My First Attempt at Smoking Pork Shoulders

Since Sweetness gave me my little Weber Smoky Mountain smoker for Christmas a few months ago, I have been wanting to try my hand at pulled pork. It’s one of my favorites to enjoy, but I’m new to smoking and the time commitment kind of held me back. Instead I broke the smoker in with a few sessions that were a little less extreme. In the past four months I’ve done a couple whole chickens, a few batches of baby back ribs and I even smoked a quartered chuck roast for something different as well as a couple bacon-centric appetizers, but none of those sessions required more than four or five hours in the heat. The general rule of thumb for pork shoulders is to plan for 1.5 to 2 hours per pound for the largest roast. This meant that even a smaller, six pound shoulder could take up to twelve hours. Finally, it looked like I had a weekend that allowed for the extra time, so I did my homework and prepared ahead of time as much as I could to make the smoke session go as smoothly as possible. Of course, there is a saying that has something to do about the best laid plans of mice and men often going awry. My preparations may have helped to start me on the right path but I did end up facing a few obstacles throughout the day that slowed me down.

Most of what I have learned so far comes directly from advice from friends who have been doing this for a while. To me, the most valuable advice on any topic, is from those people that you care about. Sure, often one friend’s suggestion contradicts another’s, but that’s what makes something like this so fun. Everyone has their own processes and we all find our own by trying things out. Eventually, we all find our own ways of doing things based on the collective knowledge that we’ve built to get us to any given point. As far as this topic goes, when I don’t feel like bogging down my friends with never-ending questions, I use this site:

The Virtual Weber Bullet

It’s got a lot of great information that is specifically tailored to the kind of smoker that I have, which is the smaller of the three Weber Smoky Mountain smokers. It’s smaller stature can be a hindrance, but for me it has been the perfect size for learning. Maybe I’ll upgrade someday, but for now I’m good to go. For my first shot at pork shoulders, I decided to follow the instructions here for both the rub recipe and the general process. It seemed like as good as a starting place as any. Before this weekend I read and reread this page repeatedly until I got a good idea of what to expect. I went to Costco on Thursday and picked out a two-pack of de-boned pork shoulders, staying on the small side to minimize the length of time I’d need this first time around.

4/29/2017 - Tied and rubbed pork shoulders

Tied, rubbed and ready for the smoker

On Friday, I started the prep. I pulled out all the gear that I would need come Saturday morning and got the smoker ready with what I hoped would be more than enough charcoal, at least for the first six hours or so. The two-pack of pork shoulders weighed about 12.5 pounds out of the package, which ended up being about 11.5 pounds once I removed some of the easier to get at fat, which wasn’t too bad really. A lot of folks prefer to cook shoulders with the bone still in them because it keeps everything together and the bone serves as a natural thermometer…basically, it slides right out when the meat is done. But Costco’s come with the bone already removed. That means once the fat is trimmed, everything is kind of loose and floppy…definitely not a uniform shape that will cook evenly over the course of many hours. To solve this problem, I used kitchen twine and tied them up into two beautiful little football sized bundles of joy. I applied the first dose of rub according to the recipe I linked to above, and then I covered them and stashed them in the refrigerator overnight. Sweetness and I headed out to meet some friends for dinner and drinks but my mind was preoccupied with the next day’s coming tasks.

I set my alarm for about 4:45 AM but it was closer to 5:00 when I actually dragged myself out of bed. I pulled the shoulders from the fridge and went out to light the charcoal and fill the water pan. While the coals were heating up, I gave the shoulders another coat of rub and by 5:30, they were in the smoker with temperature probes inserted. I watched until the Weber get up to temp and then I headed to bed for a couple more hours.

