How to Butcher a Pork Shoulder for BBQ


I eat a lot of pork, maybe it’s because I’m Chinese – we were the first to domesticate pigs you know. The default word for meat in Chinese means pork. So collectively we’ve eaten a LOT of pork. It’s a wonderfully versatile meat, good thing really because you can’t milk a pig or spin soft wool from it’s bristly hair and don’t even try to plough a field with one. No, pigs are bred for eating and when the sun is out there’s no better way of cooking them than low and slow in a smoky barbeque pit. In particular pork shoulder for pulled pork. Let’s be clear about this, pulled pork means smoked barbequed pulled pork. In fact we say that pulled pork that isn’t barbequed should be banned or at least renamed slow-roast pork. Putting a barbeque sauce on mushy overcooked slow-roast roast pork doesn’t make it pulled pork either. You culprits know who you are!

So where do you start with pulled pork? Well with a pork shoulder of course. Now this is where things can get confused and where this guide can help you. Most BBQ blogs about pulled pork will be American and will talk a lot about Boston butts or picnic hams, cryovacing at Trader Joes or the Duroc crosses at Niman Ranch. None of which mean anything to your average UK butcher. They understand what shoulder, neck, hock and hand are. Most BBQ blogs start with a perfectly trimmed Boston butt but this blog will show you how to get to that stage.

In the photo below is a whole shoulder, it’s basically the front part of the pig called the front primal. Most butchers cut this using the first three spare ribs as a guide. This primal has been taken from the right side of the pig and the head, were it still attached, would be on the left of the photo. At the bottom of the primal you can see that the trotter and hock have been removed, equivalent to removing your arm up to the elbow (yes get over it). The other side has been skinned and a thin layer of fat left on:


You could BBQ this whole of course but much better to take the neck bone off along with the ribs so the spice rub and smoke will penetrate the flesh. Follow the bone around with a thin boning knife and the whole lot should come away easily in one piece. In this next photo you’ll see that I’ve done this and I’ve also separated the top section to show you what British butchers call the neck. If you are BBQing you should not separate it like this, keep it whole, this is for demonstration only:


Butchers like to sell you neck, it’s a common cut. When cured like bacon it’s called collar bacon. Cantonese cooks like it because we make Char Siu from it. It’s a perfectly acceptable cut for pulled pork but it’s a bit small and the loin end tends to dry out a little. What’s the loin end? Follow the neck back down the spine and the next section you’ll get to is the loin where you get the standard pork chop. So this end of the neck will tend to dryness because there’s less inter muscular fat and no connective tissue and it’s this stuff that makes pork shoulder so juicy and well suited to low and slow cooking. When a British butcher has separated the neck out the rest is usually called the shoulder, it’s often boned and rolled and sold as a roasting joint. This is fine for pulled pork too. Just get them to skin it for you first.

Below is a close-up of the neck, where I’m pinching is what competition BBQers call the money muscle. We like to separate this slightly and serve it sliced. This muscle stays really juicy and properly cooked melts in the mouth. A good way to demonstrate to BBQ judges that you know what you’re doing:


Ok now this first shoulder I’ve been demonstrating on is not ideal for BBQ because I’ve separated the neck too much. Good thing it’s being used for carnitas! So here’s another shoulder, this is what’s known as the Boston butt in the US. This is the basically the upper half of the shoulder primal and twice as big as the neck. To get to this piece I’ve sawn straight across the front primal in half through the base of the shoulder blade. The top of the shoulder blade should still be buried in the Boston butt. You can bone it out but I like to leave it in because when it comes away clean after smoking you know your pork is perfectly cooked. The top of the pig is on the right of this photo, you can see that I’ve separated the money muscle out competition style but you don’t need to do this at home.


The Boston butt or upper shoulder is the ideal cut for pulled pork as it’s big enough to stand up to a long slow smoke. The ratio of bark to juicy meat will be perfect. So now you know what you need, go forth and ask for it with confidence at your nearest quality butcher!

How to smoke an eel

Blimey, 30 quid a kilo that’s how much silver eels are nowadays. Around 8 months ago they were 22 quid, and I thought then that they were dear. So this maybe the last time I get to prepare and cook them before they price themselves out of my reach. Or before they become extinct. Nick and I smoke a lot of things on this blog, from ice cream to brisket, there are a lot of food that’s enhanced by the magic of wood smoke. In particular oily fish are great for smoking. There’s something about the complex flavours of smoke that’s amplified by the oiliness of fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and of course the oiliest of them all, eel. If you’ve never eaten smoked eel then it’s hard to describe how rich and oily it really is, a little goes a long way. If, like me, you think the taste of smoked eel is astounding then you really need to try one hot out of the smoker. It has to be the greatest smoked food ever, EVER [*]!

