The Franklin Method: Smoked Pork Shoulder, Step-by-Step
Delicious lessons and a surprise from my first cook
I wouldn’t say I was afraid to try smoking meat. I was just concerned it wouldn’t be worth the investment of time and money. This past weekend, I finally made the ultimate smoked pork butt.
I achieved a fantastic result by following the method of BBQ master Aaron Franklin. He is the proprietor of Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas. He’s sold out of brisket every day since he opened in 2009, and he’s probably the best there is (or at least the most famous).
I read Franklin’s book on barbeque several years ago, and I thought then that smoking meat like him was out of reach. He has whole chapters on sourcing wood and the elements of smoke quality. He covers every little detail in a way that is both intimidating and fascinating.
But all that changed when I watched Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass on BBQ. After bingeing the whole class, I decided to make it happen, and I was delighted with the result.
The Perfect Smoke
When you’re smoking meat, the main ingredient is the smoke. The clean, smoky flavor we want can only be achieved by fully combusting the wood. Full combustion avoids getting bitter or ashy flavors onto our meat.
A fire hot enough to fully combust the wood creates a challenge, however. Because we will be smoking a large and tough piece of meat, we need to cook it low and slow. We can’t get full combustion at a low temperature. Complete burn with low temperature is the biggest paradox of smoking.
The most important lesson from Franklin’s method: Don’t choke the fire to reduce the temperature. Cutting off the air will produce the wrong kind of smoke.
To overcome this, we want to let the fire burn hot but create distance between the fire and the meat. We will use a tray full of water to diffuse the heat and create a more humid environment (similar to braising) that will give us the right smoke flavor.
Achieving this smoke will make all the difference when we taste our finished product.
We also need to be picky about the wood we use as it is the source of the smoke. Franklin uses post oak, which grows readily in central Texas.
I didn’t want to spend a lot of time sourcing wood for my first smoke (but I’ve found a wood source since) and had to go off what was available in local stores. I found hickory logs and chunks, plus lump charcoal (not briquettes).
There are several considerations for smoking wood selection. You want hardwood from a tree that bears nuts or fruit. Avoid trees that produce sap, as this will add a bitter flavor. The wood should not be kiln-dried, nor should it be green (freshly cut). I found that having a mix of drier wood (the chunks) and denser wood (the logs) made it easier to control the heat and smoke. Cherry, hickory, oak, mesquite, and apple are all great options.
I purchased an offset smoker. It’s a barrel drum grill with an attached offset firebox. This design allows the fire to burn hot and fully combust the wood and smoke to be sucked up into the chimney across the meat in the smoking compartment.
Ideally, you want a heavier metal as it will retain heat better. The firebox on mine has a convenient top access in addition to the side door.
Before your first cook, you will need to season the inside with oil and burn a fire for a few hours. Seasoning helps coat the interior of the smoker and also removes any oils or chemicals from the manufacturing process.
I have a little gravel patch in my back yard near the fence. Someday, we plan to put a shed out there, but I got permission from the boss (e.g., my wife) to set up my smoker there for the time being. It’s a perfect spot because I can see the thermometer from the house, and the ground is fire safe.
At least, I thought it was perfect — until that afternoon.
I braise pork shoulder (also known as a butt) all the time. I make taco meat with some Salsa Verde. I will use it in stir-fries with rice and veggies. I know when braising how to make the bone just slide out. I wanted to achieve the same result.
A full pork shoulder is roughly 9lb. That’s a lot of meat to waste, so I picked out a half-shoulder that still had the blade bone. If things went wrong, I felt better throwing out a smaller portion.
My first pork shoulder weighed in at 4.55lbs, which cut the cooking time by nearly 3 hours.
Other Odds & Ends
Here’s the shopping list I used to get ready for my cook. Each of these proved to be essential during the process:
- Chimney Firestarter
- Long-neck lighter
- Aluminum trays (to hold water)
- Drip bucket with disposable aluminum liners
- Spray bottle
- Long metal tongs, dedicated to fire management
- Large aluminum foil
In addition to the meat, you need to have these to complete the meal:
- Kosher Salt
- Coarse-ground Black Pepper
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Yellow Mustard
- Buns (I prefer potato, but buy whatever works for you)
- Apple Coleslaw (recipe follows)
Side Note: Apple Coleslaw Recipe
Coleslaw is the perfect complement to a pulled pork sandwich. I like to put a heaping portion right on the sandwich. Here’s how I make mine:
- One bag pre-shredded coleslaw cabbage (not a kit)
- 1 cup real mayo
- One apple, julienned
- Salt/pepper to taste
- One teaspoon paprika
- One tablespoon Grey Poupon
- 2 oz Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1/4 cup milk
Combine it all in a big bowl and mix well. Put it in the fridge covered for at least an hour before enjoying. Make sure to taste it and balance the flavors.
