Do you ever have a craving for pulled pork? Sometimes I do. For Memorial Day I tried my hand at making barbecued pulled pork - cooking slow and low over indirect heat on a grill using a North Carolina-style mop sauce as inspiration and a pork butt roast marinated in hot mustard and maple flavors. There are a few regional variations within North Carolina for barbecue - it's usually served with a very loose vinegar mop sauce that can include peppers or mustard or tomato depending on where you are in the state.
The beautiful thing to me about barbecue is transforming cheaper, tougher cuts of meat (like pork butt, a.k.a. shoulder) into a moist, flavorful end product. In fact, most would argue that for the same reason cuts like shoulder are tough (the muscle fibers are more developed from use, as opposed to say, a loin), the meat is also more flavorful. In cooking, fat is flavor, and pork shoulder has a lovely abundance of it. One of my favorite parts, I discovered, is the fat, which I dubbed "pork candy" for the crisp, sweet, succulent treat that it is, once it's been smoking and slowly caramelizing on the grill.
In fact, a prized bark develops on the outside of the pork, and the inside should be fork-tender. If you let the heat creep up, beware; the proteins will seize and you'll end up with a piece of meat that you could salvage for a game of football.
I decided to whip up a hot mustard and maple dry rub using an ingredient that I found at the co-op that intrigued me: maple powder. Turns out it's dehydrated maple syrup. I liked the idea of using it in a dry rub to give the flavor of maple without too much added wetness.
The other key ingredient is patience. After 16 hours of marinating and several hours on the grill, the dry rub creates a bark that had the vaguely salty-maple sweetness of bacon. Once the pork is to temperature, shred it and bathe it in tangy rhubarb mop sauce and serve hot on a Kaiser bun.
Pulled pork with maple dry rub and rhubarb mop sauce
An oven thermometer works well if you aren't sure how hot your grill is running. Place it near the roast on the side without the coals. The slow, low heat of barbecuing will transfer a potentially tough cut of meat like pork butt (or shoulder) into what I call pork candy: sweet, tender, melt-in-your mouth goodness.
- 3-1/2 pounds pork butt roast
- about 4 handfuls applewood chips
- disposable foil baking pan, slightly larger than roast
Hot mustard and maple dry rub
- 1/4 cup maple powder
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 2 teaspoons hot mustard
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- pinch of nutmeg
Mix all dry rub spices together in a bowl and rub into pork. Seal in a ziplock bag and marinate in refrigerator overnight.
About 30 minutes before cooking, soak applewood chips, then drain and seal in a foil pouch. Poke holes in top of pouch.
Heat gas grill to about 225-250 degrees or ready coals for a charcoal grill (about 40-50 briquettes). Push coals (if applicable) to one side. Fill disposable drip tray with about an inch of water and place on side without coals. Once coals have turned gray or gas grill is up to temperature, put applewood chips on top of coals, then place roast on grill above drip tray, and cover.
Rotate meat every hour or so, also checking coals and adding about a dozen or so as needed to maintain slow, low temperature. Allow about 1 to 1-1/2 hours cooking time per pound of meat.
Meanwhile, prepare mop sauce (below). Pull meat off grill when it reaches 190-200 degrees internal temperature (fork tender). Allow to rest 30 minutes, then shred and toss with mop sauce.
Rhubarb mop sauce
Yield: about 1-1/2 cups
- 3 cups rhubarb (about 3 stalks), chopped
- 3/4 cup yellow onion (about half), chopped
- 1 tablespoon maple powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon hot mustard
- 1 cup cider vinegar
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- pinch of paprika
Put onion and rhubarb into a food processor with spices and half the cider vinegar. Pulse until pieces are finely chopped, but not pureed. Simmer partially uncovered for about 45 minutes, until flavors meld and juices from the onion and rhubarb are released. Strain solids through cheesecloth or chinois and add up to remaining half of cider, depending on desired level of acidity and thinness of sauce.