So why am I not eating this amazing food every day? Well aside from the price, anyone who has ever handled live eels knows they are horrible to prepare. First thing that is obvious is their snakelike appearance, they wriggle and thrash a lot, produce a lot of sticky slime and due to their many vertebrae are really difficult to kill. A dead eel will still twitch and judder long after any sensible animal has, literally, given up the ghost. This enduring quality is seen as virile in many cultures and that’s why, coupled with their deliciousness, they’re prized as food – you are what you eat. But it is for those reasons that I really don’t like handling them, I’ll only pluck up the courage to do it a couple times a year. This time you have the pleasure of accompanying me in this step by step guide in how to smoke an eel.

Step 1 – Buy and kill

Get your fishmonger to choose the most lively eels, 1 kilo in size is just right. Any smaller and the yield is poor, much bigger and they’re difficult to handle in a normal kitchen. I get mine from Pearce’s in the Indoor Market, they won’t kill them for you but if your fishmonger does then get them to do it and clean them too, making sure they leave the head on. Some people just go for it, whack them over the head and gut them whilst they’re still thrashing but I like to handle them as little as possible. So in a suitably sized pot with a lid scatter three or four big handfuls of coarse salt all over the bottom and pour in a little water to make a grainy slush. Tip the eels into the pot and clamp the lid down tight. Leave for an hour, the eels will thrash around for a while but the salt will eventually kill them and help to deslime. You can tell they’re dead when the eyes go blank, they usually go belly up too.

Step 2 – Clean and Gut

Remove the eels and rinse them under plenty of cold running water. A lot of the slime will be left in the pot but there will still be some on the eel. You have a choice here, you can rub this off with some more coarse salt or scrape it off with a sharp sturdy knife. It’s a messy job either way. When the eel has been fully deslimed, gut it from it’s anal vent to it’s jaw and remove all it’s innards making sure to clean the bloodline. Most other fish are quite easy to gut but eel guts are particularly tenacious, you may need sturdy fish tweezers or pliers to make a really clean job of it. Most importantly when gutting eels you need slice a couple of inches towards the tail to get the kidney out. The tip of my knife in the last photo is where the anal vent was located, you can see how far to cut in that direction.

Step 3 – Salt and Dry

For every kilo of eel rub 50g of salt into the cavity and all over the outside. Place covered in the fridge overnight, preferably 24 hours, redistributing the salty brine at least once in that time. The next day rinse the eels off and dry them quickly with a clean cloth inside and out. Place the eels on a rack uncovered in the fridge overnight for a sticky pellicle to form on the skin and in the cavity. A pellicle allows smoke to adhere better to food so make sure that the eel is as exposed as possible while it’s in the fridge, that’s why a rack is useful. The resting in the fridge also helps to redistribute the saltiness throughout the eel.

Step 4 – Smoke

You’re ready to smoke your eel. Prepare your hot smoker for a 80-90C burn for up to 90 minutes. It’s very important that you don’t smoke them too hot or they will split and all the oil will burst out. If you’re using a horizontal smoker, lay the eels carefully belly up, you may need a small skewer to stop the eels from turning over. More commonly eels are smoked vertically, tie some string or twine around the throat just below the side fins and use this to hang them head up. If you don’t do this and simply insert a hook straight into the jaw then as the eel cooks it softens and will fall off the hook – a complete disaster! I like to use oak chips, it’s a classic flavour with fish, robust and sweet but really you can use any smoking wood. Check your eels after an hour, they should be nicely smoked, leave for up to half an hour longer if you’ve got particularly fat ones.

For posterity, a 987g eel at the market weighed 751g after smoking and produced 482g of pure meat. Enjoy, it’s worth it.

[*] Yes really, above smoked ribs, chicken, sausage, salmon, pastrami etc. The only thing that comes close is Nick’s Wagyu Brisket burnt ends.

An Ode to the Reuben Sandwich

What’s your favourite sandwich? It’s the eternal question with an infinite number of answers. If you can eat it then you can put it atop or between pieces of bread. A sandwich can be anything your heart desires; a Bánh mì bursting with savoury pork and fresh coriander in a crisp light airy Vietnamese baguette, a beef burger crusty on the outside but pink in the middle with it’s juices soaking into a toasted light brioche bun, or for me the mighty Reuben Sandwich. That combination of corned or pastrami beef, melted cheese, sauerkraut, russian or thousand island dressing and rye bread. It’s a combination that’s hard to find in the UK, where are you going to get good corned beef or pastrami from huh? No, the first Reuben sandwich I ever ate was in the near legendary Katz’s Deli on East Houston St in New York City. Giant slabs of the softest juiciest pastrami topped with sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese. The bread is a side note just there to fool you that it is a sandwich, honest! These are the mythological sky-high NY deli-style sandwiches that your friends have told you about in their holiday stories. Their expressions become manic as they describe to you the heft and wonder of these beasts.

A pastrami Reuben from katz’s

At Katz’s the server slices the freshly steamed pastrami thickly in front of you before laying on a piece of rye with sauerkraut, russian dressing and swiss cheese. He microwaves it to make sure the cheese is nice and melty before topping it off with another slice of rye smeared with mustard. There’s no doubt here that the pastrami is the star of the show. The bread is there to keep your fingers clean initially but at the end of the sandwich you’re just shovelling slabs of savoury cured beef into your gob with careless abandon. That’s why napkins were invented.