When I woke up later around 7:30 or 8:00, everything was looking good and the remote temperature readings looked to be steadily rising. I let it be and took care of some chores around the house and did a little reading. I even headed off to the gym for a quick run leaving Sweetness in charge of watching the temperatures. Every once in a while I’d pop out to make sure the smoker lid temperature was in the right range. Since I had no experience cooking anything longer than four or five hours, I didn’t know what to expect. Not too long before the six hour mark where I had planned to mop, flip and rotate the shoulders in the racks anyway, I started having some temperature control problems. This was my first, and main big hiccup that lead to a frustrating afternoon of struggling to stay on schedule, and I suspect there were a number of factors that contributed to it:

  1. Looking good after six hours

    The purpose of using water in the water pan is more as a heat shield than it is for providing moisture for the meat. I know people who use similar smokers and go without water in the pan to assure higher temperatures. I wasn’t comfortable with that idea knowing that I was going to go back to bed for a bit. Next time, I might experiment without water and see if I can maintain hotter temperatures.

  2. I could have spent a little more time maximizing the amount of charcoal in the chamber. I sort of just dumped a bunch in there and then lit a partial chimney to dump on top of it to get going. I am sure that if I spent just a couple more minutes I could have gotten more in there.
  3. It was a cool and windy day. I started off with the top vent and all three bottom vents open to 100% as is usually recommended. Under normal conditions this is a good thing because it provides oxygen to fuel the fire. I speculate that the wind may have had a negative impact. I attempted to prop some items between the smoker and the direction the wind was coming from, and that seemed to help a bit, but I think I should have spent more time adjusting the vents to try and keep the wind out of it.
  4. When it was time to mop, flip and rotate the shoulders, I probably took too long. I pulled them both out and set them aside exposed to the elements. I stirred the remaining coals and added more, but I probably should have added already lit coals rather than cold ones. I added more water to the pan too. By this time I had figured I might as well keep using the water. By the time I got the meat back in, the smoker temp had dropped considerably as it tried to ignite the fresh charcoal and the meat temps dropped by ten degrees or so.
Riding out the rest of the cook with a few well-earned beers

Riding out the rest of the cook with a few well-earned beers

By this time, I was getting worried. It was early-afternoon and I seemed to be very much behind schedule. I went back to reading, occasionally, very impatiently checking temperature readings. I wasn’t seeing much progress, not in the temperature of the smoker itself or on the meat probes. I gave it a little more time and then eventually, I figured I’d have to intervene. I preheated my oven to 300 degrees and when that got up to temp, I shut the smoker down and moved the shoulders indoors, giving them a quick spritz of apple juice on the way. Babysitting the smoker was no longer a priority with the reliability of the electric oven now in charge so I decided to ride out the remainder of the cook with a few well-earned beers.

Dinner was surely going to be late, but at least the temperatures were rising again. Sweetness and I waited, as patiently as we could, until the first of the two shoulders got up close enough to our target temperature of 190. It was actually a little less than that but we were getting anxious. I wrapped that one up in foil and a towel and let it rest in a cooler for about forty-five minutes. In that time, she pulled out the coleslaw she made and I got some baked beans on the stovetop. We shredded the pork and dug in. It was a hectic day, but damn, did it taste good…certainly worth the wait. We were done eating shortly before the other shoulder was ready. We were no longer in any hurry so we let that one get a little closer to 190 and we let it rest a little longer. With what was left over, we packaged about half in a vacuum seal bag and tossed it in the freezer and we set the rest aside for meals for us throughout the week. After all was said and done, the finished combined weight of the two shoulders came in at 7.5 pounds. That means a full four pounds were lost to the heat. Yikes! Still, there was enough juiciness left. I sure can’t complain.

One of the shoulders shredded while waiting for the other to finish

One of the shoulders shredded while waiting for the other to finish

With happy bellies, I cleaned up at my own pace and went back to sip on a few more beers. I’d have to say that despite the setback, it was a success. I’ve learned a lot about the process and based on my list of things that may have been responsible for the setback, I think I have enough information to hopefully do a little better next time around. My next big commitment will likely be brisket, which will also require a longer session in the smoker. For now though, I’m going to enjoy some leftovers.

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