August 6th, 2009
Barbecue can mean different things to different people depending on where you live in this world. I like ribs and tri-tip; but my favorite BBQ is the pulled pork sandwich. Pork shoulder slow grilled with low indirect heat until the meat is so tender that it starts to fall off the bone, then pulled to shreds, slathered with vinegar based BBQ sauce, and topped with coleslaw in between warm bun -- that North Carolina BBQ is hands down my favorite.
I have personally made pulled pork by slow roasting it in the oven and in a crock pot but never on the grill. I have been itching to do it the traditional North Carolina way by smoking the meat but it takes a long time to execute and as some of you know time is something I haven't found enough of these days. To my surprise I had a full weekend at home so as I caught up with stuff around the house I tended to the BBQ grill.
Having plenty of professional and wannabe BBQ enthusiasts with in my circle, I reached out to my friends over Twitter and Facebook to get some input and they did not disappoint with the exception of one, who covets the secret family BBQ sauce recipe ;) Consider the recipe and the how-to that I share with you on this blog post a compilation of BBQ wisdom, a crowdsourced BBQ recipe, if you will.
You will need meat, spice rub, grill, bag of charcoal, wood chips, drip pan, thermometers and patience. That is all, and the process itself is actually quite simple.
The pig’s shoulder is the preferred cut of choice when it comes to making pulled pork. The shoulder is broken down into two sub-primal cuts that includes the picnic (often times referred to as picnic ham) which connects to the upper part of the pig’s foreleg. I used the area above the leg which is called the Boston butt. The butt has plenty of lean meat but is also interlaced with fatty connective tissue that helps with lubrication throughout the long roast.
A 5 pounder should serve 10 people, maybe 6 to 8 if they are a greedy bunch. I cooked a 9 lb butt aka Boston shoulder (about 4 kilogram), but you could certainly go for something smaller in size depending on how many people you plan to feed. Yes, 9 lbs is a pretty massive, but the way I see it if you are going to take the time to go through with it, may as well go for it and have leftovers to eat all week. The roast should definitely have a layer of fat at the bottom, and bone-in is suggested by most pit masters. The fat will help to keep the moisture when cooking so I would not recommend removing it. As always I made a last second purchase so I was only able to procure a boneless roast, but had my butcher roll and tie it together, so that the roast held shape during cooking.
Preparation of the Butt
The day before cooking I seasoned the joint with a rub and let it sit overnight in the fridge. As you can see in the photo, I was not shy with the rub. I used a basic rub ratio (8:3:1:1 formula) from Alton Brown, which consists of 8 parts brown sugar, 3 parts kosher salt, 1 part chili powder, and 1 part other stuff. The other stuff can be anything you want, mixed however you want, as long as it adds up to 1 full part. My 1 part consisted of cayenne, black pepper, white pepper, onion powder, ancho chili, and little bit of Old bay seasoning that I found in my pantry. You can always use a store purchased rub if you don’t have the spices lying around the house, there is nothing wrong with that at all. Just make sure to have plenty of it.
You will also need to soak a good amount of wood chips; a cup for every hour of cooking is a good measure. Wood chips come in many different varieties and cater to all tastes. In general, if your cooking a light protein like chicken or fish, you'll need a milder flavored wood like apple, cherry, peach, plum and alder. Mesquite goes best with heavier meats like beef or lamb. Hickory is also very popular amongst the BBQ experts. I used a combination of hickory and mesquite since that is what I had on hand. Whatever wood you choose to use, make sure to soak for at least an hour before you add to the coals or they will just burn (and you don’t want that). I soaked mine overnight in a zip top bag full of water. My friend John, a hard core BBQ addict raised on a North Carolina hog farm, shared that his family soaks the wood chips in vinegar. I need to try that next time.
Smoking works by using low heat to make smoke as the wood chips or wood chunk smolders, imparting smoky flavors. Water or other liquid-infused wood chips or chunks are distributed amongst the coals or within a smoking box allowing for an enhanced flavor of whatever it is that you are smoking. As the heat and smoke from the wood slowly penetrates and flavors the food, in this case the pork shoulder. The result is some of the best North Carolina BBQ you will ever taste in your life!
