In my previous post, I discussed the concept and preparation for slow cooking a whole hog on an offset smoker. In this exciting episode, I'll go through what Paul Harvey called, "The rest of the story."
With the party scheduled to start at 6 PM, I elected to start the hog at 11 AM. That may have been a dicey move, but it worked out. I lit the fire in the firebox using dry, oak wood chunks and lump hardwood charcoal briquettes, then did final preparations on the pig. I pulled it out of the cooler and patted it dry. Then, I rubbed it all over with French’s yellow mustard, then sprinkled it carefully with Salt Lick Dry Rub. I had to go pretty light because while I love Salt Lick BBQ, their dry rub is heavy on the cayenne. My Iowa-brand taste buds can’t quite handle it. I sprinkled the rub all over, including the inside cavity where it could flavor the ribs.
I had installed two additional gauges in the lid, each about 25% of the distance to their respective ends, one close to the fire and one on the opposite end by the chimney. The temperature climbed to about 300 deg. F on the end closest to the fire and about 290 deg. F on the farthest end. I was surprised by the lack of a temperature difference end to end. However, the factory installed gauge in the lid, which was in the middle but further up, only read 250 deg. F, a considerable difference. I don’t know if it was a cheaper gauge or if the placement made that big of a difference (likely both), but it confirmed what I suspected that the factory gauge doesn’t give an accurate reading as to the temperature profile within the cooker at the cooking surface.
With the pig ready, I placed it butterfly style on the smoker grate, with the rear toward the fire, a water bowl between its legs and the head at the far end. I have mixed emotions about the water bowl. The theory is that a water pan can help keep the environment moist so things don’t dry out, but water can absorb a lot of heat before boiling or evaporating, and that is heat that is not going into the meat. Regardless, I placed it there to protect the hams from cooking too fast.
Lastly, I placed two electronic digital temperature probes into the pig, one in the ham and one in the thickest part of the shoulder, but neither touching bones. Their cables extended outside of the cooker, so I could monitor not only the cooker temps, but also the temperature of the meat. Pretty good system, I figured. I closed the lid and checked my watch. Then, it was only a matter of time and fire control.
The pig behaved almost like any other piece of meat like a pork shoulder would, except that after about 2 hours I noticed the hams were cooking faster than the shoulders, though the gauges in the lid were still reading fairly close to one another at 275 deg. F and 265 deg. F (275 deg. F being my chosen cooking temperature). The hams were coming along quickly and I was worried they’d be overcooked before the party and that the shoulders would be under cooked. I decided not to panic and just keep going.
After another 2 hours, the hams were on their way, but had hit the stall point. The temp wasn’t moving. I lifted the lid to take a peek. Everything looked good, but I didn’t want to dry out the hams just to get them up to temp, so I took foil and made a diaper of sorts for the pig. This would (theoretically) help to keep in the moisture without drying it out. About an hour later, I also decided to remove the water pan. At that point, the shoulders had climbed in temp and the hams had broken through the stall and were climbing again. The shoulders had gotten to within 15 degrees of the hams and I felt better all around. Occasionally I’d spray the pig with apple cider vinegar because I saw it on a video, but I’m honestly not sure it mattered.
At 6 PM the hams read 200 deg. F and the shoulders read 185 deg. F. At that point, I was safe. I’m sure there are perfect or prescribed optimum temps, but I knew things would be safe to eat and it was only a matter of how pull-able the parts would be. I decided to not add any more fuel to the fire and to just let it coast. As friends arrived, they wanted to also take a peek, so lid-raising became a common occurrence. Finally, everyone had gathered by 7 PM, gotten a beer or a glass of wine from our friends at The Austin Winery, and it was time to pull the pig.
In total, the pig had been on the cooker from 11 AM to 7 PM, for a total of 8 hours for a 23 lb. pig, cooked at 275 deg. F. My dad’s friend, Carl Rogan, a true BBQ aficionado originally from Kansas City once declared when cooking ribs that, “It’s between the 7th and the 8th hour that the magic happens.” Even with a whole hog, he was absolutely right.
We covered a table with butcher paper and my friends and I all grabbed tongs, knives, and forks. We cut down the back to pull away the skin and the crew picked the meat from the pig and placed some of it in a foil pan and place some of it directly in their mouths. Admittedly, I’d been pretty nervous about how this would go, but the first pull of the tender pork, followed by a taste of the succulent meat confirmed the experiment had produced the desired results. The response was unanimous, “Great success!”
Picking the meat from the pig was great fun, and we moved the pan to the table where people could make sandwiches with gluten free buns from a local market or just eat it plain. Rachel made a terrific mustard based sauce, inspired by our trip to Central BBQ in Memphis some weeks prior and the crew of friends, who are really more like family to me, kicked back and relaxed late into the evening.
Most of us were too full to move by the time the party was done, but my first attempt at slow cooking a whole hog using offset heat seemed to work.
The only question is, what to do next?