Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Summer of Smoke: The Pork Shank Redemption

It should be clear that the last thing the internet needs is another entry on pork barbecue.  Countless pixels have been expended debating the virtues of regional preferences (a perennial hazard here in North Carolina), demonstrating one's virtuosity with woodsmoke, or extolling the historical particulars of different meats and woods.  On top of that, I live within shouting distance of two of the very best sources of genuine Carolina 'Cue known to porkdom: The Pig run by a buddy, Sam Suchoff - and the venerable Allen & Son Barbecue which offers as good an Eastern Style (or a hybrid thereof; they smoke shoulders, rather that whole hogs, like they do way down East) as you can get anywhere.  I can't begin to improve on the quality they provide - and you can't either.  I don't think barbecue done in one's backyard can possibly match the quality control of pig cooked in the volume that even a small restaurant can achieve.

Why bother writing about smoking pork, then?  For the sake of the shanks!  In recent years, a whole host of what were once thought of as the unmentionables of the animals have returned to vogue as the preferred cuts, especially among chefs in a restaurant setting.  Tails and snouts and bladders and ears and rendered/reduced hogs heads are all enjoying their renaissance.  And among the chefs I've worked with, pork shanks take an especial pride of place in their kitchens.  One local cook apparently stole the recipe for pork shanks from the restaurant he worked at, and set off a firestorm (mmm. . . firestorm) when it appeared on the menu of the establishment to which he moved.

Here's the deal.  A pork shank is the cut that comes from directly below the pig's shoulder, and above the pork hock (or foot). [Letter C on your handy pig diagram]. You can also get shanks from the rear leg (i.e., ham) and above the hock.  In effect, your forearm and your calves are shanks - or would be, if you were pig.

In my humble opinion, the shank is the best piece of meat you can eat, bar none.  It has the constantly worked muscle of the shoulder that does the heavy lifting, full of flavor when cooked right, combined with some of the tenderness of the smaller muscles that control the hoof (not super tender, like a loin, but somewhat different from shoulder, or ham).  Also, a lot of connective tissue to bind all of the muscles and toes together that make up the forelegs of the pigs.  This tissue isn't great eating in itself - but when you cook it right, it melts into the meat, and adds an incomparable velvety texture and glisten to the dish.  I've smoked these for barbecue purposes - but I think they're every bit as good (ok, twist my arm and I'll say even better) when they're braised.  Have you ever had osso buco? That's braised veal shanks.  And the only thing better than osso buco is osso buco made with pork shanks instead of veal shanks.  

If you have access to a pig farmer or pork vendor at your farmers market, check out shanks.  They'll probably be cheaper than almost any other cut of pig, and you'll be doing your farmer a favor buying a less-than popular item. You DON'T want to buy smoked pork hocks in your grocery store.  These have already been cold smoked and treated with who-knows-what else, and are meant to be boiled for seasoning broth - great for making gumbo, or a pot of collards, but you can't barbecue 'em. 


Here are two massive shanks from Cane Creek farm.  I've coated them in a dry rub of my own concoction.  Some paprika, some red pepper, some black pepper, some chile pepper, some salt, some sugar, some thyme (I think).  A bit of garlic or onion powder would be great, but I forgot 'em. Oh well.

48 hours in the fridge, and they're ready to smoke!  You've seen the rig under a few past entries (mackerel and tasso). This time I used hickory in largish chunks, rather than smallish chips.  It turned out to be a good way to keep a continuous even temperature for a longer period of time.  I could go almost two hours with one pie pan full of hickory.  

I let them go for about four and a half hours at 250º-265º.  And here's how they looked after that.

Nice and barky! Plenty of dark, black exterior - or bark.

Ready for chopping here . . .

once the  bones have been removed. (You'll have a very happy dog, to boot! Or the start of a fine stock)

Then get to hacking! Here I've used a cleaver to chop up a mess of pork- but this is less than half of the total amount of pork I smoked.  You can see both the bits of browned bark and the nice burgundy toned smoke-ring of meat all chopped throughout the mixture.  This is what makes the flavor of chopped pork more interesting than pulled pork - but the texture of pulled pork is certainly a culinary wonder.

