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Prep. Trim most of the fat from the exterior of the meat but not all of it. Leave no more than 1/8-inch. Some folks like to leave it all on hoping it will melt and baste the meat, but it cannot penetrate the meat! The goal is to season the meat not on the fat, allowing the meat to get a crunchy flavorful, seasoned bark. Note: Most of the butts I cook are 4 to 6 pounds, pretty well trimmed, and tied with butcher's twine to keep them from falling apart. If yours is not already tied, hogtie it with kite string. Don't worry if it isn't fancy. You're going to throw out the string, so just rope it to keep the pork from falling apart.
If you have the time, Season the pork butt all over with salt and refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours before cooking. Called dry brining, this gives the salt a chance to start penetrating (note: if you dry brine and then season later with a rub, you must use a rub with no salt in it like Meathead's Memphis Dust. At that point, the spices will not penetrate, but the salt already will have).
Just before cooking, wet the surface with water and sprinkle on the Meathead's Memphis Dust. The water helps the rub dissolve and adhere. Water dissolves the rub better than oil. Some folks like to slather it with yellow mustard. I don't think it makes much difference which you use, water or mustard. In fact, bottled mustard is mostly water. If you want mustard flavor, use mustard powder. I've done them side by side and there are so many other flavors going on that the mustard gets lost. Marinating will not penetrate a big hunk very far, so don't bother. Read my article on marinating.
Fire up. Prepare a smoker for cooking at about 225°F or set up a grill for 2-zone or indirect smoke cooking (cooker setups are described in the technique section of this site) and adjust the vents to bring the temperature to approximately 225°F. add about 4 ounces of wood chips, pellets, or chunks to the fire.
Cook. Once the smoker or grill has come to temperature, insert a digital probe like the Maverick ET-733 into the pork butt, positioning the tip right in the center. Make sure it is not within 1/2" of the bone. This will allow you to monitor the internal temperature of the pork butt without opening the smoker or grill.
Put the meat on the smoker (or on the indirect heat side of a grill), right on the grate and not in a pan so that a flavorful bark can begin to form on the entire exterior. Allow the pork butt to smoke uninterrupted, but be sure to check your cooker every hour or so to make sure the fuel is sufficient and that you are holding at 225 to 250°F. Don't worry if the temperature temporarily goes up to 300°F, since pork butts are very forgiving, but try to keep it under 250°F. Add additional doses of wood sparingly during the first two hours, about 4 ounces every 30 minutes. The key is to add a pleasant smoky flavor to the meat without overpowering it.
The stall. If you are cooking at 225°F to 250°F, when the meat hits about 150°F internal temp, it will probably stall. The internal temperature may not go up for hours. That's because the moisture evaporating from the surface is cooling the meat at the same rate as the hot air is warming it, and the internal temperature stalls. You can just ride it out, or you can bust through the stall by cranking the heat to about 300°F or by wrapping the meat tightly in foil. This is called the Texas Crutch. To learn more about the stall click here. But the beauty of the stall is that it forms the bark, the dry, flavorful, jerky like crust.
Continue cooking. When the pork butt hits an internal temperature of about 170°F, collagens, which are part of the connective tissues, begin to melt and turn to gelatin. The meat gets much more tender and juicy when this happens. Allow the pork butt to continue cooking past 170°F.
Finishing. When the internal temperature hits 203°F (a total of approximately 8 to 12 hours total cooking time) it's time to check if the pork butt is ready. The exterior should be dark brown. Some rubs and cookers will make the meat look black like a meteorite, but it is not burnt and it doesn't taste burnt. There may be glistening bits of melted fat. On a gas cooker, the meat may look shiny pink. If there is a bone, use a glove or paper towel to protect your fingers and wiggle the bone. If the bone turns easily and comes out of the meat, the collagens have melted and you are ready. If there is no bone, use the "stick a fork in it method." Insert a fork and try to rotate it 90 degrees. If it turns with very little pressure, you're ready. Keep in mind, these are animals not widgets and there can be variations depending on breed, diet, weight, your cooker design, and even ambient air temp. The meat is ready when it is ready. So it is really good advice to start 10 to 12 hours before dinner, and if it finishes early, wrap it and put it in a faux cambro or in your indoor oven at about 150°F.
If the pork butt is not ready, close the lid and allow it to continue cooking. After, say, an hour, it is still not soft, you've just got a tough butt. Wrap tough butts in aluminum foil and let them go for another hour at 225°F. If you can't control the temp on your cooker, wrap the meat in heavy duty foil and move it indoors into a 225°F oven. Do not add sauce while it is on the cooker. That comes after you pull it.
Taste. When it is finally ready, sneak a small taste. You should notice a thick flavorful crust, and right below it is the telltale "smoke ring", the bright pink color caused by smoke mixing with combustion gases and moisture.
Holding the meat (optional). If you are more than an hour from mealtime, you can leave the meat on the cooker with the heat off or put it in the indoor oven and hold it there by dialing the temp down to about 170°F. If you are more than 2 hours from mealtime, wrap it in foil to keep it from drying out and hold it at 170°F. If you are taking the meat to a party, use a faux cambro, which is simply a tight plastic beer cooler that can hold the meat. Leave the probe in the meat, wrap the hunk tightly in foil, wrap the foil with more towels, and put it the whole thing in the cooler. Fill up the cooler with more towels, blankets, or newspaper to keep the meat insulated. Hang the thermometer cord over the lid of the cooler, and close it tightly. Plug the cord into the readout and make sure the internal temperature of the meat never drops below 145°F. Serve it before it does. Just know that this wrapping technique will soften the bark and change the texture of the meat very slightly.
Pull it. About 30 minutes before sitting down for dinner, put the meat into a large pan to catch drippings. If your butt came bone-in, the blade should slide right out and have virtually no meat attached if it was cooked properly.
Pull the pork butt apart with Claws, gloved hands, or forks. Discard big chunks of fat. If you wish, you can slice it or chop it like they do in North Carolina, but I think you lose less moisture by pulling it apart by hand since the meat separates into bundles of muscle fibers. Hence the name pulled pork. Try not to eat all the flavorful crusty bits when you are doing the pulling. Distribute them evenly throughout the meat instead. Make sure you save any flavorful drippings and pour them over the meat.