Is there anything that says honest barbecue more than “Burnt Ends”? Super smokey, toothsome, unctuous little nuggets of barbecue heaven. So popular and hard to come by that most “Q” joints sell out of them within minutes of opening each day.
Traditionally, they are the over-done edges and corners of briskets and Boston butts that are trimmed off, then put in a pan with sauce and other yummies and smoked longer to concentrate the flavors. That said, they’ve become a thing in their own right and folks make them on their own.
This post will show you how to create burnt ends with pork belly and give you some notes on how to make them with beef. Buckle up, we’re going for a ride into Burnt End land!
Making burnt ends at home is really quite easy – like anything that’s proper BBQ, it requires some low and slow time, some heat, some spice, some sauce and well, some love too!
The technique is amazingly simple. Take a cut of meat that loves low and slow – think pork belly, pork shoulder, brisket, chuck – (this is not a place for lean cuts like filet, sirloin, tenderloin, etc.), cut it into bite sized nuggets, toss it with a generous amount of a tasty rub, smoke them for a while, then put them into a pan with some sauce and other ingredients, and smoke some more. It’s a great thing to do if you’re doing a long cook and you have a bit of space on your smoker or grill – these cook beautifully on the second grate of most grills and smokers that have them.
Now, every good recipe for anything BBQ starts with Griller’s Gold natural hardwood pellets. This recipe is designed for grilling on a wood pellet grill but we have put in some hints for making them on gas grills and charcoal grills. If you’re doing them on a classic drum/bullet/barrel smoker, you don’t need anything special other than the recipe below.
This is the “master” recipe in terms of technique and ingredients. This also works for pork shoulder, and of course beef, which we note after the pork belly recipe.
2-3 lbs pork belly, skin removed – this is about 1/4 of a typical pork belly
1 cup of your favorite BBQ Sauce
½ cup honey
½ cup beer or cola
½ stick butter
About pork belly: Costco, Sam’s Club, Whole Foods and other locations often sell large pieces of pork belly – if you’re not familiar with pork belly, here’s one word that will help you: “bacon.”
Pork belly is where traditional American bacon comes from – it is the outer layer of the belly of a pig. A whole pork belly can be quite a large thing so what they normally sell there is a piece that’s about 12 inches wide and 16” long that weighs up to 5 or 6 lb., which is typically a half pork belly.
This recipe is for half of that, but of course, can be easily doubled. You can also often find pork belly cut in large strips about an inch wide and those are fine to buy too. In fact that’s what we used in the photos for this post.
Most places sell belly without the skin – and if all your source has is skin-on belly, ask the butcher to remove the skin for you. If using the whole piece of belly, start by cutting the belly into 1 ½” wide strips across the short dimension. You can tell you’re doing it right if each slice looks like a thick piece of bacon. If you bought the strips, this step is done for you. Then cut each strip into 1 ½” pieces – you should wind up with pieces that are about 1 ½” on two sides and 1” or so thick. These are a bit larger than typical bite-sized, but they cook down a lot.
Put the Pork Belly on the Grill!
Next, get your smoker rolling smoke – if using a pellet grill, fire up using Griller’s Gold pellets – for pork we like hickory, cherry, Fruitwood Blend, or Competition Blend. All will give great results!
Preheat to 180 degrees and if your pellet grill has an “extra smoke” or “Super Smoke” feature, select that. If using a gas grill, preheat to the lowest possible temperature, and for bullet/barrel/etc.smokers, plus kettle grills, set up for low and slow – 225 or lower.
While the smoker heats up, toss the pork belly nuggets in a generous amount of rub. For this recipe, we like the following rub:
2 tablespoons of each: sugar, kosher salt, coarse ground black pepper, paprika, granulated garlic and granulated onion
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons dry mustard powder
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
You can also use your favorite rub for pork, or something like Meathead’s Memphis Dust plus salt. Mix well and then toss your pork belly cubes with enough rub to evenly coat them well.