This meat was smoked to an internal temp of 170º.  That's a little lower than the 190º you'd like to have for pulled pork, but it's just fine for EATING.

Here's how the meat looks in the vicinity of some sauces.  For the uninformed (or Tar Heels living under a rock), the two possible sauces - that's it! Only two!! - are Eastern style (as shown in the jar) and Western style (as shown in the bowl).  What's the difference? Eastern style sauce is essentially a highly seasoned vinegar.  Mine is a mixture of cider vinegar and sherry vinegar (so much for tradition) seasoned with some pickled pepper brine (essentially a hot vinegar) lots of black pepper, red pepper flakes, and some salt.  The Western style is (basically) ketchup thinned with the Eastern sauce.  You can see it's a touch thicker and redder.  Doesn't usually go with chopped 'cue, but in my house it goes just fine.

Here's the full monty-cue.  Chopped barbecue, two kinds of sauce, cole slaw (vinegary, not mayonnaisy!!) and some hush puppies.  I make a very good hush puppy- light and crispy not especially hearty and crunchy as you tend to find around here.  Mine is a hush puppy more typically served with seafood-  it's kind of puffy, and cooks in a minute. Great.

One of the really cool things about barbecue is that you can fight like Yorkshiremen and Lancastrians about the unimpeachable merits of your hometown style - and still be perfectly happy to eat the other guy's 'cue. Hell, I even love Texas brisket made with -  - shudder - - beef brisket.  And I'll try to make that next.


  1. I feel compelled to point out that the pictures expand when you click on them- twice! In case you didn't know. Who doesn't want pork close-ups?

  2. It's a matter of taste, I know, but I flatly disagree with your dismissal of "backyard" BBQ. I've eaten all manner of shoddily produced 'restaurant' pork, and I've eaten superb home-produced. In this, as in everything else, skill, experience, and judgement trump economies of scale.



  3. I really don't mean to dismiss backyard stuff, just to say that the really good joints that do it right have the years of daily-built expertise to do it right consistently. It's not the scale of the pig, but- as you say- the human element that is really fantastic at the top notch spots. Sure, I've had crappy 'cue all across Virginia and NC, but when it's done right, it's hard to replicate at home. Though it's fun to try and tastes great even when it's not "the best".

  4. Inspired by your reference to ears, here's a nice recipe for an Okinawan pig ear salad (Mimiga). This comes from a great cookbook "Okinawan Mixed Plate" published by the United Okinawan Association of Hawaii:

    2 pig's ears


    2 tablespoons peanut butter
    4 tablespoons rice vinegar
    1 teaspoon sugar
    1/4 teaspoon salt*

    Singe ears by holding over an electric stove coil or the the flame of a gas stove or hibachi, until skin is burnt. Scrape off burnt areas and wash well.

    Cover ears with water and boil about 30 minutes or until easily pierced. Drain and slice into slivers.

    Mix dressings ingredients until smooth. Stir in pig's ears. Serves 8-10.
    *use magical Okinawan salt for the best results--that's my note, not the Hawaiian chefs.


  5. I moved to Nicaragua 3 years ago and realized that there was no good BBQ/Charcuterie so I built a smoker, bought Ruhlman and Polcyn's book and went to work. What a blast. My Fiance and I now smoke over 100lbs of sausage, ribs, ham, bacon, and pork shoulder a week and are selling it two farmers markets and picking up restaurants along the the way. Getting all the right stuff here has been a real challenge but worth the effort. Any body know how to make fermento from scratch? See our group at Casa Pelon BBQ/B&B on FB

  6. God man, CHANGE YOUR FONT COLOUR!! What were you thinking?

  7. I’m impressed with the special and informative contents that you just offer in such short timing.

    with hepa

  8. Beautiful piece of literature. Pork shanks uber alles !!!!