Help me make pulled pork for my wedding
August 17, 2010 12:02 PM   Subscribe

I really want to make my own pulled pork for my wedding next summer - help me make the dream a reality!

I'm getting married next July - nearly a year away - and we will be doing a sort of self-cater/potluck style dinner instead of using a caterer. We will have 150 guests, most of whom eat meat (at most 10 vegetarians), and ever since I got the idea to make pulled pork, I've become slightly obsessed with it.

There are a number of logistical considerations that I'd really love your help with, Hive Mind, especially as I know that a number of you are meat experts. I will have time off before the wedding, which is on a Thursday evening, so I can be home all day cooking for several days with time to do some of my other wedding prep. I live very close to where the wedding will take place, and I have access to a couple freezers, a couple ovens, and could borrow some crock pots if needed. I have a large dutch oven and access to a couple more.

Here are some of my issues:

1) I have made pulled pork for 15 people, and I used 6 pounds of pork shoulder/butt, and the portions were pretty ideal, so I'm figuring around 60 pounds for 150 people. Does this sound right? Maybe get 70 pounds to be safe?
2) How much pork can I cook at once?
3) I have used the recipe from The Joy of Cooking several times, which was truly delicious and doesn't cook for all that long compared to some of the more slow-cook recipes. You rub it down with a southern BBQ rub, brown it in a pan, bake it for around 30 minutes/lb in the oven, pull it apart and add BBQ sauce. Would it make more sense to borrow some crock pots and cook the meat that way?
4) How should I go about buying such a large quantity of pork? I live in Berkeley, CA. I'd like to get really high-quality meat.
5) Freezing and storing: How much space will I need? How should I freeze the pork? How many different bags?
6) Thawing: how long will it take to thaw, and how should I re-heat it on the day of the wedding? Any precautions to take over possible spoilage?
7) Is this crazy? Can I, as the groom, reasonably expect to be able to do this? Should I make the pork further in advance, like a month? Will it keep that long?
8) Bonus question: would it be extra crazy to make my own BBQ sauce, and if not, can you point me to a great recipe?

I'm sure I've left out some important considerations. The main gist of question is if I can actually do this, keeping in mind that I'm highly motivated and really want to make food for my wedding, but also that I am the groom and will have lots and lots to do in the days before the wedding. My fiancee, for what it's worth, is very in favor of the idea.

Thanks for any relevant advice you can impart!
posted by ORthey to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like you've thought about this a lot, but here are some tips:
a. 30 minutes does not seem long enough to get an ideal tenderness, especially in a large piece of pork shoulder. The elastins and other connective tissues need a "slow and low" cook to break down and make the pork all mouth-watery and not chewy or rubbery. I do mine for about one hour/pound/piece at 250 degrees in an over, or over low heat in a smoker. Note that because you hopefully wont just grab 1 x 60-lb cut of pork, but would have maybe 10 x 6-lb cuts, this wont take that long to cook with enough space.

b. BBQ in an over is OK if you don't have any other options, but rigging up a smoker in a pit or large charcoal grill is ideal, even if you only smoke the pork for an hour or two and then finish it in the oven. It seriously makes the meat 300% better tasting. Memail me if you want smoking tips.

c. Making your own sauce ought to be easy, taste better than the HFCS store-bought junk, and would add character to the festivities. Consider the regional varieites of sauces (e.g. tomato-based, mustard-based, bourbon-based, and vinegar-based). Here's a good recipe for homemade east-Carolina vinegar sauce.
posted by reverend cuttle at 12:15 PM on August 17, 2010

There are BBQ Caterers in your neighborhood.
posted by rhizome at 12:20 PM on August 17, 2010

Just a quick alternative. But have you considered Going Whole Hog

We've done whole pigs a few times for the Super Bowl (the slow, overnight method - you might need a few pig tending volunteers)

We ordered whole pigs from a few places in the Bay Area, could help you out if you went that route.
posted by bitdamaged at 12:20 PM on August 17, 2010

Real, good pulled pork takes time and attention. This you don't have at your own wedding.

You will have to acquire the eat well in advance and store it for a while in a climate controlled environment. You most likely don't have a walk-in freezer unless you work in the food industry.

Next, 70 lbs of meat is going to take a lot of cooking room. A couple of crock pots is only going to cut it if you want to do it in batches over a couple of days.