I’m going to walk you through the process in chronological order, starting with the fire and ending with the meal. Following Franklin’s advice, I made a plan and adjusted as I went. The basic schedule was as follows:
- Smoke the meat at 270 degrees for 8 hours (or until fat cap breaks, more on this later)
- After 3 hours, spray with apple cider vinegar hourly
- Wrap the meat in foil, and continue to cook at 295 degrees for additional 1.5–2 hours
- Pull meat when the internal temperature is roughly 204–209 degrees, measured by poking a hole in the foil without unwrapping. It should also feel like a “melted bag of butter,” as Franklin would say.
- Let rest for an additional hour while still wrapped, allowing the meat to “carryover” and continue cooking.
- Unwrap, pull out the bone (should slip right out), shred, and enjoy!
7:30 AM: Start Fire
The first task was to set up my smoker and get the fire lit. I had already seasoned it the day before. I filled the chimney with charcoal and lit that sucker. Once the fire was burning nicely, I dumped it into the firebox.
7:45 AM: Prepare Meat
I made a 50/50 mix of kosher salt and ground black pepper and put this into a small bowl. I would have used an empty shaker, as Franklin recommends, but I didn’t have one.
I put the shoulder onto a cutting board and looked for any excess fat or parts that were hanging off the main meat body. I trimmed these slightly, but I didn’t take much off. The goal here is just to remove anything that will burn or add excess fat. Not much trimming required.
Throughout the prep, I used one hand for meat and kept the other clean, which is a good food safety practice. I slathered the meat with yellow mustard and rubbed it with my meat hand. Then I sprinkled an even coat of salt/pepper mix on all sides.
Some people don’t like the flavor of mustard, but I’ll tell you that you really can’t taste it in the finished product. Since mustard is an emulsifier, it helps the salt & pepper to stick to the fat from the pork to form a solid crust.
8:15 AM: Meat on the Heat
I threw on a log and let it get started before I put the meat on. I wanted to see that the smoke turned clear and almost blue (as opposed to white) coming out of the stack. My goal was to maintain this kind of smoke the whole time.
I put the meat unwrapped at the far left, away from the firebox. This spot is directly in the path of the smoke, right next to the chimney. On the opposite end, next to the firebox opening, I filled an aluminum tray with warm water. I shut the lid and didn’t open it again for 3 hours.
Tending the Fire
Throughout the next period (and all day), I closely monitored the temperature and the smoke and made constant adjustments. If the fire got too hot, I would open the top of the firebox or pull out a log. When the smoker wasn’t hot enough, I moved the wood around or added more.
Every time a new piece of wood goes on the fire, it will put out some lousy smoke before it gets going. So it’s essential to do this carefully with good airflow and on top of burning coal.
I learned that a small fire was all I needed to maintain the heat and keep the fire going. I experimented with using small drier chunks that burned fast and larger denser logs that would give a more stable smoke. The combination of both gave me a lot of control.
Franklin suggests mentally estimating the weight of a log before you pick it up to get a sense of the moisture of each piece of wood.
11:15 AM: Apple Cider Vinegar Spray
At this point, I was on my third cup of coffee and smelled completely like smoke. And I loved it. I checked my meat for the first time, and it was already looking good. It had a reddish hue (no longer yellow from the mustard) and looked moist. I gave it some spritzes of apple cider vinegar quickly and shut the lid.
12:15 PM: Spray and Check
This time I also made sure to refill the water that had evaporated.
1:15 PM: Spray and Check
I was starting to feel more confident in my fire management skills. I had figured out the “heat curve” of several of the chunks of wood and was overlapping them to keep a consistent heat. I had a few wild swings in temperature, but since I was closely monitoring, I was able to get them under control quickly. The smoke was coming out clear and turning blue a few inches above the smokestack. So far, so good!
