Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pit Bossin' - North Carolina BBQ

You could call it Pulled Pork but in North Carolina, it is simply called barbeque. Barbequed pulled pork is part of the Holy Trinity of American BBQ. Born in the Carolinas, pork shoulder is slowly cooked by wood smoke and coals for hours until the meat becomes so tender it can be pulled apart by your fingers. Traditionally, a whole hog was cooked in a pit, "every part of the pig except the squeal."

Barbeque is taken quite serious in the Carolinas. Each region offers it own version on BBQ whether it is differences in sauces, rubs, coleslaw or cuts of meat. One similarity is that hickory wood is used to smoke the meat. It is widely used in the midwest and south as it is a favorite among barbequers.

Pork shoulder, Boston butt, the picnic shoulder, is typically the cut of meat to cook if a whole hog isn't available. It needs to be cooked slow and low for it to become real tender and moist.  Find yourself a big pork shoulder, over 5 to 6 lbs. First, start off by getting together a rub to season the meat.

For this barbeque, I used Steven Raichlen's recipe from Barbeque Bible and added a few personal touches.

For the rub:

  • 1 tablespoon paprika

  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar

  • 1.5 teaspoons chile powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon celery salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine in a bowl and coat the pork shoulder evenly on all sides. In order for the shoulder to retain its shape, I tied the meat together with some kitchen twine. Cover the meat and place in the refridgerator for as long as you like. I kept mine in the fridge for over a day. Be sure to take meat out for at least an hour before cooking to bring it to room temperature.

This particular cut from the butcher looks like a pork loin to me but nonetheless, it will be tasty no matter how it looks.

Anyway, time to get ready for some barbequing. Start by soaking your hickory wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes. Set up your grill for indirect cooking. Also, place a drip pan half-filled with water under the grate. The pan will catch the drippings from the meat and the water will help keep the meat moist.

The next part of the process is based on personal preference. This is where BBQ can be a heavily debated topic with people having all sorts of opinions, methods, techniques on how to cook the BBQ. No matter what way to go about doing things, you want to finish with great BBQ.

The finished product is when the meat has reached an internal temperature of 190 degrees or more. This is when the pork can be pulled apart and when the bone just falls out. My method was keeping a smoke/heat temperature at and around 200-250 degrees.

I just installed this grill thermometer. It prevents me from having to guess on internal temperature and it makes it easier in general for barbequing. I highly recommend using one if you don't already.

I started with about 15-20 coals in the coal basket preheated from the chimney starter. I added a handful of wood chips. The chips would last about 30-40 minutes. I added chips after each hour of cooking. Resort to only opening the lid to replentish coals or chips as the internal temperature will fall dramatically when the lid is raised.

Here is the pork shoulder after 4 hours. You can see the bark created on the shoulder from the meat. This crunchy outer layer contains a lot of flavor! The drip pan also helps to keep you grill clean too.

I smoked and cooked the shoulder for 8 hours keeping the internal temp at and around 200-250 degrees. At this point, the pork reached an internal temperature of 190 degrees.

The Weber kettle is an amazing grill and very versatile. It really held the temperature at a steady level for 8 hours. I only added a few extra coals during the cooking process. I've wanted a professional smoker in the past but the Weber is good enough for me. I'm so in love with it.

After the pork is done, let it rest for 10-15 minutes under some foil. Honestly, I skipped this step. I spent every minute of the 8 hours in my backyard tending the grill, doing crosswords, listening to my iPod and the baseball game, drinking beers. Huddled in the cloud of pork-scented smoke, my patience was gone, I was so hungry.

Use your fingers or two forks or "bear paws" to rip apart the meat.  The aroma is amazing and it is hard to not steal bits of pork to sample. Check out the pink smoke ring and the dark bark. Oh man, that is BBQ!

This is where the Carolina influence comes into play, the sauce. Carolina BBQ sauce is different than Memphis or Kansas City sauce. Its primary base is vinegar instead of heavy, tomato based sauces. Carolina sauce is thinner and more runny.

Apple Cidar vinegar combined with pepper and brown sugar offers a tangy flavor to the pork but damn does it go well together. Here is the Vinegar sauce recipe:

  • 2 cups cidar vinegar

  • 1/2 cup ketchup

  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar

  • 4 teaspoon salt

  • 3 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
Combine all ingredients with 1 1/3 cup water and whisk until sugar and salt dissolve. Place in a squeeze bottle and squirt all over the pulled pork.

This sauce is really superb, really fantastic on smoked pork. The tanginess combines well with tender pork and pairs well with the smoke flavor. All I can really say is that this is perfect, a Heaven-on-Earth food experience. And you know what? We aren't done compiling flavors yet!

Another widely debated topic of Carolina BBQ is the coleslaw. I had to be respectful and take in the entire experience so I wanted to make some slaw from scratch instead of purchasing a container of it. Yeah, it is easy to make and it is something that shouldn't be omitted from a BBQ pulled pork recipe.

Creamy slaw vs Vinegary slaw is a hot debate but this particular Carolina slaw recipe fits perfect with the pulled pork. Serve on top of the pork in the sandwich. The ingredients:

  • 1 head cabbage, fine chop

  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly cut

  • 1 sweet onion, fine chop

  • 1 carrot, grated

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 1 cup apple cidar vinegar

  • 2/3 cup vegatable oil

  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
Combine sugar, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper and place on low heat. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt. Pour over vegatables and mix. Cover and refridgerate until cold.

Served with a side of homemade pickled salad of cucumber and radish, North Carolina-style Pulled Pork Sandwich with South Carolina Vinegar Coleslaw.

I would never serve the slaw on the side, it needs to be piled high on top of the pork and sandwiched between a large, toasted roll. I can understand how pulled pork is considered one of the most popular, favorite BBQ dishes. Everything was delicious. The crunch of the bark, cabbage, carrots went perfectly with the tender pork. The best damn sandwich of all time. You may think with a sauce and slaw flavored with vinegar would result in a mouthful of vinegar but it really didn't taste that way. Everything was balanced well together. This is why BBQ is widely debated because much thought, love, passion goes into the creation of it. So many methods to come to this result but Amen, this is the result you want. Something that just blows your mind. Yeah I know it is just food but come on, try it, and you'll know what I am talking about.

BBQ, to me, is more than just the food. It is about slowing down your life, relaxing, hanging out with people you love, taking it easy. To just sit in your backyard on a Saturday and all you have to do is tend the grill, to me, is the American Dream.


  1. I think this has been my favorite meal of the summer.

  2. Thank you for your story. I know it's Thanksgiving, but I'm craving N.C. BBQ!

  3. I randomly found your blog and this post through a search on Google. This was my first time smoking a pork shoulder in my Weber kettle and it turned out amazing Not a single piece left! The sauce was nice and tangy too! This is now my go-to pulled pork and it was well worth the 9 hour wait. Thanks!

  4. As an Eastern Carolina girl living in a Central Florida world may I just say THANK YOU for this! I get homesick for "Pig Pickin'" style BBQ often. I moved before learning the ropes on how it's truly done and get looked at like I have a 3rd eye everytime I ask locals if they know anything about my vinegar-based BBQ. Now I can open everyone's eyes (and taste buds) to the awesomeness!