On the other hand, hiring someone with a trailer sized smoker/barbecue and his/her own special, secret sauce/rub recipe to "cater" (read: pull up the cooker and drop you some amazing food) your wedding would be cheap. Plus you get to do "research" in order to find the right person/recipe for the job.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:22 PM on August 17, 2010

You can get the pork shoulders at Costco, if you have access to a membership there. Their meat is delish.

Freezing/unfreezing would be suboptimal (it would affect the texture, IMO).

Here's a tip out of left field, because it's based on 30 year old knowledge. But if you have a favorite BBQ place in your town, ask them to smoke the meat for you. When I worked at a BBQ as a kid, we did this for people all the time. They would kill their own animals, bring them in butchered, and we would throw them in with the hundreds of other pieces of meat we were cooking that day. I don't know what we charged but it would eliminate a shitload of work for you.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:26 PM on August 17, 2010

I agree with 10th Regiment. This is not something to do at your wedding, and there are a lot of caterers out there who specialize in barbecue.

If you want to do this for yourself, you might consider rigging up a DIY smoker. Smoked meats beat oven pulled pork any day.
posted by I am the Walrus at 12:27 PM on August 17, 2010

Seconding pretty much everything The 10th Regiment of Foot, having a BBQ trailer at your reception would have the bonus of being both creative and awesome.

posted by BobbyDigital at 12:27 PM on August 17, 2010

Another important consideration is what kind of kitchen facilities will your reception area have. This will probably limit the methods of reheating/storing you'll have. If the kitchen is limited, you'll have to transport warm food there, and then keep it warm. If the kitchen has a lots of oven space, you can reheat it there, then serve it warm from the kitchen.

Are you having other food items catered? Will there be waiters that can shred the pork as service goes on? Buffet style or plate service? If buffet, can they provide extra chaffing dishes and serving utensils?

I think this should freeze well, providing the meat is covered with sauce, and air tight. You want to prevent tissue destroying ice crystals, (aka freezer burn), which will happen with exposure to air. A FoodSaver would be ideal. Thawing time will be directly related to the size of your frozen chunks. If you're doing 6lb blocks, I'd say 30 hours in a fridge, minimum. If possible, go for long flat packs. These will thaw faster (with more surface area) than a big cube.

I think this is possible, but your mantra for the next year is test test test. Cook some pork, and put it in the freezer for a week. See how long it takes to thaw in the fridge. Take notes. See how many lbs you can fit in your oven, multiply it out and see how many neighbors/friends ovens you'll need, and if thats feasible. If not, look for community commercial kitchens, or regular commercial kitchens and if they'll rent space to the public.

I'd also say you need to appoint someone as your Pork Partner. Probably someone not in the wedding party would be best. This person needs to be accountable for getting the pork where it needs to go, on your wedding day, which might look something like 5 stops at different houses, meeting the caters before the ceremony, getting access to the kitchen, etc.

Good luck, and congrats!
posted by fontophilic at 12:31 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Highly recommend going a pit-smoker route, renting something like this. If you're going to do it yourself, get this book. It is amazing.

The thing to consider about BBQ is that most of the work comes in the days before you eat-- meat prep, rubs, overnight smoking.

Easiest route, and probably the best: get a caterer who specializes in BBQ to handle everything. In other words, what they said.
posted by supercres at 12:33 PM on August 17, 2010

I'm sure you have considered this, but people who eat meat and people who eat pork are not 100% overlapping sets. Just something to think about when planning for quantities of non-meat meals.

posted by charmcityblues at 12:41 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for the excellent advice so far. I'm starting to feel more and more like it may be in my - and everyone's - best interest not to do it myself, although it won't hurt to (as fontophilic says) do some testing over the coming months. The voice in the back of my head has been telling me this ever since I had the idea, but I wanted to check with people about the viability.

I'll see what others have to say though. I really appreciate everyone's great answers.
posted by ORthey at 12:41 PM on August 17, 2010

No way. I make pulled pork in a smoker a few times a summer and it's only a few times because I need weeks to forget how much effort it takes. I use a 6 lb Boston Butt and cook it for about 6 hours. Which involves checking it approximately 12 times. Don't do this to yourself on your wedding day. Plan a post-wedding event or something. You're going to be frazzled enough trying to keep caterers, photographers, guests, etc all on schedule and in the right place. I just can't see adding yourself to the list of things you have to worry about.