The key with the BBQ cooking is keeping the grill temperature at low heat. You hear it from every pit master and BBQ enthusiast; low-and-slow, meaning low heat, slow cooking. Exactly how low did I go? I had my grill ranging between 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (107 to 121 Celsius) throughout the cooking process as anything above 250 degrees F will make the meat tough, and any thing lower than 225 degrees F will turn this already slow process into a never-ending one.
I got my coals going in my chimney starter, getting the coals to burn enough to a point where you start to notice a thick ash covering and light orange coals peaking through. Certainly there was no big flame coming out of the coals by then. Another way to gauge the heat is to hold your hand right above the grill, it shouldn’t be less than 5 inches away from the top of the cooking grate. After placing your flat palm of your hand over the grate you should be able to stand the heat for 10~15 seconds. Meaning it should take 10 to 15 seconds before you feel the need to hand away, we are talking pretty mellow heat.
Since I did not have a big drip pan lying around, I made one using heavy duty tin foil. I was worried that it might burn through but it kept it's shape through the entire cooking process. Many BBQ pros keep liquid and aromatics in the drip pan to keep the meat moist while it cooks. Basting the meat with BBQ sauce watered down with a flavorful liquid such as beer was also a technique that people promoted for flavor and moisture. Of course I forgot to do either as my mind was busy trying to keep the fire at the right temperature. But to my luck the meat came out just fine. I suspect the dripping of the dissolving fat helped.
I placed charcoal and drip pan in the lower level of the grill, drip pan in the middle and coals on each sides. The shoulder was then placed on the upper grate, just above the drip pan. This setup allows the charcoal to cook the meat indirectly. Once the coals are added to the grill, I used my oven thermometer to help sustain the right temperature throughout the process. I would advise investing a couple bucks to buy a thermometer for this occasion as it will become permanently smoky. It’s also nice to have a meat thermometer so that you can gauge the internal temperature of the meat as it cooks. You are looking at a cooking time of 1 to 1½ hours per every pound of meat, and for this occasion the meat sat on the grill for about 10 hours. The goal is to get the internal temperature to at least 160 degrees F (a USDA guideline for cooking pork) but what you really want is a temperature closer to 195 degrees F. At 195 degrees F the fat will be rendered and the meat tenderized to that oh so yummy fall-off-the-bone state that every BBQ lovers lusts for.
Once the charcoal is light and the big flames die down, add coals to either side of the drip pan, and wait for it to cool to 250 degrees F. I had the bottom vents closed almost all the way, and the top vent closed about halfway to maintain 250. You want enough air to circulate so that the coals do not die out, but not to much where the oxygen fuel the fire. Put the butt in the middle and add ½ cup of wood chips to either side on top of the coals. Cover and let it sit for an hour (I would check the temp every 20 mins or so in the beginning until you get the hang of the grill temperature. Every hour or so you'll need to add more pre-lit charcoal (about 10~12 briquettes to each side did the job for me) and another half cup of soaked wood chips to each side. A second station with a smaller grill was created to light the charcoal in a chimney starter which helped me to avoid raging charcoal in the grill. Check the temp of the meat every hour too - once it hits 195 you're all set.
Pulled vs Chopped
Now comes the part where you get to disassemble the pork! I am not about to start a religious war between BBQ heads, nor do I have enough experience in this subject. With that being said, there are mainly two schools of thought in meat shredding process. Wearing a heavy-duty rubber gloves (if desired) and with an aid of fork (again if desired) one would pull the pork into pieces, while discarding any skin, bones or extra fat. On the other side, you have those who prefer to finely chop the pork with a cleaver or a chef's knife. The great thing about chopping is that you can chop up just about everything besides the bone (like the skin and some fat), which I think incorporates more flavor. Both styles are used daily by respected North Carolina barbecue restaurants. In any event, you will need to let it rest for 15 ~30 minutes before taking the pork apart. This will help to redistribute the juices back into the center of the meat while cooling down the meat to somewhat manageable temperature for handling. Being too lazy to do a rough chop by hand, I threw small chunks of meat into the food processor and gave it about three to four 1-second pulses. I tried both the shredder disc and standard processor blade, the standard blade gave me the size I was looking for whereas the shredder disc minced the meat to a near mush. Yes, I love technology and I think that if the tools are used right, there is no shame in the game.
