Pulled pork (aka barbeque) is something Southerners can sometimes get a little peculiar about. The Texans have their brisket, but you best not show up elsewhere and expect to hear ‘beef’ and ‘barbeque’ in the same sentence. Everyone has their own special way to make pulled pork, but the general assumption is that it’s cooked ‘low and slow’, and smoked. On a grill or in the oven? Charcoal? A spice rub or sauce prior to cooking? The choices are limitless.
And although choices are aplenty, I won’t pretend to be unbiased in where I stand on the barbeque itself – I prefer the whole pig smoked outdoors on the ‘pig cooker’, practically overnight (preferably over a few beers in the wee hours of the morning), simply seasoned, and doused in vinegar and not much else. In that respect, I am Eastern NC through and through.
In fact, for Christmas dinner one year, my Aunt Faye and some other folk did just that – we had a certified pig pickin’, sans turkey and all that other mess, and ate outdoors on paper plates, with cups of sweet tea at our feet and coleslaw and hushpuppies crowding our plates. It was blissful, and while I fancy the turkey and stuffing, I’ll gleefully admit that the ‘year of the pig’ was one of my favorites, dinner-wise.
Before I go any further, let’s discuss the sauce a bit. You see, the sauce that covers said pork has various areas divided for eternity, probably moreso than any culinary tiff, definitely any tiff in the South. The battle primarily takes place in NC, where a vertical line divides the state in two halves, a tomato at the root of all evil. Western NC sauce is sweet, with tomato, while Eastern sauce is hot and spicy, tomato-less, and if I must be truthful – the best. You’ve also got the crazies from South Carolina who use mustard as their main sauce ingredient, and I’ve seen other versions as well, but I daresay these are the main three.
With all this said, you may have noticed by now that the pictures you see before you are in fact not my ideal version of pulled pork (i.e., you see pork shoulder, rather than the whole pork, which wouldn’t be weird if we were referring to Western barbeque since they tend to only use the shoulder). You may remember that I live in a condo in Chicago, and as a result I seriously doubt we’d be able to procure a pig cooker for our balcony, let alone locate a whole hog to toss on the cooker. You may also be thinking to yourself that you’ve already seen pulled pork here before, and you’d be correct there too. But those of us who like our NC barbeque and can’t get “the real deal” regularly have to improvise, and by improvise I mean find a recipe that sounds pretty decent, and one that works with balconies and less than a backyard full of people.
This recipe was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. For one, there was no spice rub (!), but instead a generous basting of a mustard sauce, which scared me a little. Also, it utilized two techniques – a low and slow stint in the oven followed by a brief visit to the grill, with wood chips. It seemed to be a good combo, so I gave it a whirl, with a few adjustments along the way.
The end result is an incredibly juicy hunk o’ pork that could possibly feed a roomful, but in our world it fed four of us, with a little leftover. I like to think of that as a testament to how good it was, and as it turns out, the mustard gave the pork a nice flavor, but the smoke is really where it’s at. Of course, it doesn’t quite compare to the barbeque back ‘home’, but in the meantime, it will most certainly do.
Carolina Pulled Pork
Adapted loosely from Food & Wine, September 2010; serves 8
time commitment: 10 hours (1 hour active time)
printable version (pork & sauce)
¾ c Dijon mustard
2 T dark brown sugar
2 T kosher salt
2 T pepper, freshly ground
1 T smoked paprika
1 T onion powder
8 lbs bone-in pork shoulder (Boston butt)
2 c mesquite wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes, drained
Eastern NC bbq sauce (below)
Special stuff: a thermometer with a cord that can go into the oven is perfect for this so that you don’t have to constantly check the temperature. For the first stage of cooking, plan for about 1 hour / pound of meat.
Preheat oven to 225 F. in a medium bowl, whisk together mustard through onion powder. Set the pork shoulder, fat side up, in a roasting pan. Brush pork with mustard mixture and roast, uncovered, for ~8 hours, or until the internal temperature registers ~170 F.
If there are any roasting juices (not fat, juices), pour them into a measuring cup and refrigerate to separate fat. Keep at room temperature after fat is poured off.
Heat grill to 400 F. line roasting pan with aluminum foil and scatter the presoaked wood chips over the bottom. Place pork back in roasting pan. Put roasting pan on grill and close; smoke until internal temperature of meat reaches 185-190 F.
Transfer pork to work surface and let rest for 30 minutes. Pull meat off the bones and discard bones and outer layer of fat that’s remaining. Using two forks, finely shred the pork and transfer it to a large bowl. Toss meat with some of the bbq sauce and roasting juices (if any). Serve with bbq sauce and coleslaw!
Vinegar-Based Eastern NC bbq Sauce
chiknpastry recipe; makes 2 cups
printable version (sauce only)
1.5 c apple cider vinegar
1 c water
1 T tomato paste
4 T dark brown sugar
1 T crushed red pepper flakes
2 t smoked paprika
1 t chile powder
combine all ingredients in small saucepan and bring to boil. reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. add more red pepper flake, if desired.