Grilling Low and Slow

It’s nearly here. The last “hoorah” of summer … Labor Day weekend. It’s an opportunity to call attention to the hard work of the men and women alike who have made this country great. And what better way to celebrate our efforts than to relax and enjoy some treats fresh from the grill.

It looks like you put a lot of work into it, but slow grilling cuts like Boston Butts (pork shoulder) can be a passive, relaxing way to spend a day off and still enjoy a great meal. The foiled-wrapped things on the right are potatoes to accompany the pulled pork.

It’s true summertime is “grilling time.”  But so are spring, fall and winter for anyone who truly enjoys food prepared outdoors. My family prefers the slow-grilled goodness of pork, but they enjoy a nicely-seared beef steak as well. We grill year-round. In fact, I like to do my slow-grilling in the doorway of my detached garage. For a few days afterward each time I open the garage door it smells like a Memphis barbecue restaurant inside.

Now some might say that manning a grill all day is no way to relax. I say hogwash. “Slow grilling” is the perfect marriage of tremendous food prepared with a minimal effort.

In an afternoon I can put in less than an hour of actual hands-on effort and produce enough barbecued meat to feed a couple dozen people or more. And grilling pork products is cost effective. Cuts such as short ribs and Boston Butt roasts (not from the butt at all, but the shoulder of the pig) can often be found for $2 a pound or less. These “signature” grilling cuts of pork were historically considered the less desirable portions and were often given to the slaves or share workers at butchering time. The meat would then be cooked over an open flame, a matter of necessity at the time, and modern barbecuing was born. Admittedly a cave man may have been the first to grill meat over an open flame, but it took until recent generations to create the rubs, sauces and processes that result in the goodness that is considered great barbecue today.

Grilling is like golf, fishing and long list of other things … you don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. As long as the meat is cooked throughout and reaches a minimal internal temperature you can rest assured it’s going to taste pretty good. But when done right good barbecue can be a tap dance on your taste buds, a symphony to your saliva glands, a virtual three-ring circus in your mouth. And the beauty is that the majority of the cooking will take place while you’re doing other things, working in the yard, or taking a nap in the house. Slow grilling doesn’t require the constant attention over a hot grill needed for beef steaks, chicken or burgers.

Ideal cuts of meat for slow grilling include pork spare ribs and Boston Butt, a pork shoulder roast, shown here. Here the meat has been trimmed of excess fat and is ready for the dry rub. Leave some thin areas of fat to enhance moisture and flavor.

About every week or so during all but the most bitter months, I fire up the charcoal grill and cook some meat. While I’ll gladly grill anything that’ll hold still long enough, I prefer slow grilling pork cuts – Boston Butt (for pulled pork sandwiches), spare or short ribs, or tenderloin (sliced thin afterward). All three cuts are economical. The preparation is much the same for each, beginning with a dry rub, slow grilling for several hours, and the addition of a barbecue sauce only near the finish or as a condiment at the table.

Here’s the list of tools you need to barbecue meat … a fire! Now here’s the list of tools and utensils that can make grilling easy and enjoyable … a wood/charcoal grill (a gas grill will work, too), wood or charcoal, flavored or scented wood chips or pieces for added flavor, a spatula or other grilling tools, a meat thermometer is a great tool, and kabob or other meat holders are a great addition for side or specialty dishes. When slow grilling you’ll also need a metal container such as a bread pan to sit in the grill and hold water for added moisture.

Before you ever fire up the grill you’ll want to prepare the meat cut or cuts. A 6- or 7-pound Boston Butt will easily feed eight people well. Anything larger than that and the cook time will increase significantly, so that size is ideal for most situations. (Hint: It’s much easier to cook two roasts at a time instead of cooking one exceptionally large one if more meat is needed.) With a roast you’ll want to first trim off any excess thick fat layer left on by the butcher. But don’t trim off all the fat, only the thickest areas. Fat

A dry rub can be a mixture of spices combined at home or a store-bought mix. Either way, be generous when rubbing and patting the meat with a coating of the dry ingredients.

equals moisture and flavor, so you’ll want to leave plenty in place. If you’re cooking ribs or tenderloin you’ll want to trim off any excess fat as well. For ribs, turn them over and remove the “silver skin” layer from the back of the rack. Grip and corner (a paper towel works great for this) and pull the entire tough skin layer off the rack of ribs and discard the skin. It serves no purpose in the cooking and hinders the flavor if left in place.

