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How to Season Pork Shoulder Like You Mean It

Can I interest you in some pork shoulder?
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Can I interest you in some pork shoulder? The exterior crusty and spicy. The meat moist and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. I thought so. Pork shoulder is the ultimate cut of meat for smoking and grilling, and barbecue cultures as varied as Mexican (cochinita pibil, anyone?), German (spiessbraten), and Balinese (babi guling) back me up on this.

In a previous blog post, I gave you marching orders on how to buy pork shoulder, a.k.a. pork butt (even though it has nothing to do with a hog's hindquarters). Now you'll learn how to coax the maximum flavor from this indispensable hunk of meat.

When it comes to seasoning pork shoulder, remember that a faint heart never won a poker--err, porker--game. You have options:

Rub: We Americans use rubs with greater imagination and with a freer hand than anywhere else on Planet Barbecue. And nothing is more amenable to a good rub than pork shoulder. Make your own--I'm partial to Raichlen's Rub, a primal blend of salt, pepper, paprika, brown sugar, and other seasonings you probably have on hand in your kitchen. Or to make life easy, order a can of my All-Purpose Barbecue Rub. Apply it liberally to all sides of the pork shoulder and rub it into the meat just before cooking.

Brine: A brine is a liquid seasoning containing water and salt, and sometimes, a sweetener (like sugar, molasses, honey, etc.), herbs or spices, and/or aromatics. A brine is a sort of marinade (but not all marinades are brines). Without getting too scientific, a brine not only adds flavor, but penetrates the meat and relaxes the coiled proteins in the muscles, making the meat moister and more tender. A reliable formula is 1 cup kosher salt (and an optional 1/2 to 1 cup of brown sugar) to 1 gallon of water. If desired, substitute apple juice or cider for half the water. Brine the pork for at least 8 hours, and up to 24. Note: If you brine your pork before cooking, ignore my advice above and go easy on the rub to avoid over-salting the meat. Or use a low-sodium rub.

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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is