So coming back to Blighty after that first trip to New York I just had to try and smoke my own pastrami. It’s quite a straightforward process really, buy brisket, brine it, smoke it, steam it. But achieving the level of pastrami excellence that you find at Katz’s is not simple at all. The biggest barrier is the meat, you just can’t get the heavily marbled stuff here unless you really look for it. An epic grail quest that Nick has been on and returned triumphant! Myself? After a number of less than satisfying attempts at smoking brisket I gave up trying to recreate that Katz’s sandwich though the yearning for it never left me.

When Mishkin’s in Covent Garden opened to rave reviews I couldn’t help noticing that they had Reuben on their menu too. It’s very different to the Katz’s version as you can see.

A Mishkins’s Reuben Sandwich

This one is much slimmer, the pastrami has been sliced thinly and the whole lot looks to have been put in a panini press. But the revelation is that I actually enjoyed this more than Katz’s version. Mishkin’s Reuben is a grilled cheese sandwich, all the component parts are in balance and fused together. Although the thinly sliced pastrami looked less impressive it still tasted wonderful, every bite had a little bread, sauerkraut, cheese, dressing and a hint of caraway seed. It was just a completely different eating experience to the mile-high sandwich at Katz’s. I knew that I had to try and recreate this. Luckily a Reuben topic cropped up on egullet at around the same. Apparently to real Reuben aficionados the mile-high offerings are abominations, Reuben purists insist that it should be a thin grilled cheese sandwich made with corned beef not pastrami. Well, I wouldn’t call myself a purist but I’m certainly a grilled Reuben convert and so with a freezer full of beef cheeks I decided to make pastrami with them so I could feed my craving. Why have corned beef when you can make pastrami with it?

Here’s my brine recipe, heat all the ingredients together so that the salt is dissolved. When the brine has cooled put 4kg of trimmed beef cheeks in it and fridge it for 3 days:

7 litres Water
780g Salt
175g Sugar
44g Pink Salt (#1 cure)
4 Cloves Garlic minced, 6 pieces Mace , 15g Coriander Seeds, 20g Whole Black Peppercorns, 6 Fresh Bay Leaves, 1 tsp Ground Ginger, 1 Cinnamon Stick, 6 Cloves, 1 Star Anise

After 3 days rinse and dry the cheeks. Grind equal quantities of black peppercorns and coriander seeds enough to cover the cheeks evenly. Let the cheeks rest uncovered on a rack overnight for a pellicle to form, this will help the smoke to adhere to the meat. Set up your smoker and hot smoke the cheeks at around 100C for 3 hours. I like quite a heavy smoking as I think beef can take it. Also, a heavy smoke is preferable because after 3 hours the cheeks are wrapped in several layers of foil and steamed in a 130C oven till they are tender, test it after 3 hours – a knife should slip straight in.

Beef Cheek Pastrami

The cheeks are a lot easier to slice thinly when it’s cool and you want to slice them as thinly as possible for the perfect Reuben sandwich. But not only that you have to squeeze dry your sauerkraut first before gently frying in a dry pan with some caraway seeds. This will cook out the sauerkraut, if you use it uncooked then it can be wet and stringy. You are now ready to make your Reuben sandwich.

Generously butter the outside of your bread before assembling, preferably rye but sourdough is a great alternative. Lay the pastrami on first then the sauerkraut, Russian dressing next and finally the Swiss cheese. Remember balance is the key, no one component should overpower the other, though I will forgive you if you lay the pastrami on just a little thicker. You are only human after all. Griddle (grill) the whole lot in a frying pan pressing it down till it’s all crispy and the cheese and pastrami is hot and melted together.

My Reuben Sandwich

Beef cheeks make a lot of sense for the home cook, they’re easy to handle and portion. Half a cheek is usually enough for one sandwich. But above all else beef cheeks give an extra sticky juicy quality to the sandwich giving it another dimension of awesomeness. I’m proud to say that it’s the best Reuben I’ve ever eaten and it’s my perfect sandwich.

Pork ribs dry rib

Keeping with the theme of using the blog as a place to store my notes, some brief jottings on a recent batch of pork ribs.

Pork ribs and slaw

Dry rub

(quantities expressed as ratios)

1.5 – paprika
.5 – smoked paprika (hot)
1 – salt
.5 – pepper
1 – garlic powder
.5 – chipotle paste

Paste makes the rub wet so difficult to apply. Also it’s too hot for Hannah! Too much black pepper (or not ground enough).

Smoke two hours over maple. Put in dish with apple juice and cook tightly covered in very low oven (110C) until done (meat tender but still on the bone).

I tried this BBQ sauce recipe subbing liquid smoke for the smokey juices drained from the meat. This recipe has too much tomato ketchup in. Glaze the ribs in sauce and finish in hot oven.


Putting the carrots, onion and cabbage in very well salted boiling water for five minutes, before draining improves the texture and flavour. Dressing is simply yellow mustard seeds and rice wine vinegar. Refrigeration before serving improves the flavour.