I'm new to sous vide and a little confused. I have smoked a ton of Boston butts over the last 15 years and and my magic number is 203 for internal temp usually running 250-275 for 8 to 10 hours (no crutch). I used to cook lower and slower but the above mentioned seems to give me the best results on my smoker (nice bark, tender and juicy).
Back to sous vide. My question is why shouldn't I set my sous vide machine to 203 and run the same number of hours? Everything I have read including the article above has much lower temps. This doesn't make any sense to me since it seems you would still want to get to the same internal temp to get similar results.
If a shoulder is normally supposed to be cooked to an internal temp between 190-205 (see any meat chart) why would that be any different when cooking sous vide?
Thanks for the great question Mick! There's a lot that goes into this and I'll try to clear it up below. Most of it comes down to what you are trying to accomplish texture-wise.
Note: There is also a very good discussion about how people make pulled pork in our sous vide facebook group.
I always find that it helps to understand what is actually happening during the cooking process. As meat cooks, two things happen. One, it gets more tender and two, it dries out. The catch is that as the temperature increases, the speed these two things happen increases at different rates.
The tenderizing speed increases very slowly compared to the drying out speed. So a chicken breast cooked at 140°F (60°C) for 3 hours will be much juicer than one cooked at 160°F (71.1°C), but the 160°F one won't be noticeably more tender (and might taste less tender because of the juice loss).
There are also boundary points in the temperature, where certain parts of the meat begin to break down. For instance, meat cooked above 150°F (65.5°C) will have a much different texture than meat cooked below that mark due to the huge speedup in collagen and fat breakdown that occurs. A piece of meat cooked at 130°F (64.4°C) will never have the same texture as one cooked at 160°F (71.1°C), no matter how long it is cooked for.
So picking a temperature to cook at is all about trade offs between the texture and the juiciness you are looking for.
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So you ask "why shouldn't I set my sous vide machine to 203 and run the same number of hours"(8 to 10). You can 100% do this and it will have the same (or really similar, since there will be no bark) texture as other methods that cook it to that temperature. At the extreme of this end, you can use a pressure cooker to cook the meat at 250°F (121°C) and cut that time down to an hour or two.
All this meat will be really tender, falling apart and easy to shred with your hands.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can cook that exact same piece of meat at 135°F (57.2°C) for 2 days and it will have the texture of a really tender pork chop or pork loin. It'll be impossible to shred and it'll taste like a different cut of meat.
For example, here are two chuck roasts I cooked. One at 131°F (55°C) for 36 hours and one I pressure cooked for an hour (though 176°F would have a similar result). They are completely different dishes at that point.
For my sous vide time and temperature recommendations, I break most tough cuts into two categories "Steak-Like" (or "Chop-Like" for pork) and "Braise-Like".
Under Steak-Like it's all about picking the doneness you want, such as medium-rare or medium and then cooking the meat long enough to become tenderized at that temperature.
Braise-Like is a little more tricky, but I have picked the 3 temperature that I've found usually work best: 156°F (68.9°C), 165°F (73.9°C), and 176°F (80.0°C). I think those have the best mix of tenderness and juiciness.
At the low temperature end, the meat is still pretty firm but you can shred it if you try. At the higher end, the meat is really fall-apart tender. Above 176°F (80.0°C) or so, I personally think you are just trading juiciness to save time.
For your personal situation, I highly recommend trying out a few braise-like temperatures so you can compare them with each other. Do a 156°F cook, toss it in the fridge, then do an 176°F cook and eat them side by side. You'll definitely be able to see the difference between them. One isn't better than another, they are just different and give you more tools in your arsenal.
And remember, this is just from a texture standpoint, it won't replace the bark or smoke flavor from a traditional smoke! Though you can definitely do a 156°F cook, chill it off, then reheat it in your smoker until it gets back to just below 156°F and I think you'll be really pleased with the result!
Here are a few of my favorite sous vide pulled pork recipes.
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