As a teenage transplant to North Carolina, I find myself describing it as home more often than not. It’s where I went to High School, where I met my wife, and where I still go back to visit as often as possible. NC is known, culinarily, really for one thing in particular: Pork Barbecue.
I have always loved barbecue, but I have yet to find a style that I like as much as a a simple, well smoked, pulled pork shoulder paired with a spicy apple cider vinegar based sauce. Living around the country, you can almost always find a good play on Texas-style with a heavy tomato based sauce on beef, or (strangely) South Carolina style, with its similar pork, though finished with a mustard based sauce. Those frequently hit the spot if I am craving some Q, but never live up to what I really want. As far as Memphis, St. Louis, or any of the other Midwestern styles, I have never been into them, mostly because I don’t particularly care for ribs. Another problem is that we live in Japan. So there are zero barbecue joints around. A few of the base restaurants give it a try, but are a shoddy facsimile of barbecue.
I have made this very thing on a number of occasions before, but this time turned out not as good as it usually does, so let me caveat this particular iteration with a few things. First off, this recipe takes a long time to cook. Like, the better part of daylight hours in these spring days. If I hadn’t said this before, or you haven’t read my blog before, I have an infant (3 1/2 months and not sleeping very well mind you) and she has some routines she follows. Also it was my day to get up with her while my wife got a little bit of extra rest. So, all told, I got a later start than intended and an earlier finish than I would have preferred. Secondly, I was using new charcoal. I got some Japanese stuff the night before cooking, and it looked really good, but I could not manage the heat as well as I can with the stuff I have had from before. It was really quick to catch fire, but it also didn’t have the staying power to get it going and leave it alone, while maintaining good levels of heat. Finally, I haven’t barbecued a pork shoulder in over a year and a half. It is rare the commissary gets shoulders and even rarer that I have had the time or inclination to do something with one. So it was not the best confluence (second time I have used this word today, go me) of circumstances to make the best Q, but what came out was delicious, if not what I was really looking for.
To make good barbecue you need three things, the right cut of meat, the right rub, and the right cooking method. And the right sauce, okay four things. We will take these one at a time:
The Meat. Pork is the tastiest of the meat critters, if you ask me. And the shoulder is one of the best. It can be whole, or split into two parts, the Boston Butt or the Picnic. Either one will do for this preparation, or the whole monstrosity. I have cooked a whole 17 lb. shoulder in the oven, and while it was delicious, we were eating off of it for what seemed like months. In Japan, I can’t be picky, so I got what was available, which was a Boston Butt, also known as a Blade Roast due to the shoulder blade lodged firmly within the muscle.
The Rub. Some people buy rub, but that is silly when you can get a better product with what you likely have in your pantry. A key part is a heavy sugar and salt content. It is not unlike the cure you make for bacon, though without the pink salt. Use this liberally and let it sit overnight. Some recipes call for wrapping the meat in plastic wrap after covering in the rub, though I have never found that to be necessary.
The Cooking. I have a smoker, it is small and barely works for this size piece of meat, but it works enough. I have made barbecue in an oven, and while it wasn’t perfect it worked at the time (namely in California, without a smoker). This time I used Japanese style lump charcoal in place of the stuff I brought with me from the US, and I used the same hickory chips I used in my bacon. I have also made this with just hardwood lump charcoal, and it was fine though with out the sweetness that comes from hickory. One point though is that Kingsford will not do. Get yourself some real lump charcoal, the kind that when you pour it out it looks like chunks of tree limb. It is worth it. The meat needs to get to 190F, and that is way up there compared to how most people cook, especially if the closest you get to barbecuing is grilling steaks. Keep the meat and coals on opposite sides of the pit and think of it more as a very smoky oven instead of cooking over a fire. It is safe to eat well below 190, and in fact for this instance mine didn’t get over 175, the higher temperature just makes the pulling easier, and the meat more tender. If it’s lower, the meat is jucier and wants to stay together. Mine ended up needing a hybrid chop/slice method of preparation as it was just not quite done enough to pull.
