The Texas Crutch

My Rouses Everyday, March/April 2017

When it comes to traditional foods (and especially barbecue), I can’t help but admire the purists.

I tip my hat to folks who become enamored with the transcendent flavor of their favorite ’cue, then are driven to perfect it as part of their home repertoire. As students of the craft, they’ll travel the country to sample the legendary pits.

Purists take their excitement for barbecue and funnel it into long smoke sessions and copious note-taking. They’ll spend whole holiday weekends patiently tending their backyard cookers with patience and precision. They fixate on the finer points of the seemingly simple craft (rub recipes, meat trimming, pit physics) and spend countless hours tending their meats, controlling every variable in the process.

As a barbecue lover, I respect a purist’s dedication, and it’s a joy to gorge on the tasty fruits of their obsessive labor. As a cook, I like their ambition and determination. But as a practitioner of the barbecue arts, I’m more of a realist.

When I cook pork shoulders, I don’t obsessively check my meat temperature or fiddle with airflow during a 9-hour smoking session. Instead, I lean pretty heavily on something called the “Texas Crutch.”

And my life is much better for it.

The Basics: In Competition

The Texas Crutch is a smoking technique that involves wrapping a partially smoked cut of meat (usually a brisket, pork shoulder or other roast-like hunk) in thick aluminum foil to concentrate heat, accelerate cooking, and minimize evaporation. Add a little liquid to the mix (beer always works) and let it sit for a spell.

In basic kitchen terms, the basic crutch technique turns a dry-cooking method (smoking) into a wet-cooking method (essentially a braise). It’s also a great way to turn an economical cut of pig (the notoriously tough pork shoulder) into fall-apart shreds of delicious piggy barbecue.

The “wrap and rest” technique developed on the national barbecue competition circuit, where control of internal temperature and meat moisture is critical.

Competition pitmasters track the doneness (and the final texture) of barbecue by tracking its internal temperature. For big cuts of meat (brisket, shoulders), there’s a “plateau” in the process — where cooking seems to stop as the heat penetrates deep into the center of the meat.

Over time, slow heat gradually transforms the connective tissue and muscle of the traditionally tough meat into silky, flavorful collagen — the rich “X factor” of your favorite stews and gravies.

The Texas Crutch was developed as a way for competition teams to hasten past the plateau, giving the cooks more control over the cooking clock. But it was also considered kind of a cheat by the purists — there they go again — since it varied from the straight-up meat+smoke=barbecue equation.

Embracing Hybrid Heat: One Man’s Story

But in the real world (or at last my part of it) “crutching” works amazingly well for cooking my favorite big chunks o’ meat. And what’s more, it makes for some of the Best Breakfasts of All Time.

When it comes to slow-smoked meats, I’ve embraced the concept of barbecue being an indoor/outdoor sport. (Purists, you may want to skip this section, or risk bruising your delicate sensibilities.)

They gone? Great.

Let me tell you a story …

It all started a few years ago, when I decided to spend a Sunday smoking a pork shoulder for supper. It being a spring weekend, I rose with my alarm, full of ambition and big plans — only to find that it was an hour later than I thought (daylight saving time strikes again).

For some reason, my brain had a hard time getting on track, and my plans for an early breakfast, run to Rouses Market and “light the fire by 8AM” slipped by one hour, then two, then three. I stumbled through my Sunday — disoriented in time and under-caffeinated — and finally struck a match in the early afternoon. I got my little Weber Bullet smoker stoked and loaded (a 6-pound pork shoulder and two chickens) at about 2pm. Some friends were coming over to eat at about 8pm.

(So we’ll pause here to say that any experienced barbecue person will recognize that 4-5 hours is plenty of time to smoke mid-sized poultry, but nowhere near enough time to fully cook a decent-sized pork shoulder.)

The afternoon wore on, and I kept a watchful eye on my double-level cooker — checking the meat temperatures occasionally, adding more wood chunks when needed, resisting the urge to open the smoker’s dome every 20 minutes or so. At about 6:30pm, my neighbors likely heard me yell a series of aggressive encouragements to the nowhere-near-done pork shoulder … Along the lines of “C’mon. C’MON. COME ON, PIG!”

(In other news: My block has a very high tolerance for “neighbor crazy.”)

After five hours on the smoke, the chickens looked beyond perfect. They’d been on the grate below the shoulder, so they were consistently slow-basted with spicy pork fat. They couldn’t have been more savory and beautiful.

The pork, on the other hand, seemed barely done. The exterior of the shoulder had a great color, with a burnished brown-to-burgundy crust from a spicy rub and outside-in smoke massage. But the thermometer reading let me know that the core of the roast wasn’t nearly ready. Try to serve this at dinnertime, and my more polite guests could well damage their dental work on thoroughly underdone “not nearly close to barbecue.”

Disappointed but glad to have some pig-flavored smoked poultry to serve, I replaced the smoker dome and went to my guests.
A few hours and bottles of wine later, my guests headed home and I grabbed a flashlight to check the shoulder. Not much progress temperature-wise, and the fire was just about dead and burning down to faint embers.

Disappointed and burnt out from the day, I remembered the Crutch and decided to give it a try. The smoker was out of the question — no way I was going to stoke another fire pretty close to midnight — but my kitchen oven seemed like a better bet.

The prep took about three minutes in total: wrap the shoulder in heavy-duty “tin foil,” add a second layer for insurance and add a little beer for the braising liquid. Place in glass baking dish, set oven on WARM (about 180-200 degrees), go to bed and hope for the best.

Slower than Slow: the Final Product

The next morning, I woke up to the most magical smell. It was the faint aroma of pork and pepper, like I had fallen asleep in a heavenly smokehouse.

I opened up the foil packet, and the shoulder looked the same as the night before — beautiful color, decent smoke ring — but the texture was just … perfect.

The solid chunk of shoulder — hard as a clenched fist the night before — had transformed into a tender pouch of pre-pulled pork, barely holding together. All the rubbery tendons were gone, along with most of the muscle fat, which melted down during the night.

From a non-purist’s perspective, it was darned near perfect — after a night in a low oven, the pork practically fell apart under its own weight. Tender, delicious and low-maintenance.

While it may not have the street cred of a pig lovingly tended by a dedicated round-the-clock purist, it’s a delicious compromise that works every time.

These days, I confidently start my shoulder after lunch, knowing that the overnight crutch will give me one of the best morning trifectas ever — perfect pulled pork omelette, strong coffee and a good night’s sleep.