Updated: Nov 4, 2019
While summer may be the official grilling season for some, I feel like fall is where it’s at with both college and professional football seasons (and associated tailgating) kicking into high-gear and the outdoor weather and scenery becoming ideal. And even though the Atlanta Falcons have found themselves in a seemingly insurmountable hole this year (starting 1-6 and looking hopeless), that doesn’t mean the barbecue must stop! So with this blog I thought I’d share a some tips on my own barbecuing experience and even *gasp* briefly relate it to investing. I’ll do away with the investing portion first and then move on to making barbecue. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll stick to traditional pork butt (shoulder), though the concepts are similar for brisket and ribs (with the primary variable being cook time).
You’ve probably heard the term “low-and-slow” in reference to grilling and making barbecue, but what exactly does the term mean? Simply put, it means cooking meat at a relatively low temperature (generally ~200-250 degrees) for an extended amount of time—usually several hours (i.e. slow). The precise temperature is not overly critical (within the aforementioned range) and the exact amount of time it takes to cook can be quite variable. For this reason it takes patience and time as well as discipline so as to not try to rush to finish the barbecue before it is ready—letting the process work its magic over a course of the afternoon. I’ve had pork butts finish in as little as 4 hours while others have taken twice as long, thus a degree of planning and preparation is necessary. The amount of time it takes can vary for a lot of reasons however that doesn’t mean anything is wrong or needs significant adjustment. Frankly, attempts to tweak/adjust the process on the fly will likely cause other changes and inconsistencies to develop (but introducing additional variability) while not necessarily improving the outcome (in fact the final product may suffer because of impatience and interference by the chef in his vain attempts to constantly tweak theprocess).
In my view, the ultimate goal when making good barbecue is meat that is tender and juicy, with minimal chewy connective tissue. There should be a well-developed bark (crust), a pleasant hint of smoke (optional), and of course be plenty of flavor throughout (I’m not going to give away my dry-rub recipe (technically it's not mine anyway) but plenty of store-bought rubs will work just fine). As I mentioned, the timing of the process is highly imprecise—you don’t smoke for a specific amount of time rather you smoke to achieve a specific internal temperature.
Juxtaposing BBQ with investing for a moment--I have learned with grilling (and investing) that there will inherently be degrees of variability in every single barbecue (and investment), regardless (and in spite of) a consistent process. This is not an indication that the process is flawed or should be changed (or that there is anything "wrong" with a particular investment)—it's just the way an unpredictable world and human behavior work over shorter periods of time. This is one reason it is always difficult to answer the question of "what kind of returns should I expect?" Stocks prices are highly variable in the short-term so I try not to get overly caught up with (or make trading decisions) on a few weeks, months or quarters of data.
With BBQ, the more “meddling” there is with little things (like trying to keep the temperature at a precise level, constantly opening the grill to check the meat, basting the meat, etc.) the more the final product will be negatively impacted and with inconsistent results. For example, trying to tweak/micro-manage the temperature too much will cause inconsistencies with the texture and doneness of the meat, affect the creation of bark and let too much smoke escape. Seemingly minor adjustments here and there may seem insignificant on their own, however their aggregate impact can be significant. As such, changes to the process should be as minimal as possible unless there is something clearly and catastrophically wrong (like running out of charcoal!). The same can be true in managing an investment portfolio.
In 20 years of managing money, I’ve found that the process of investing and portfolio management have similarities. The “low-and-slow” of it means that investing is a long-term process requiring patience through periods of uncertainty. It is not a short-term daily/quarterly trading game that the press might lead you to believe (that is the realm of hedge-funds and speculators). In recent blog posts, I've mentioned my frustration with quarterly earnings and the hysteria that accompanies every company’s results relative to expectations and the sense of urgency this can create (exacerbated by the media) to trade in and out of securities, chasing asset prices while losing sight of the long-term investment merits. A friend recently remarked to me that it’s insane how the investment merits of a successful 90 year-old company are routinely judged on 90 days of business operations.
With that in mind I’ll repeat that there will assuredly be inherent variability and natural ebbs and flows in markets, individual securities action and investment results (often seemingly random and inexplicable). Getting overly focused on the minutia while losing sight of the big picture, long-term thesis can result in futile attempts to constantly adjust (resulting in more "stomach churn" and tax inefficiency). However, maintaining a low-and-slow type of approach (i.e. long-term), without getting too carried away trying to make big short-term adjustments will often (in my experience) yield better long-term results (This certainly also means experiencing some natural, unavoidable discomfort along the way).
Ok, enough with that—so how to I make barbecue? It's really quite simple. I’d be remiss if I didn’t boast just a little bit that myself and a few good friends (a.k.a. “The Eggheads”) are the reigning champions/back-to-back winners of the Sarah R. Smith elementary school Fall Festival barbecue cookoff so clearly we’ve got some credentials, right 😊?! Also, before you start, I highly recommend a remote, internal probe thermometer for the meat so you can monitor the temperature from a distance without any need to open the grill until absolutely necessary. I don't recommend any specific brand, but one can be purchased for under $20 on Amazon.
The Meat: Boston Butt/Pork Shoulder. Should have a nice layer of fat still intact on one side (often called the fat cap). Normally sold “Bone-in” at the grocery store though for large amounts, you can usually get a 2-pack at Costco, already fileted at a very reasonable price (though 15 lbs of meat might be more than you require...). Either will work just fine. It is usually not necessary to remove any of the fat cap.