Now mix up or use a store-bought dry rub. There are countless rub recipes available in books and online if you want to make your own. A simple one to start with would contain some salt, pepper, brown sugar, ground mustard, onion powder and paprika. Sprinkle the rub onto the meat and pat and rub it into the surface. Give it a good coating. The rub is what will help create the tasty crust, known as “bark”, on the pork. Once you’ve applied the rub let the meat sit for 30 minutes to an hour.

As mentioned, slow grilling is about letting the heat and the meat do their things while you’re out of the picture and away from the action and doing something else. In fact, once you’re grilling the more often you raise the grill lid to look in the longer the process will take to complete. So adhering to that theme, place a small mound of charcoal briquettes on one side of the grill and light it and walk away until the coals burn down. Use just enough charcoal to adequately cover one half of the grilling area once the briquettes or lumps are spread out after they turn ashen white on the surface.

Here you can see how these pork ribs are sitting over a pan of water and not directly over the hot coals. This method is called "indirect" grilling, and allows for the long cook time without burning the exterior of the meat.

If you’re using a gas grill then ignite only one side of the burner and turn it up on high to pre-heat. At the same time take a handful of flavored wood pellets or chips (apple, hickory, cherry, but no softwoods) and place them in a container of water to soak.

I guaranteed that slow grilling was easy and not very labor intensive. About 80 percent of the work will be done in the first 30 minutes of prep time and grilling. Once the initial work is done there’s little hands-on to do until you pick up your fork to eat. That said, once you have the grill hot, rake the coals to one side. Here’s where the bread pan or other similar container comes in. Fill the pan halfway with tap water and sit it on the grate alongside the charcoal. The pan of water will serve two purposes – catch juices dripping from the meat, and introduce extra moisture into the cooking environment. At the same time place the pre-soaked wood pellets or chips on top of the hot coals. I wrap my flavored wood in aluminum foil and leave a small air hole in the top. Other grillers prefer to place the pellets directly on the hot coals. Either way, you’ll need to add more flavored wood about the midpoint of the grilling time.

With the setup complete, place the cooking grate on the grill and put the meat in place above the pan of water. This is indirect grilling, and you will not be cooking directly over the coals. If you’re using a kettle style grill you can divide the coals in two beds along the sides and place the bread pan in the middle with the meat directly above. Either way, now close the grill lid. Adjust the draft doors on the grill until you maintain an internal grill temperature of 225 to 250 F. Now walk away and don’t think about the grill for a couple hours. Do some yard work, weed the garden or flower beds, or take the kids swimming. Whatever you do, don’t keep checking the meat. All you’ll do is let the heat out of the grill and mess with the temperature.

Within the first hour or two the exterior of the meat will start to turn from red to brown but still be extremely moist. The crust, or "bark", will develop over the next couple hours. If preparing a roast incorporate the flavorful bark into the pulled meat served on the table. On ribs, shown here grilling in a rib rack, or tenderloin the outer layer will be a tasty treat.

If your grill doesn’t have a thermometer then purchase one and install it. It’s essential for slow grilling. Because now that things are moving along nicely you won’t need to lift the lid and check the meat for several hours, until you notice the temperature is dropping in the grill and can’t be brought up by opening the dampers wider.

When that time comes, likely four or so hours into the process, crack open the lid and have a look. The “bark” should be forming as a darkened crust on the outer layer of the meat. If you’re grilling ribs you’ll likely see the meat is starting to shrink away from the tips of the bones. You can flip the meat if you want to, but do so with tongs or a spatula. Poking holes in meat with a fork will only let out the tasty and necessary juices. There’s no real need to flip or rotate the meat in any way … but it sometimes makes the cook feel more at ease about the whole process. Now’s the time to also add more coals. You can ignite and heat a new batch of coals in a charcoal chimney and then add them to the grill. If you don’t have a chimney you can add new charcoal on top of the remnants of the old briquettes, but understand it will take a little while for them to really ignite well so the fire will cool down for 30 minutes or so. You’ll want to factor that into the total cook time.

