Recipe: Kevin Callaghan’s Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder

Tender pork shoulder, smoked, grilled and braised for 8 hours, has a sublimely rich flavor set off by a sweet, tangy, salty tomato-based sauce zapped with hot chiles.

Tender pork shoulder, smoked, grilled and braised for 8 hours, has a sublimely rich flavor set off by a sweet, tangy, salty tomato-based sauce zapped with hot chiles.

When I tasted this rich, falling-apart-tender pork shoulder at the Carrboro Farmers Market, I knew I had to waylay Kevin Callaghan to get the recipe. Luckily Kevin, who owns Acme Food & Beverage Co., is a generous soul and divulged his secrets for achieving perfection: a deep, dark caramelized crust on the outside and tender, juicy meat on the inside.

This recipe is not hard, but it does require advance planning. For the best flavor, buy a naturally fed pork shoulder at your own farmers’ market—ours came from Elysian Fields Farm—or from a source like Niman Ranch. Do not even think of removing the fat: it helps caramelize the crust and keeps the meat moist and tender while it’s in the oven. You’ll also need to buy a bag of hickory chips and hardwood charcoal for the grill.

If you plan to serve the shoulder on Saturday night, rub it with the spice mixture Friday morning and refrigerate, allowing it to absorb the rub for 24 hours, or at least overnight. “You want the hot, spicy flavors to thoroughly penetrate the meat and create a layer of salt and sugar that will caramelize on the grill,” says Kevin.

Saturday morning, build a fire in a covered grill with hardwood charcoal, adding wet hickory chips when you are ready to cook. Briefly smoke and grill the shoulder over low to medium hot coals, then put it in the oven at 325 degrees for eight hours. “There’s a moment at which the meat will relax during this long, slow cooking. That’s what makes it so tender,” says Kevin. If you get it in the oven by 10 AM, it will be ready at 6 PM. You can make the sauce in just a few minutes and easily be ready to serve by 7 PM.

But first, a couple of tips: First, when smoking the pork, be sure to put it on the side of the grill away from the fire. Next, move the shoulder directly over the remaining coals. This is the tricky part: If the coals are not producing enough heat—that is, if you can easily hold your hand a few inches away from them–remove the shoulder and add a little fresh charcoal. You must let this new charcoal burn down until it is no longer flaming and is thickly covered with white ash. If it is too hot, the shoulder may catch fire when you put it back on the grill. Your objective is not to char, but to brown the outside of the shoulder until it has a dark, richly caramelized crust.

Second, when putting the shoulder in the oven, seal the roasting pan tightly with aluminum foil so that the pan juices do not burn off. I roasted the shoulder overnight and when I got up in the morning, discovered that although the pork was sublimely tender—the shoulder bone slid out like butter–all the juices had evaporated, leaving a dark sticky layer on the bottom of the pan.

With Kevin’s help, I was still able to make a superb sauce using the rendered fat from the shoulder. This tomato-based sauce—a smoky Southern version of “hot, sour, salty, sweet” flavors—perfectly sets off the unctuous richness of the pork. “Like all barbecue sauces, you should make this one to taste, but the flavors should be balanced,” advises Kevin. “Especially watch the mustard. If you can taste it, you’ve used too much. At the end, if you need to adjust the balance, try adding a little ketchup. It’s sweet and tomato-y at the same time.”

To serve 4 to 6
Ingredients for the spice rub:

1/3 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1 tablespoon chipotle chile powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped

Ingredients for the pork:

5-pound pork shoulder, bone in
Equal parts chicken (or beef) stock and beer
15 large cloves of garlic, peeled

Other items:

A covered charcoal grill
Hardwood charcoal
Hickory chips
Heavy duty aluminum foil

1. Mix the salt, sugar, spices and thyme together and rub them deeply into the pork shoulder. Pack the mixture firmly so that the meat is completely covered with a layer of the rub. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
2. An hour before you are ready to cook, take the pork out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
3. In a covered grill, build a large hardwood charcoal fire on one side of the grill. Soak few handfuls of hickory chips in a bowl of water. When the flames are low and the coals are covered with a fine white ash, spread some of the hickory chips over the coals. Place the pork shoulder on the side of the grill away from the fire and cover. Smoke for 15 minutes, then turn it over, add more wet hickory chips if necessary, and smoke for 15 minutes longer.
4. Make a decision: If the coals have burned down and you can easily hold your hand over the fire, remove the pork and set aside. Add a little more charcoal to the existing coals; wait until the fresh charcoal is no longer flaming and is thickly covered with white ash. (When you hold your hand over the coals, you should feel medium to medium low heat.)
5. Place the meat back on the grill directly over the coals and cover. Allow it to cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the sugar has caramelized and the exterior is brown and crusty. Watch carefully: Be sure the shoulder does not catch fire. (If it does, simply move it away from the coals and continue browning.) If necessary, turn and continue cooking for 5 to 10 minutes, or until all sides of the meat are browned.
6. Turn the oven to 325 degrees. Place the shoulder in a large roasting pan. Combine equal parts of stock and the beer and pour into the pan around the pork. The liquid should come halfway up the sides. Strew the garlic cloves around the meat. Cover with heavy duty aluminum foil and braise for 8 hours. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Ingredients for the sauce:

1/4 cup rendered fat from the pork, or 1/2 cup of reduced pan juices
Caramelized garlic from the bottom of the pan
1 tablespoon molasses
3 tablespoons tomato paste with roasted garlic
1 teaspoon mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon ketchup

Method for the sauce:

1. Remove the shoulder from the pan. If there is liquid in the pan, reduce it by half and set aside 1/2 cup, reserving the rest for additional sauce if desired. If the liquid has evaporated, pour off the rendered fat and use that instead.
2. Scrape up the caramelized garlic and add it to the fat or juices in a medium bowl.
3. Start adding the other ingredients, whisking each into the fat or juices. Taste and adjust the quantities of each ingredient until they are balanced for your own taste. (If you are using reduced pan juices, you may want to increase the quantities anyway.) All the flavors– hot, salty, sweet and tangy—should be in roughly equal proportion to each other.

To Serve:

1. Remove the bone from the shoulder (it should slide out easily) and cut the meat into medium thick slices.
2. Serve while still warm with the sauce on the side.

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