The Rub: A store-bought rub will usually work well and saves time—just add a healthy amount of additional brown sugar to the rub –maybe 1 part brown sugar to 1 part rub, it’s not science…(mix it all in a bowl) and apply liberally to the meat, making sure to get rub into all of the nooks and crannies. Optional Tip: Slathering the meat with regular yellow mustard may help the rub adhere to the meat better. I don’t think this step does anything to the flavor of the final BBQ but may help with the bark creation by helping the rub stick better. Most rubs contain a lot of the same ingredients—mostly brown sugar, salt, garlic salt/powder, onion powder, pepper, paprika, cayenne in various ratios. You can look up rub recipes on line and make from scratch if preferred. The rub can be applied anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours in advance.
The Grill: I personally use a Big Green Egg, but any grill where you can cook on indirect heat (i.e. not directly over exposed charcoal), and where you can control the temperature within reason to keep it low (200-250) and covered for the full cook should be fine.
Charcoal: Not to mince words, but the old-school charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid are a thing of the past and are not suitable for anything. Buy natural, lump charcoal and fill your grill up with an ample amount to provide enough fuel for the entire cook time. If you correctly hold the temperature at a lower temperature your charcoal should burn quite slowly and provide more than enough heat for the entire process.
Smoking chips/chunks (optional): While optional, smoke adds depth to the flavor. I personally prefer pecan—it’s subtle and slightly sweet. Other good options would include apple, oak, hickory, mesquite or some other fruit/hardwood. Note that hickory and mesquite can be overpowering/acrid so use sparingly/judiciously. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with mixing a couple of woods for complexity but do so at your own risk if the woods are particularly pungent and may have weird results—I personally think one type of wood is enough. It’s usually good to soak the wood in water for a while before adding to the coals as this will create a slower-burn/longer-lasting smoke. You can use wood chips or larger chunks (available at most grocery stores by the charcoal). The chunks will burn more slowly and are better for a longer-cook but chips work fine.
Grill Prep: Light the grill and let the charcoal thoroughly heat up (I will assume you know how to do this). Make sure the coals are fully lit/glowing red so there’s no risk your fire goes out (the temp will likely be above 250 but will come back down once you add the smoke chips/chunks and meat as they will absorb heat). Once the coals are well lit, add your smoking chips/chunks directly on top of the coals. Depending on how strong/mild the wood variety is, you may go “heavy” on the smoke. Place a drip pan beneath the grill grate meat/above the coals and fill with water (or apple juice). This will catch the fat drippings from the meat and keep it from messing up your grill while the water/apple juice will help keep the meat moist through the cooking process. Adjust your grill so that the air intake is only open enough to maintain a low temperature (opening it too wide will allow too much airflow over the charcoal, which will cause the temperature to rise above desired temperature, likely resulting in suboptimal BBQ).
“Set-It-And-Sorta-Forget It” – IMPORTANT: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE YOUR INTERNAL THERMOMETER INSERTED INTO THE THICKEST PART OF THE MEAT. Ideally you’ll use one that remotely displays the internal temperature of the meat to an external display so that you never need to open the grill while the meat is cooking. These are relatively inexpensive and will improve the final product since you will have one less reason to open the grill mid-cook. Place the meat on top of the grill grate/over the drip tray (FAT CAP ON TOP) and close the lid. Now, relax and let the process work it’s magic, periodically monitoring the temperature of the meat until it reaches 165 internal temp. Note: IT’S NOT DONE AT 165! There are a few important steps left.
Cooking/Temperature: When the temperature reaches ~165-175, there is something magical taking place. Often the temperature will seem “stuck” in this range for a long period of time. If you ever took an organic chemistry class (guilty) or are familiar with the distillation process (guilty), you probably recognize that when a temperature is “stuck” at a certain point, something is actually happening that prevents it from rising. For your BBQ, this is the magic zone where all the tough, connective tissue inside the meat starts to break-down and melt, making the once tough, sinewy pork-butt, tender and juicy. The temperature will struggle to rise until the connective tissue has fully broken down. Depending on how much of this connective tissue the butt has inside, the temperature may seem stuck for a while, possibly tempting you to raise the temperature of the grill to hurry the process—DON’T BE TEMPTED! Eventually the temperature will break to the upside and this is your signal that the meat is nearly finished (but not yet).
Once the temperature has “broken out” I grab a roll of aluminum foil, open my grill (yes, it’s safe now…) and quickly remove the butt (take out the thermometer), and wrap it thoroughly in foil (it helps to lay out a few long strips of foil before removing the meat from the grill). I then return the wrapped meat to the grill (re-insert the thermometer) and let it continue cooking. The foil warp is optional but the reason I do it is so that the meat can basically “boil” in its own juices until the cooking process is complete, adding a layer of tenderness while preserving the moistness of the barbecue.
The Home Stretch: The meat should be done when the internal temperature reaches ~200 (anywhere from 195-205 is fine). At this point, take the meat (still wrapped in foil) off the grill, wrap it in a beach towel and place it in some sort of cooler to rest (use a cooler that you don’t mind smelling of BBQ!). I'll let mine rest for an hour or so/until ready to serve (I've even left it in a cooler for several hours without any issue).
Serving: Once the meat has thoroughly rested, unwrap it and place in a large bowl or platter with a “drip ring” to catch any juice that may run out. Honestly, those cheap aluminum foil banquet/casserole trays are ideal. The meat will still be quite warm. If you bought a “bone-in” butt, the shoulder-blade is the only bone in the meat and it should simply slide out almost effortlessly (the meat is literally falling off the bone). Be careful not to burn yourself as the bone is likely still quite warm to the touch. Proceed to pull/chop/slice your BBQ however you prefer, and serve!
Sauce (Optional): I usually add a splash of apple-cider vinegar to the pulled pork and mix it in—it helps to lighten the flavor a bit and cut through some of the heavier BBQ/smoky notes. Pile onto a bun (or not), add your favorite BBQ sauce (or not) and enjoy!