This is the dish that started my love affair with grilling and barbecue! North Carolina-style pulled pork!
Because when I moved away from my home state of North Carolina, I realized that I was going to have to teach myself to make pulled pork or only enjoy it once a year when I went home to visit.
In North Carolina, barbecue is a noun, and it is defined as pulled pork with a distinctive tangy vinegar sauce or "dip" as it is called in some parts of the state. No sweet tomato sauce allowed! The pork is either "pulled" into pieces or chopped with a meat clever, and dressed with the thin peppery sauce. The succulent pork is spooned onto a plate, or on a classic white hamburger bun — no sesame seeds, ever! — and topped with slaw. And the slaw is as straight forward as the pork — chopped green cabbage tossed with the same vinegar sauce.
The first time that I made it, I cooked a couple of pork butts on a gas grill using indirect heat and a low temperature. A couple of soaked hickory wood chunks scented the meat and I cooked the butts until the fat was completely rendered and the top resembled cracklins.
I also improvised and created my own vinegar dip to sauce the pork as I pulled it. I had no idea what the proportions were and I literally made it by taste memory.
Apple-cider vinegar was the base, a touch of ketchup sweetened and colored the sauce that was hot with three kinds of pepper — black, white and red pepper flakes. The flakes are the sign of authentic North Carolina dressed pork, as they stick to the meat and pepper it with mild heat and red color. White sugar and kosher salt balance the heat and the tang of the vinegar. Dark brown sugar adds a depth of flavor.
The sauce is simple to make, but the effect is anything but simple. It cuts through the richness of the smoked meat and enhances it rather than cover it up like heavier barbecue sauces can. When I take the time and the passion to barbecue, I want to taste the meat, not the sauce. This is the beauty of a North Carolina vinegar sauce; it doesn't cover up the silky, smoky, caramelized pork that is the star of the sandwich.
You can make the sauce and the slaw while the pork is cooking, or you can make them the day before. The key to great North Carolina-style barbecue is being patient. There isn't a fancy rub or a mop or a lot of tending to do. Cook the pork over a consistent indirect heat until it reaches an internal temperature of about 195 F. That is a higher temperature than most books will tell you, but that is the necessary temperature to make all of the connective tissues break down. The meat becomes so tender that all you need to pull it is two forks. I'm old fashioned and never use a cleaver. That's chopped pork and that's a whole other thing entirely!
NORTH CAROLINA-STYLE PULLED PORK SANDWICH
North Carolina barbecue is seasoned by time and wood smoke! Remember, the larger your piece of meat, the longer it will take to cook. And there is no rushing real barbecue.
Start to finish: 6 hours
Hickory wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes
7- to 9-pound bone-in pork butt or Boston Butt
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Barbecue sauce (see recipe below)
North Carolina coleslaw (see recipe below)
10 unseeded hamburger buns
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for low heat, indirect cooking. For a charcoal grill, this means banking the coals to one side. For a gas grill, turn off the heat on one side. Aim to maintain a temperature of 300 F.
Do not trim any excess fat off the pork; this fat will naturally baste the meat and keep it moist during the long cooking time. Brush the pork with a thin coating of olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Set aside on a clean tray until ready to cook.
Before placing the meat on the grill, add soaked wood chips. For a charcoal grill, place the chips directly on white-gray ash briquettes. For a gas grill, use a smoking box according to product directions. If using a charcoal grill, you will need to add charcoal every hour during cooking to maintain the heat.
Place the pork in the center of the cooking grate fat-side up. Cook slowly for 5 to 6 hours at 300 F, or until a thermometer inserted at the middle of the pork registers 190 F to 200 F. The meat should be very tender and falling apart. If there is a bone in the meat, it should come out smoothly and clean with no meat clinging to it. There is no need to turn the meat during the entire cooking time.
Let the meat rest for 20 minutes, or until cool enough to handle. Using 2 forks, pull the meat from the skin, bones and fat. Set aside any crispy bits of fat that have been completely rendered and look almost burned. Working quickly, use the forks to shred the chunks of meat by crossing the forks and "pulling" the meat into small pieces.
While the meat is still warm, mix with enough barbecue sauce to moisten and season the meat, about 3/4 cup to 1 cup. The recipe can be made in advance up to this point and reheated in a double boiler with about 1/4 cup additional sauce.
Serve on white hamburger buns and top with North Carolina coleslaw. Serve additional sauce on the side, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 710 calories; 340 calories from fat (48 percent of total calories); 38 g fat (13 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 170 mg cholesterol; 38 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 11 g sugar; 53 g protein; 1360 mg sodium.
NORTH CAROLINA BARBECUE SAUCE
This recipe makes enough to use for both the pork and the coleslaw.
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes about 3 cups
2 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground white pepper
1/2 to 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup ketchup
Mix all ingredients together and let sit at least 10 minutes or up to several weeks in the refrigerator. Note that the longer the sauce sits, the hotter it gets since the heat from the red pepper flakes is brought out by the vinegar. Start with 1/2 tablespoon red pepper flakes, then add more to taste.
Nutrition information per 2 tablespoons: 25 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 7 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 0 g protein; 300 mg sodium.
Start to finish: 2 hours (5 minutes active)
1 1/2 cups North Carolina barbecue sauce
1/2 medium head green cabbage, chopped
In a large bowl, mix together the sauce and cabbage. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Nutrition information per serving: 45 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 11 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 1 g protein; 360 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."