Scatter the nuggets across the grill’s cooking grate, making sure they aren’t touching each other and close the grill hood. A handy way to manage this is to put them on a cooling rack then just set the rack on the smoker. Again, this is great to do if you have room while doing another cook. Just know that if you put them on an upper grate, they will drip delicious pork fat onto whatever is smoking below. Which begs the question: “How is that a bad thing?”
Expert Hint for Wood Pellet Grill Users
Time for an expert hint for wood pellet grill users: Pellet grills tend not to be as smoky as barrel or bullet smokers. While burnt ends love a very smoky flavor and with the fattier meat, they can take it without getting “ashy” tasting.
To kick things up a bit, consider using a smoke tube to supplement the smoke a bit – we’ve written about these before. Check out that blog here.
Load your smoke tube with the same Griller’s Gold natural hardwood pellets you’re using to fuel your grill (or, experiment – maybe try just hickory or cherry if you’re using one of the blends) and light it using a propane or butane torch, then set it on the grill grate on the opposite end of your smoker from the smokestack. It will kick out more smoke which will dance over your little smoky treats and kiss them with more flavor.
After the first hour, kick the heat up to 225. After 4 hours total in the smoker, take the nuggets off and put them in a foil pan. Whisk up a cup of your favorite barbecue sauce, a half cup of beer ( non-alcoholic option: cola works great too) and a half cup of honey. Two tablespoons of apple jelly is a nice bonus. Pour this sauce over the nuggets and toss them all to coat. Dot with about half stick of butter cut into small pieces. Put the pan (uncovered) back into the smoker for another 2 hours. Stir after 1 hour. After 2 hours those nuggets should be amazing – the sauce will have cooked down to a syrupy goodness and the nuggets will be nice and caramelized. They are ready to serve at this point – use a slotted spoon to remove them from the pan (there will be a lot of liquid fat in the pan) to serve. A pre-heated cast iron skillet makes a great presentation of these and will keep them warm as well. Be sure to include toothpicks to pick them up and lots of napkins.
(Note, if doing this as a side item while you’re doing another cook, don’t sweat the temperatures – roll with the temps you’re using for whatever you’re doing, just know that this does need to be in the low and slow range which is typically 180 degrees up to 275 degrees.)
All of the above applies, but 1) cut to 1 ¼” cubes as it will shrink less; and 2) stretch first smoke period to 5 hours as they will need a touch longer.
As promised, the technique is largely the same here as above, but here’s some variation points:
- Cut of beef: Short rib meat is the ultimate here, but brisket and chuck work great too. Don’t buy crosscut short ribs but instead buy large, meaty short ribs. Cut the meat off the bones as close to the bone as you can.
- Prep: Cut into bite sized cubes – because beef will not shrink as much as pork belly, cut a bit smaller – 1 ¼” or so.
- Rub: The same rub above works great, or because beef loves it so much, just equal parts salt, pepper and granulated garlic tastes/works great too.
- Sauce: Again same as above but a great variation is to use a steak sauce like A1 or Heinz 57 instead of BBQ sauce. Mix with honey and beer.
- Time: Same as above, but taste after 4 hours – if they are tough, consider giving them 1 more hour to smoke.
- Griller’s Gold Pellets: The Smokehouse Blend is great for this beef recipe, but if you are doing them as a “side item” to a larger smoke, just roll with whatever you’re running, it will be fine.
- Extra smoke: Beef loves extra smoke so don’t be afraid to fire up that smoke tube if you’re running a wood pellet grill.
Last item for both – these are great made ahead. We often make them a day or more ahead. Just keep in the foil pan you made them in and then reheat them in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes when ready to serve.
Give these a try – there’s no voodoo in this recipe and nothing to be afraid of – you have to try really hard to mess up burnt ends! And trust us – when you come to your friends with a hot pan of these little nuggets of joy, you’ll be everyone’s hero! Smoke on! (Here are a few more smoker tips, in case you want to read more)
Until next time!