The Sauce. As I said, I am partial to NC style sauce. It is, let’s say, an acquired taste. It is mostly apple cider vinegar and cayenne, but I think it really allows the pork to shine though and stand on its own. The Texas style barbecue sauce becomes the star of the show, subjugating the brisket as it’s delivery vessel. The NC sauce merely adds some filler notes to the symphony of flavors from the pork. I still had some sauce from the last time I made some pulled pork in the Crock Pot (not the same).
Once it’s out of the smoker, it will need to sit for 30 minutes and then you can begin the shredding process. Most of the time, we just get in there with out hands and rip it apart, but others use knives to hack it into bits. At a restaurant in rural eastern Virginia it was served minced, so that no piece was longer than about a quarter inch. Weird, but it worked. Because mine didn’t cook as much, I needed to do everything with a knife, and since I was doing this while we were trying to get my daughter to bed, it ended up in bigger pieces than I intended. It was still delicious. As far as serving, I will almost always just take a big pile, with a little bit of sauce drizzled on top, but this pork just makes a delightful sandwich on some white bread buns (or just white bread, also delicious). Some people choose to put their coleslaw on the bun with the pork, though this has never been something I preferred. I much prefer it on the side, with some thick cut potato chips, and served with a beer or whiskey beverage. Tonight I chose an Old Fashioned to close out a good weekend, a good meal, and the privilege to share them both with my wife and daughter.
North Carolina Style Pulled Pork Barbecue
- 1/3 c Brown Sugar
- 1/3 c. White Sugar
- 1/3 c. + 1 T. Kosher Salt
- 2 1/2 t. Garlic Powder
- 2 t. Onion Powder
- 1 t. Chili Powder
- 1 t. Cumin
- 1 t. Paprika
- 1/2 t. Ground Cayenne
Mix all ingredients together. Adjust ratios as you see fit.
- 1 c. Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 c. White Vinegar
- 1 T. Ground Cayenne
- 2 T. Brown Sugar
- 1 T. Kosher Salt
- 1 t. Ground Black Pepper
Mix all ingredients together in a bottle. Shake vigorously to combine and let sit. It’s preferable to let it sit overnight as a minimum. The longer it sits the better, and no refrigeration is required.
Rinse and dry your pork shoulder. Place in a large bowl or on a cookie sheet and coat liberally with the rub, ensuring all sides are covered. Place in the refrigerator over night with the fat cap down. Remove the shoulder from the fridge about 1 hour prior to let the meat come closer to room temperature.
Start your fire using a chimney, and not starter fluid, and allow the charcoal to get white and ashy. Try to keep the temperature in the 225-275F range, with 250 being the sweet spot. Electric smokers are great for maintaining temperatures, but I don’t have one, so I am okay with ball-parking it. Get your first batch of wood chips soaking at this point.
Add your meat, fat cap up this time, and if you have a digital thermometer insert it now. Periodically add some wood chips to the coals to add smoke, but there doesn’t need to be constant smoke. Keep going until the internal temperature reaches at least 190F. This will take all day, you may need to add new charcoal, or even remove the meat and do a whole new load in the chimney.
Once the meat is done, pull it out and let it rest about 30 minutes (I used this to take a shower to get the smoke smell off of me). The bone should come right out if it is done right. Use some forks or your hands to shred the meat, or cut it into slices or chunks if you prefer. Put some sauce on the meat prior to service, and then again once on your plate. Enjoy.
- 1 t. Sugar
- 2-4 Dashes Angostura Bitters
- Splash of Water
- 2 oz Bourbon
Put sugar, bitters, and enough water to barely dissolve sugar in a tumbler. Muddle until sugar is dissolved, and add several cubes of ice followed by the bourbon. Swirl the glass a few times to loosely combine. Garnish not necessary at all.