How long do pork cuts need to slow grill? For a six to seven pound Boston Butt roast plan on six to seven hours. A large pork tenderloin will take about five hours. A rack of spare ribs will take four to five hours on average, while short ribs can be done in two to three hours. But it’s not about setting the stopwatch as much as it is about reaching the optimal internal temperature. Pork should reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. If you’re going to slow grill invest in a good meat thermometer. While you have the grill open this time would be a great chance to stick the probe into the inner part of the meat and check the reading. Avoid placing the probe tip against a bone as they may give a false reading. Once the meat reaches 165 degrees internally it’s just a matter of finishing it off for an hour or so to assure it is cooked thoroughly and will be tender. I have never had a problem with meat being too dry using the water-filled catch pan method of grilling. Some people, however, like to occasionally “spritz” the meat with a mixture of apple juice and water. If you choose to spritz now would be a good time to do so.

This is what a finished pork tenderloin should look like. The author cut this loin in two pieces before cooking to fit the grill surface better.

With more coals on the grill now and the temperature checked, drop the lid again and go back to your leisure activities for a while. Play a game with the kids, toss a ball to the dog, or take another nap.

Now comes one of the most controversial issues about slow grilling. To sauce or not to sauce … this is the question? There’s no right or wrong answer here. Even history is divided between whether barbecue should wear a coat of sauce. Some folks like the pure taste of the pork coated only in a baked-on dry rub. The other group thinks all barbecue needs sauce added before it is complete. Our own house is divided on the topic, so we either do some of both or add the sauce at the table. I tend to prefer layering on sauce on the grill for Boston Butts and pork tenderloins, and stay with dry rub only for ribs. If you’re gonna add sauce do so only at the last 30 minutes or so and after you back the grill temperature down to 200 degrees or so. Sauces containing sugars will bypass carmelization and begin to scorch and burn at too high a temp. You can easily taint the taste of the meat by using sauce with too hot of a fire. Like dry rubs, there are even more commercial barbecue sauces on the market, so simply choose your favorite for pork. We use a dry rub recipe my then-teenage son developed a couple years ago, and a very complementary sweet sauce recipe my teenage daughter has worked on the past two years.

The finished product, in this case spare ribs, goes well with Texas toast.

Once you’ve determined the meat is ready to eat, remove it from the grill and let it “rest” in a pan or dish on the kitchen counter for at least 10 to 15 minutes. This time away from the heat will allow the meat to cool slightly and gain some moisture in the process. If you’ve grilled a Boston Butt roast, grab the edge of the (shoulder blade) bone which will be showing and pull it out. Now start tearing apart the meat to make pulled pork. Two strong forks work well, or kitchen gloved hands if you can stand the heat. You don’t want to slice the meat (trust me, it’s too tender to slice anyway) but instead “pull” it apart. Incorporate the outer bark pieces into the meat so everyone who gets a helping will get a little bark in the mix. Properly slow grilled meat should have a visible pink “smoke ring” just beneath the surface. That doesn’t mean it’s raw, but that it has taken in some of the smokey flavor during the cooking process.

If you’ve grilled ribs then they’ll be ready to simply gnaw the meat off the bones. A pork tenderloin can be sliced as thick or thin as preferred. Since a tenderloin is essentially one long muscle it will not be “fall apart” tender like a Boston Butt roast, which is made up of several smaller muscles, and therefore is not a good cut for pulled pork. Still, the taste of pork tenderloin is magnificent.

Trust me, it’s taken more effort to write about, or read about, slow grilling than it actually takes to do it. It’s a very passive form of preparing a tremendous outdoor meal than can be done in the background of an otherwise busy day. And the results are well worth the wait.

About doug smith

Doug Smith is a small town newspaper managing editor. He has also been a freelance writer for rural living, country life, tourism, and hunting and fishing publications for the past 12 years. He lives in an 1880s Victorian-style home in the Missouri Ozarks. He drives an old pickup truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, they have two beautiful and successful children, and he can be found any given day around town wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat.

One thought on “Grilling Low and Slow

  1. Y’all make me hungry, lol i cant wait to cook on the grill this weekend..:-) i wish y’all were closer i’d love to come to y’alls store. :-)