Big Moe Cason of Ponderosa BBQ talked to Food & Wine about how to cook pork shoulder for a crowd, and the essential tools you need for grilling.
Big Moe Cason grew up around the fragrant smell of grilled meat and the simmering coals of the smoker. In the backyard of his childhood home in Iowa, his family kept a 55-gallon drum, and at family gatherings, which usually included all 17 of his aunts and uncles, someone would inevitably fire up the smoker. In 2006, he decided to take up the art of barbecue for himself, and since then, he’s participated in around 300 cooking competitions. Cason, who recently partnered with Big Red soda, now runs the award-winning Ponderosa Barbecue in Des Moines, Iowa.
With warmer weather on the horizon, summer enthusiasts, meat lovers, and party planners should start thinking about that first backyard barbecue of the summer. The one where the neighbors and the whole family come over, the kids are playing in the sprinkler, and there’s enough food and beer to feed people well into the night. Cason, who has been hosting barbecues for most of his life, has all the tips and tricks you need to host the ideal summer cookout.
Choose your meat wisely
“When you’re throwing a backyard party, you need to get the best bang for your buck,” says Cason. “If you want to feed a lot of people with some great smoked meats, you can’t go wrong with pork shoulder.”
Pork shoulder is inexpensive, and is ideal for parties where you’ll be feeding a lot of people. According to Cason, it’s also one of the easiest things to cook in a smoker. You don’t have to worry too much about devising a complex rub either—a simple salt and pepper mixture compliments pork should well.
When you’re at the grocery store, look for a cut of pork shoulder called the Boston butt. Boston butt will have conspicuous marbling, and works especially well for pulled pork dishes.
Give yourself plenty of cooking and preparation time
Putting together this type of feast requires late nights and early mornings. Cason’s motto is “Plan your work, work your plan.” Figure out how many people you’ll be serving, how much each meat each person will likely eat ahead of time, and how you'll lay out the food. Will someone be carving the pork or will it be a free for all? Then, calculate how much time you need to prepare, taking into account seasoning the meat, cooking the meat, and letting the meat rest.
“If you have a party at four, you’ll want the pork to be done at one or two and then you want to let it rest for an hour or two in a dry cooler or an Alto-Shaam [cook and hold oven], something to keep it nice and warm until you serve it.”
Placing the meat in this type of appliance “creates a really moist humid environment,” which “helps buffer that pork from drying out.”
Cason recommends assuming that everyone will eat a quarter pound of meat, but keep in mind that a 20 pound pork shoulder loses around 50 percent percent of its weight in moisture by the time it’s done cooking, so you’ll only be left with ten pounds of meat.
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Don't rush it
"The window you have to cook that pork, in terms of temperature, is going to be 198 to 203 degrees internal,” warns Cason. “Once you start getting too high, the meat may have reached maximum tenderness, but then it starts to become mushy.”
Another pitfall for newcomers is that they try to finish it too fast. Cooking a pork shoulder in three hours is possible, says Cason, but it will come out the texture of a “bouncy ball.”
“Low and slow is the best,” recommends Cason. “That allows the collagen and fat to render out.”
And under no circumstances should you skip out of the meat’s resting period, which takes another hour, as that is when “the juices are working their way back toward the center of the meat.” You also shouldn’t start shredding the meat too early (if you’re planning on making pulled pork).
“As soon as you start breaking it up, you’re losing moisture, allowing air to hit all those different fibers and pieces and chunks. It’s going to start degrading,” says Cason.
Cason adds that he often wraps his meat in cellophane once it's done cooking, then places it in a dry cooler until his customers start ordering.
“Ideally, you should be shredding as you’re serving.”
Build up the flavor
“When pork is cooked correctly, it’ll have a silky smooth texture in your mouth,” says Cason. “When I’m judging pulled pork, I take a piece of pork and I place it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. If it sticks to the roof of my mouth, it’s overcooked.”
Don’t be intimidated though: Pork is one of the easiest dishes to season. You can make it spicy or add sugar to your rub to make it sweet. Cason adheres to a strict eight parts black pepper, five parts Himalayan pink salt, three parts coriander or granulated garlic ratio.
One thing Cason recommends first-timers do when they’re first learning to barbecue is to cook their meat “naked.”
“Cook it correctly, then work on trying to get exotic with your flavors,” he says.
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Have the right tools on hand
Cason’s must-have barbecue tools are simple: A reliable thermometer and grill or smoker with an insulated firebox. His thermometer of choice is the Thermapen, which tells you the internal temperature of the meat in seconds.
“If you don’t have the insulated firebox, then every breeze that goes by changes the temperature of the smoker or the grill,” he says. “You want consistency. That’s the big key.”
On the other hand, if you’re just making dinner for your family, you don’t need anything fancy; a basic weber kettle will do. Cason recommends doing an “off-set cook” on it, which means moving the charcoal to one side and cooking the meat on the opposite side.
And his best advice, no matter what tools you’re using, is to just keep cooking.
“You’ve got to put your time in. Learn your pit. That will make you a better pitmaster.”
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