Since our ancestors figured out how to make fire with flint, I think I can figure out how to spray lighter fluid over charcoal and light a match – that’s how basic this smoking technique is!
Cave man diet here I come….. ahahah-ahahaha….. (beating chest with fists and swinging through jungle on rope vines.) Okay, that was my pep talk/comedy routine. Hope it helped? Now, let’s get down to the business…
Pork picnic is often called pocket ham and it comes from the shoulder or a cross-section of the upper arm (pork arm picnic). It is a super tasty cut that is perfect for smoking or braising. Either way, it should be cooked with moist heat low and slow for a very very long time. If it’s not cooked this way it will be tougher than leather.
Go to my Amazon button and buy a smoker for $75. Or if you need to see and touch it first, go to Lowes. They are not that expensive – or at least they don’t have to be – and many are actually quite slender without taking over your whole backyard. There are expensive types like the Green Egg or electric versions that keep the heat temperature consistent but, if you don’t have the extra means, you can still do great smoked stuff.
Here’s how a traditional smoker works: in a metal cylinder there is a bbq pit tray on the bottom and then a bowl for liquid above the pit tray that keeps the container moist with the heat from below it. Above the liquid tray are the smoking racks. The fuel (wood or charcoal) is fed to the bottom tray and the liquid and the meat are added once the heat of the fire has come down to around 250˚F. A lid is kept on throughout the whole cooking time so the moist heat circulates continuously. The idea is to keep the fuel fed little by little to maintain that ideal temperature.
I use natural wood charcoal for building the fire or hardwood and add specialty chips (applewood, hickory, etc) towards the end. Why? Because they tend to burn very fast and can dry out meat fast, so it’s best at the end. We have a lot of applewood stored up at the farm from our last orchard trimming, and sometimes I just use that to feed the charcoal after it has reached the right temperature.
You can smoke just about anything. Even potatoes. Which, by the way, are so amazingly delicious they are almost criminal. Back to pork picnic: start with a great product. No cooking technique turns silver into gold. Luckily the shoulder cuts are cheaper, so go the extra mile and buy from a reputable farm.
I get most of my beef, lamb, and pork from them. I actually go to their Ranch and pick it up but they also have a CSA and sell at many of the coastal farmer’s markets too. For those in the SF Bay Area, this ranch is just 15 minutes South of Half Moon Bay right off Cabrillo Highway before San Gregorio.
Having a relationship with your butcher is great, but having a relationship with the people who raise your meat and butcher it, is awesome. The more I learn about industrial farming practices, the more I want relationships with local organic farmers doing the right thing. And it is a beautiful farm right on the ocean and they are such a beautiful family. Gosh, just really neat people…
The whole process of cooking pork picnic takes about 2 to 3 days. I brine the pork overnight. Then I marinate it in a spice rub for one whole day. Then smear more spices on it and some mustard too and smoke it for at least 8 hours. Yes, this sounds like a long process, but none of these steps require my full-blown attention. Even the smoking part, I just check in on every so often.
That’s why smoking is stupid easy. It’s not like cooking fish in a hot skillet where the difference between perfect and overcooked is 5 seconds. That’s hard. Trust me. That’s really hard. Especially when you’re cooking for 200 people.
And that’s the other great thing about smoking pork picnic, it will feed a lot of people. Word of caution here: over-estimate the amount you are going to need per person. Normally in a restaurant I figure on 1/4 – 1/2# per person depending on the type of meat and cut and so on. But with pork, fuggeddaboutit, figure 1# per person or there abouts. People go crazy over this stuff.
I bought 10 pounds of pork picnic for a 12 person sit down corporate dinner and it disappeared. There were left overs and I turned my back and they were gone. People get real sneaky about smoked pork.
Let’s talk about ratios. Because ratios allow you to take a recipe and just throw it in the trash. Really. Do your own thing! Be creative. You cannot mess this up. Michael Rhulman has an excellent post that I’ve linked to on chicken brine and I use the same for pork because I don’t like it any saltier.
It’s a good idea to brine tougher cuts before cooking for long periods of time, about 8 to 12 hours. I agree with Michael, I like brine around 5%, which means that there is 25 grams of kosher salt in 1/2 liter of water or 2 tablespoons of Kosher salt for every 2.5 cups of water. KOSHER SALT, I DID NOT SAY REGULAR TABLE SALT. (Very. Very. Important.) Kosher salt is not iodized and won’t change the flavor or color of your meat and, as far as salts go, regular table salt actually has MORE salt in it per serving so you cannot switch the two around here.
Put. The. Table. Salt. Down.
You can add to this brine whatever you want: orange peel, cloves, cinnamon sticks, cumin seed, black pepper, bay leaf, star anise, mustard seed, rosemary, thyme, coriander, beer (sub some of the water for beer), all of the above, or none of the above. Make sure that the salt water brine is brought to a boil to mix ingredients and then thoroughly cooled before adding meat.
Now that you have the brine ration. Here’s your spice rub ratio: 8:3:1:1. Make sense? 8 tablespoons sugar, 3 tablespoons Kosher salt, 1 tablespoon cumin, 1/2 tablespoon coriander, 1/2 tablespoon ground red chili pepper. You can break the smaller parts of the ratio in half or smaller, but try to stay within the boundaries.
Sugar is the first ingredient in the rub to give that awesome caramelized skin (do not use this ratio for grilled meat, the sugar will burn). I use a dark sugar like brown sugar or turbinado. The second ingredient is Kosher salt. The rest is up for grabs and you can add-on more than two. I suggest that whatever spices you choose that you grind yourself for maximum flavor.
Okay, so now the smoker is at idea temp, the pork picnic has been brined and rubbed full of spices, now comes the moment of truth. Put the meat on the grill in the smoker and add liquid of choice in the liquid bowl and put the lid on. The smoking liquid could be: water, some vinegar, a little whiskey, a few beers, a bottle of white wine, or a combo (whew – that sounds like a bad frat party concoction!). It’s your choice. Just make sure to keep it full. Pork picnic is probably going to take 6-8 hours, and you will probably go through two 10-pound bags of charcoal. Your meat is done when it has reached an internal temperature of 145˚-160˚F and it’s easy to cut. Like butter.
If you have never smoked anything before and just love the flavor of real BBQ you are going to be amazed at how easy this process is. I also like to brush the meat with a distilled white vinegar-brown sugar mop every so often, but that’s up to you too.
Enjoy! Let me know how it turns out!