Saturday, July 7, 2012

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue

My wife and I spent 3 years in North Carolina - the longest that we have been any one place since moving away from Pittsburgh nearly 10 years ago.  Of all of the places that we have lived, I feel that North Carolina had the strongest sense of local cuisine.  The Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area was by easily the most diverse area of North Carolina that we experienced, but despite a massive influx of people from other parts of the country, the area maintained strong awareness of its roots, and that was inflected on most of the food options around.  Even higher end restaurants still couldn't stray from North Carolina mainstays like pimento cheese and hushpuppies.  Without a doubt, one of the things that left the biggest impact on me was the barbecue.  

Usually cooked whole hog, Eastern NC barbecue is hickory smoked for long periods of time and dressed with an extremely simple, extremely vinegary sauce.  Barbecue is traditionally served finely chopped, which has a very different texture than normal pulled pork or ribs or other types of pork bbq.  Because it traditionally is a whole side of a hog, the chop has a great mix of fat and meat and is insanely good.  It can be served on its own with sides like fried okra, baked beans, black eyed peas or collards.  It can also be served on sandwiches with regular hamburger buns, cole slaw, and pickle slices.  My wife and I miss our favorite barbecue restaurant, called The Pit, with basically weekly regularity, so when we were invited to a 4th of July party this year, I had my heart set from the beginning on some serious fucking barbecue.  I stuck to just using a pork shoulder, as I don't have the means to cook a whole hog, nor do I know even a fraction of the people that it takes to have a true pig pickin, but I think that the shoulder was a worthy substitute.

This turned into a bit of a debacle for me, because my smoker died only 4 hours into smoking the shoulder.  The meat was still at a temp of 140º - nowhere near the 200º that it needs to be - and I noticed that it was dropping instead of rising.  I checked the heating element and realized that it was 100% not on.  Which meant that my pork had been sitting there for probably like an hour without any heat on it.  I was in full panic mode.  I ended up finishing the shoulder in a dutch oven in my regular oven.  At first I was really upset, but it ended up being a great coincidence, because the pot ended up collecting a great mix of pork juice and melted fat that helped to season the shredded barbecue.

North Carolina Barbecue

1 8-9 lb pork shoulder (bone in / skin on)
¼ c ground black pepper
¼ c kosher salt

This is probably the shortest recipe I've ever posted.  It is literally just a seasoned pork shoulder.  The smoke and the sauce do all of the heavy lifting.  This keeps the flavors really simple and straightforward.  Rub the salt and pepper on all sides of the shoulder, especially the exposed meat.  Season up to 12 hours in advance and let it work its magic.  Also, if you can, leave the shoulder out (covered) to come to close to room temperature.  It will make the cooking time more effective.

You can smoke the shoulder a couple of different ways.  As I mentioned in the intro, I used the soon-to-be-dead electric smoker.  You could also do this on charcoal with indirect heat.  Either way, you want to soak your wood chips and get the heat up to about 250º in your cooking method.  Smoke the shoulder until it hits the internal temp of 200º.

This is where things went wrong for smoker ate shit and I had to finish my shoulder in the oven.  I have to say though, this was a great accident for me.  I got my shoulder finished in time, and I got this great mix of fat and pork juice that I wouldn't have had otherwise.  It made things just that much better.  In order to finish the shoulder before the 4th of July party, I had to put the heat at 300º for the oven, but I don't think that it had much effect on the shoulder.

Notice the skin split after most of the fat had rendered out... mmmm
When your shoulder is ready, allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes before shredding.  Unfortunately I cannot vouch for the "authentic" way to chop barbecue, but I suppose that it goes something like this:

- Pull off the large chunks of pork from the bone
- Shred each section with 2 forks - hold the chunk with one hand and using the tines of the fork, shred into small bits
- using a knife, chop the shreds into small pieces.  In my photos, I intentionally left them large because I wasn't sure if the texture would weird out people, so I erred more on the side of traditional pulled pork.

Collect all of the meat in a large mixing bowl, season with salt and pepper and some of the pork juice (should you happen to have any).  Season lightly with the barbecue sauce.  You want it to have tang, but barbecue is always served with sauce at the table so everyone can season to their individual tastes.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

1 c apple cider vinegar
1/4 c brown sugar
1 tbsp dried red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper

Heat up the vinegar in a sauce pan, stir in the rest of the ingredients.  Stir until sugar and salt are dissolved and then allow to cool to room temperature.  I store mine in an old Scott's barbecue sauce bottle because it so perfectly dispenses the sauce.


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  2. I hate that you did this only AFTER you left! Looks good and sounds good. Tradition serves its purpose in making regional food, but it should always be more of a touchstone than an absolute. I can't wait to see what other cooking techniques / spices or pairings you do with your next BBQ. It's a shame you can't dig a hole in the ground and spend 12 hours cooking a whole hog (that's the best you will ever have). I've been itching to get back to cooking some pig and finalizing my cheerwine BBQ - a celebration Carolina greatnesses. Thanks for the inspiration and please keep posting on any new innovations!

  3. Thanks Thomas. I would really love to do the hole in the ground... some Cuban lechon asado maybe? You know Carlos would be across the country in a second for that.

    Christopher - sorry for accidentally removing your post, it was unintentional and google doesn't have an undo for that. My bad!