wood chips into your grill, unwrap the pork from its aluminum foil, and dump the pork shoulder on the empty half of the grate, directly over the pan you stationed next to the charcoal. And now, clamp a lid on there, immediately.

As with ribs, the key thing, here, is controlling the temperature. Your grill almost certainly has an intake vent on the bottom; close the intake vent nearly all the way, leaving only a sliver of open space for oxygen to enter and feed the fire. The lid of your grill, likewise, has an exhaust vent or chimney (which, remember, you positioned directly over that second pan of water so you could use it to gauge the temperature of the grill); leave the exhaust vent all the way open so that the fire won't choke itself out with smoke.

What you're aiming for, temperature-wise, is for your pork shoulder to hang in the neighborhood of 200 degrees for the next many, many hours. This means that, if you peek through the exhaust vent of your grill and the water in the pan is boiling furiously, it's too hot; if the water is steaming and there are bubbles forming at the bottom of the pan, that's more like it; if the water is a river, goddammit you got distracted and wandered down to the river fucking again. If things seem too hot or too cool, though, don't overreact—don't, like, spray a bunch of lighter fluid in there or yank the lid off to give the fire a huge gulp of oxygen or slam all the vents shut to try to cool things down. Just adjust the intake valve, seriously, by like a few millimeters: Open it just a tiny bit if the fire's not hot enough; close it just a tiny bit if the fire's too hot. (Unless the fire is completely out of control, in which case, what the hell have you done.) And: Wait while the temperature rounds its way into line. Your waiting—your patience—is the thing here. You're in this for the long haul.

How long? Ha ha, oh man. Well. You're going to let your pork shoulder cook, undisturbed, without lifting the lid of the grill for even one second, for three hours—and that is just half (or less!) of the total cooking time. Check it, oh, once every half-hour or so, both to ensure the fire hasn't magically gone out or become a mushroom cloud and also as an excuse for not going anywhere or putting any pants on, but do not remove the lid. Don't do it! Resist! Trust the fire you built; trust the mechanisms you put in place to control it; trust the internet food stranger who weekly berates you for the cause of tasty eating. This will work.

So three hours have gone by, and maybe you did have to handcuff yourself to the refrigerator to resist the urge to peek under the lid—maybe you did chew through your wrist to get loose and run, shrieking like a banshee, toward the grill; maybe your quick-thinking spouse or significant other or neighbor or sobbing child did have to shoot you with a tranquilizer dart, and then another, and then five more, before you finally crawled to a stop several feet short of the grill—but does that make you less of a person? No it does not, except in the technical sense that you are now roughly 92 percent of the person you used to be because you bit your hand off.

Open the lid of your grill and assess the situation. How's the charcoal looking? By now it's probably burned out, or close to it; chuck some more charcoal in there if you need to, but don't spray the whole thing down with lighter fluid or dump a bunch of kindling in there or whatever; just trust the embers, drinking in huge gulps of oxygen now that the lid is off, to light this new charcoal. Do your pans need some more water? Pour some more water into them. Is the pork shoulder all dark and glistening and oh man I must eat it now? No, don't eat it now. It is not done cooking yet.

That's right, dammit! It's not done. Clamp the lid back on the grill and cook your pork shoulder, uninterrupted, for another long-ass time. How long? At least another three hours—but, this is where you get to make a choice. After around six hours of cooking time, assuming you kept the heat more or less in range of 200 degrees for that time, you'll have many pounds of delicious, juicy roast pork basically comparable in texture and toughness to a juicy, tender steak. If you stop there, you'll be slicing your pork with a big knife and serving those slices the way you would with a big communal steak. And, oh man, that will be amazing.

On the other hand, if you have enough friggin' ketamine to keep yourself under control, you can let your pork shoulder go a full eight or nine total hours, and come away with a finished product that can be pulled apart with forks—pulled pork! This, also, will be amazing. Basically you are going to have amazing food either way; decide for yourself which variety of amazing suits you best. And fucking bear down hard, because you are gonna have to wait for it.

In either case, eventually your pork shoulder will have cooked as much as you want it to cook; remove the pork shoulder from the grill with a pair of big forks or, like, the world's biggest tongs, then cover it with foil and let it rest for 20 whole undisturbed minutes. This is important, especially if you went the six-hour route: This gigantic hunk of pig, even after all these hours of cooking, still contains a ludicrous quantity of delicious pork-juice, and you need to give it a chance to redistribute this pork-juice as it cools, so that when you carve it, it will retain this juice instead of ejecting it all over your kitchen like a great brown tidal wave of wonderful-smelling failure.

Another optional step here: If you want, while your pork shoulder rests, you can make a sweet, vinegary, piquant dressing for it. White vinegar, molasses, and sriracha—yes, dammit, sriracha!—will be amazing in this capacity, even if this combination causes a horde of grilling-purist weenies to come crashing through the wall of your home to accuse you of making barbecue sauce, and, further, to make sure you know that whatever, man, sriracha's just hipster ketchup, it isn't even as good as [insert other, less popular hot sauce here], you must be afraid of real heat, man. Mix these things together in a bowl, with a spoon; you can toss the sliced or pulled pork with this stuff, or drizzle it over the top, or make it available as a condiment, or whatever. Strictly speaking, your pork won't need it—it's already sweet and smoky and salty and delicious—but, hey, messy sauces are fun and this'll taste wonderful.

So your pork shoulder has rested, and redistributed; slice or pull or chop your pork shoulder apart, according to whether you cooked it for six or eight hours, and get this sliced or pulled or chopped pork into some kind of vessel for serving. And now, oh man, all that time and preparation and restraint, all the dreaming of pork and fantasizing about pork and screaming "Pooooooooorrrrrrrrrrk!" at the sky—by God, now you may serve your pork shoulder and goddamn eat it.


Decide for yourself how you want to serve your pork. Whether your sliced or pulled or chopped it, it'll go great between sandwich buns, or next to coleslaw or potato salad, or roasted vegetables, or whatever. Hell, treat it like carnitas if you want: Serve it with warm tortillas, chopped cilantro leaves, diced onion, avocado, and lime wedges for squeezing over it. Use your imagination, so long as your imagination includes spectacularly cold beer.

How you nurtured this thing along, waited on it, looked after it, gave it its space, used a light touch to guide it back on course when it got too hot or too cold—you can taste all that care, in the balance of sweet and smoky and salty and hot, the deep immediate porkiness of it, how readily it yields to your crazed gnashing maw and melts on your slavering palate. A thing you coaxed to the fullest expression of its goodness, mostly by standing around with a beer in your hand and reminding yourself not to do anything.

That's good work.


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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at albertburneko@gmail.com. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.

Image by Sam Woolley.

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