Pulled Pork Rub Recipe
8 parts light brown sugar
3 parts kosher salt
1 part chili powder
1 part of the following in any combination you desire:
Ground black pepper
Old Bay Seasoning
Pulled Pork Sauce aka North Carolina BBQ Sauce
2 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup ketchup
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 teaspoons of kosher salt, or more to taste
4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon mustard powder
4 tablespoon of your favorite
Mix all ingredients until well incorporated. Taste for seasoning, making adjustments as necessary to balance the heat and sweetness to your liking. The sauce should be somewhat pungent, but not sour. Throw in to a squeeze bottle or in a little serving dish.
*update* - The recipe shown here is Western NC BBQ (aka "Lexington"-style). Eastern NC BBQ is a genuine vinegar sauce with no tomato products whatsoever.
North Carolina Style Coleslaw
We went with a very basic cabbage slaw with no mayonnaise, no carrots and no onions. Just thinly sliced cabbage and a peppery North Carolina style BBQ Sauce.
1/2 small head green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 small head red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1 cup pulled pork sauce (recipe above)
salt, to taste
Toss cabbage in sauce and let sit no more than 10 minutes, this guarantees a little crunch and more pepper that complimented the main event, the barbecue. Add salt and additional sauce as necessary to achieve desired taste.
Pulled pork sandwich recipe
1 boneless pork shoulder roast (Boston butt)
pulled pork sauce (recipe above)
North Carolina Style coleslaw (recipe above)
buns - I prefer small slider size buns
1. In a bowl combine the rub ingredients. Wash the butt in cold running water, pat dry, then coat the roast evenly with the rub. I let the joint sit in a closed container in the fridge overnight. Soak the wood chips in liquid of your choice; I used water in an oversize zip top bag. You need a minimum of an hour of soaking, I would advise longer as the chips dry up pretty quickly.
2. Heat chimney starter full of charcoal. Make sure to allow the meat to stand at room temperature for an hour before grilling, this will help to bring the meat to room temperature and aid in even cooking.
Position the coals on two sides of the grill, leaving the center open for the drip pan, building a two-level fire. Once your coals are ready, add a handful of wet chips atop the coals. Place the meat fat side up directly above the drip pan away from the coals and cover the grill with the vents over the meat to draw the smoke. Keep the bottom vents only slightly open to keep the fire low. You will occasionally need to add coals throughout the process. Do so by slightly lifting the lid and adding hot coals through the side vent of the grill, also adding wet chips to keep the smoke going.
Grill until the internal temperature registers about 195F. The meat should be pretty tender and there should be a nice crust on the surface of the meat. Remove from the grill, cover with foil. And although you maybe tempted to eat be sure to rest the meat for at least 15~30 minutes. This will help to redistribute the meat juice all over the joint, ensuring you don't lose any of the precious juices.
3. Meanwhile make the sauce. In a medium mixing bowl combine the sauce ingredients, including salt and pepper to taste. Thinly slice the cabbage for the slaw. I tossed the cabbage in the BBQ sauce 10 minutes before serving time so that it remained crunchy and not soggy.
4. “Pull” or chop the pork into shreds while adding some of the sauce and mix well in a bowl. Serve the pulled pork with slaw on top between warm buns with plenty of sauce on the side. Enjoy your labor of love. Aren’t you glad you made a big roast?
I hope that our combined effort will earn somewhat of a seal of approval from North Carolinians. I tell you what, I will let you know how we measure up once I visit the land of my favorite BBQ and taste it myself. For now, I think this is the best it's going to get. Special thanks goes out to all of you who were kind enough to share your coveted secrets.
Do you have a secret to a good BBQ you would like to share? Comment box is right below.