2:15 PM: Broken Fat Cap
Every hour I had been checking and spraying the meat with apple cider vinegar. But this time, something was different.
I had a feeling that the smaller pork shoulder I was cooking would finish faster than Franklin’s reference nine-pounder, but I wasn’t sure. Luckily, he explained in his class that he looks for the “fat-cap” on top of the meat to break. The mustard, salt, and pepper form a solid crust while the meat shrinks from cooking. This signal is a visual cue that the meat is ready to be wrapped. I made the command decision to pull the meat and enclose it in the foil. I figured worst case the pork would be slightly less smokey (I was wrong, in a good way).
Wrapping the meat was pretty easy. I got out two aluminum foil pieces roughly large enough to roll the shoulder four times. I overlapped them, so the meat was fully on a double layer, and wrapped it up like a burrito, folding in the sides with each roll. I returned the wrapped meat to the same location on the smoker and made sure the water pan was full.
I also added wood to the fire to bring the temperature up to 295 degrees, per the original plan.
3:18 PM: Trouble
At this point, I was feeling pretty good about my first cook. Fire was going, I had clean, pure smoke, and the meat was progressing nicely. Of course, it was too good to be true.
“When are you gonna put out that fire?”
I turned to see the source of the voice. It was a woman I’ve never met. She was on her back deck, kitty-corner from the back of my house, yelling over the fence.
“When will you be done burning?” she asked, sounding pretty upset.
I replied, “I’m just smoking some meat. I’ll be done in a few hours.”
“Well, you’re filling my whole house with smoke!”
I told her that I didn’t know what to do about that. She went inside. A quick Google search revealed that perhaps the law was on her side in this particular situation, at least in my county. If she chose to call the fire department, I could be facing a $2,000 fine. I decided to take action.
3:35 PM: Into the Oven!
I preheated the oven to 295 degrees and put in my wrapped meat on a cookie sheet. I figured at this point, I’ve gotten all the smoke I can. I was using the fire for heat, not smoke.
I choked off the fire as quickly as I could, which temporarily caused bitter white smoke (but luckily, my meat was safely in the oven). In about 30 minutes, the fire was out. I never heard sirens or from the neighbor.
But now I had a real dilemma: this was my first cook of hopefully many. Am I going to have to throw in the towel after the first try?
4:30 PM: Let it Rest
Just like Franklin showed me, I inserted my instant-read thermometer into a hole in the top of the foil. I felt around and looked for an internal temperature hovering in the 204–209 range. I tried this every 10 minutes or so, starting an hour after wrapping. At 4:30, it was ready to rest. I set the meat on the counter with a towel draped over it, even though there was no wind.
I spent the next hour cleaning up and preparing side dishes.
5:30: Pull & eat!
When I realized we were cooking faster than the original plan, I warned the family it would be an early meal. I grilled up some asparagus on my everyday gas grill.
When I finally unwrapped the meat, I was very excited. After a full day, this was the moment of truth. The smoked pork shoulder looked perfect, a nice dark crust. It had plenty of fat and juices oozing out of it, along with more caught in the foil. It smelled perfectly smokey. The shoulder blade bone pulled out with no resistance.
I tasted my first bite. It was just right, far beyond what I expected.
The meat pulled nicely with some tongs. I didn’t add any additional seasoning because there was plenty in the bark, which I mixed in with the rest of the meat.
We made pulled pork sandwiches on toasted potato buns with coleslaw and pickles, no BBQ sauce required. Even the skeptics in the family are on board with this new hobby.
The Next Smoke
I have a plan for the next smoke to keep the neighbor lady at bay. I thought about bringing her some meat as a peace offering. But with COVID-19, I decided she may not like getting random food from a stranger. I also wasn’t looking for more of a confrontation. (And honestly, it would mean less for me.)
I spoke to some of my other neighbors about it, and we will be relocating the smoker to the driveway and inviting our cul-de-sac to a social distance cookout.
Meanwhile, I am on the lookout for wood sources and new recipe ideas. I am not a purist, so I want to explore ways of mixing traditional Texas-style barbeque with Pacific Northwest flavors. As they say, before you break the rules, first you have to learn them.