One of the most frequently asked questions I get goes something like this "I got roped into serving pulled pork for 50 people at the company picnic on Sunday. I plan to cook it on Saturday at home and bring it to the park on Sunday. What's the best way to do this?
This is called serving leftovers. You should always try to serve food fresh from the cooker. Most foods are at their absolute best when fresh out of the cooker or the faux cambro. They have hot juices, the connective tissues have melted and turned to luscious gelatin, the fat has rendered and lubricates the muscle fibers, browned surfaces are crunchy, and vegetables are bright and crisp. By Sunday many of the juices have evaporated or run off, much of the tenderness is lost, the bark and other crunchy bits are soggy, and oxidation has begun to deteriorate flavor. The AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder points out that "The reason you can smell BBQ from a block away is due to volatile organic compounds, and by the next day, many of these aromatics are gone forever."
If you can't serve fresh food, you should rethink your plan. Skip the pulled pork, brisket, and ribs, and just grill up some fresh chicken, burgers, or hot dogs.
But if you have no choice, there is a way to pull this off with style.
If you have no choice
Mike Wozniak is the pitmaster of Quau, 2010 Kansas City Barbeque Society Team of the Year. He breaks the rules and still wins first place. A lot. He cooked up this trick because he enters dozens of competitions every year and he got tired, literally, of staying up all night babying his brisket and pork butt. He was kind enough to teach me his method so I could share it with you.
He cooks his brisket at about 310°F for about four hours and takes it up to about 180°F internal. He then wraps it tightly in foil, pinching off the overlaps thoroughly, and drops it into a clean watertight plastic bag. A garbage bag will do. The whole shootin' match goes in a beer cooler submerged under plenty of ice. He wants it to chill in a hurry. He warns that a fridge is not cold enough and the thermal mass of warm meat will raise the fridge temp much too high spoiling many of the other foods in there. "We try to keep water drained out of the cooler. No matter how tightly wrapped, water seems to find a way in."
The next morning he takes the meat out of the cooler, out of the bag, but still in foil, and it goes back on the pit (or at home you could put it in an oven) at 310°F for three to four hours until it hits 200°F. That's a Texas Crutch. He then unwraps it, saves the juices, and if they are not too salty, uses them in his sauce. The now nekkid meat goes back on the pit to firm the crust. Now beware, as soon as the meat comes out of the foil, the evaporation of moisture on the surface will cool it rapidly, but that doesn't hurt anything. Just firm the crust 'till it is mostly dry to the touch, no more than 30 minutes or so. Then slice, sauce, and serve.
Wozniak says he has even used this method and cooked several days in advance. Just move the chilled meat to the fridge.
I have used the Wozniak method on pork butts for pulling. They did taste slightly drier than usual, but they were darn close to fresh. I cook them for six to eight hours 'till they get past the stall and up to about 175°F, wrap the meat in foil, put them on ice, move them to the fridge when the temp is down into the 40s, and leave it there. The next day I put it in the oven or pit at 225, still in foil, until it hits 203°F, another six to eight hours. I then take the meat out of the foil and put it on a rack so the bark will firm up. Surprisingly, there is usually little liquid in the foil. When the bark is firm, after about an hour, I pull, and serve.
I don't recommend and I haven't tried this technique on ribs. The ratio of surface to meat is so high I fear they would become too dry. But if you have no choice, cook them about three hours at 225°F, wrap, chill rapidly, and the next day warm for about two to three hours in foil, remove the foil, firm the crust, add the sauce, and you're ready to rock.
Resist the temptation to slice the brisket or pull the pork in advance. Keep the meat whole so there is less surface area from which to lose moisture.
Now you don't have to stick to his temperatures. That's just what works for him. If you like to cook at 225°F and you have your pit dialed in at that number, do that. That's the temp I recommend. And you can pretty much stop the cooking at any stage, but the higher temp, the less cooking the second day. I like to bring brisket and pork butt up to about 203°F.
If you don't have time Sunday to slowly warm the meat, then you have no choice but to slice the ribs and brisket, and pull the pork on Saturday. Pack the brisket in plastic zipper bags with beef broth or stock and about 10% melted butter. Pack the pulled pork or ribs with barbecue sauce and water, not a lot, just enough to keep things moist.
Reheat the sealed bags by chucking them in a simmering water bath or pour the meat into bowls and take it for a ride in the microwave. Avoid steam trays. They tend to dry things out.
Click here to read more about reheating leftovers.