And think of the stains.
posted by yerfatma at 12:42 PM on August 17, 2010

Wow, rhizome, Sneaky's looks great - I'm gonna have to get in touch with them!
posted by ORthey at 12:49 PM on August 17, 2010

I'd like to point out that pulled pork can be a messy food to eat and may be incompatible with a dress affair.

That said, I've been to a wedding wherein the reception was at an outdoor park and the caterer pulled up with said smoker trailer and brought out his best. The season, locale, and dining were perfect. Oh, did I mention that the bride and groom changed into jeans after the photos and before they arrived?

Pulled pork is your dream - so fine, but be open to whole hog. I convinced my local church to do that for a homecoming Sunday that was supposed to have a tent revival theme. When then pig came out of the smoker black as coal, it was a little terrifying, but nobody complained about the pork, and at a church supper that says a lot.
posted by plinth at 2:03 PM on August 17, 2010

rhizome is right. I've ordered from Sneaky's a couple of times and their BBQ is frickin' fantastic. A Sneaky's catered wedding would be amazing.
posted by zachlipton at 2:14 PM on August 17, 2010

I do sous vide pulled pork all the time and usually do 10lbs at a time. There is pretty much zero room for error (set it and forget it.. can't really overcook) and it keeps very well in the fridge so you can do it in batches easily.
posted by wongcorgi at 3:33 PM on August 17, 2010

If you still want to consider doing it yourself, the biggest thing you can do to make it work while still keeping up your obligations as groom is to change your role from cook to chef. A cook is involved in handling the ingredients at all times, under the direction & quality control of a chef. Think of the chef as a manager and the cooks as the workers. You put togther the plan, they execute it. That way you're relieved of all the time consuming, repetetive work but you can still legitimately take credit for the end product.
posted by scalefree at 3:34 PM on August 17, 2010

I've attempted pulled pork a few times, and my latest attempt was a major success.
Figure about an hour of cook time per pound for a hindquarter or shoulder >20#. I cooked a 24 pound hindquarter for about 22 hours at 215 to 225 Fahrenheit and it was about perfect. I cooked it in the oven overnight for about 12 hours at 215 F, then in the morning I transferred it to a large grill and slow cooked it with six briquettes at a time for the remaining 10 hours. It takes time, patience, and a lot of beer (you need something to do while waiting). Get a thermometer for the grill to make sure you're maintaining the ideal temperature range. I made my own vinegar based BBQ sauce and basted it every hour or so (except when it was in the oven and I was busy snoozing). It might take quite a bit of grill and oven space to do 60# of pork. Make sure it's in a large enough pan in the oven to capture all the fat. If the fat melts off and overflows onto the burners, you might have an oven fire.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 4:15 PM on August 17, 2010

Pulled pork actually freezes quite well, IMO. I use gallon size freezer bags, and fill them so they are about 2" thick when laying flat. If you lay them flat to freeze, they'll store more compactly, and be easier to thaw. I just drop them in a hot water bath bag and all for about a half hour, then transfer to whatever I'm serving it in (roasting pan or chafing dish) to heat through.

Also, just freeze the smoked meat without sauce if possible, which also makes it easier to thaw. (since it won't be a solid chunk of ice)
posted by fixer at 6:38 PM on August 17, 2010

I'm a huge fan of pulled pork, and I've gotten pretty good at it. You could do it, I think. It's actually fairly simple, albeit time-consuming.

However, truly good pulled pork has to be smoked. I smoke two 8-lb butts at 215 for about 24 hours, and it comes out perfect. I use a Big Green Egg, with wood lump of course, and plenty of hickory. An oven or crock pot will work, I guess, but it won't be the same at all.

You can make it in advance and freeze it. I strongly suggest vacuum-sealing it before freezing it. I use a FoodSaver to vacuum seal my pulled pork. When I want to eat it, I just put the frozen bag in a pot of hot water and bring it gently to a boil. It tastes like it just came out of the smoker.

Best place to get pork shoulders in Berkeley is Berkeley Bowl, of course. They have Becker Lane butts for about $5-6/lb. That's pricier than Cost Club, but it's much better meat, from a sustainable farm with humanely-treated animals that feed on acorns.

So you can do it, but you'll have to do it well in advance, and you really really should use a smoker. If you can't get a smoker, have someone else do it for you.
posted by mikeand1 at 8:24 PM on August 17, 2010

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