We had family coming over for a birthday party for our kids, and I wanted to make something special. Though I’ve done a lot of barbequing, I’ve only tried pulled pork once or twice, and just winged it, figuring things out as I went along. Turned out pretty good, as I recall (how bad could slow-smoked pork turn out?). But this time I wanted to try something more authentic. I did a lot of research into different styles of rubs and sauces, which vary widely from region to region. I finally settled this time on a western-side of North Carolina style rub and sauce, with a few of my own variations.
North Carolina favors a vinegar-based barbeque sauce. The eastern variety has no tomato at all, it’s pretty much vinegar, sugar and pepper. The western side of the state likes a similar thin vinegar-based sauce too, but with some ketchup added. I used tomato paste instead of ketchup because I thought the sauce recipe already has plenty of vinegar and brown sugar, and ketchup is pretty much just tomatoes, vinegar and sugar– seemed redundant to me. Plus I wanted to get the sauce just thick enough to adhere to the pork without just running off.
My attempt at western North Carolina style pulled pork turned out really well, and everybody seemed to enjoy it.
- 1 5-8 lb. pork shoulder (also known as a Boston Butt)
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon celery seed
- 1-2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1-2 tablespoons salt
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons rub from above recipe
- 2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
- 1-2 tablespoons Tabasco or other hot sauce
- 1-2 tablespoons Worchestershire Sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme
- Meat Thermometer
- Grinder (if using whole spices)
First, mix the rub. I start with whole peppercorns, mustard seed and celery seed, so I use an old blade-style coffee grinder to grind up the spices along with the oregano and thyme (I like it powdery to help the flavors absorb into the meat). then I mix the spices from the grinder with the rest of the rub ingredients. But if you have pre-ground spices just mix them all up in a bowl.
Pat the rub all over the pork shoulder, preferably the night before, at least an hour before cooking. wrap up the rubbed shoulder and put it in the refrigerator until time to cook.
Be prepared for an all-day project. This can take as long as 12 hours, depending on how you cook it, so plan ahead and set the alarm to get started early enough for it to be ready in time. If you need to speed things up, I have a tip a little later on how you can do that.
When it’s BBQ time, fire up the coals and get the smoking wood ready. I won’t get too much into prepping the smoking wood because I covered it in the Smoked Barbequed Turkey post. I will say, since I wrote that post, I’ve read a lot about NOT soaking wood chunks for smoking, that it affects the quality of the smoke. But when I use dry chunks of wood I get fire flare-ups which cause temperature spikes. Another alternative is to make a separate fire with the smoking wood and use the embers for cooking. But when you need to slow-cook for 8 or more hours this approach isn’t too practical unless you have a lot of spare wood to use. What I do is get the wood chunks wet, but I don’t soak them for a long time. This keeps them from catching fire too quickly. Then I have a spray bottle handy and I keep an eye out for temperature spikes– that means a wood chunk has caught on fire, and I give it a shot of water to put it out. This approach keeps the temp low and constant, and the smoke flavor turns out great.
Put the shoulder on the grill fat side up. Keep the smoker temp around 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a long slow cook, so no need to put the meat thermometer probe in for about 5 hours or so. At around the 5 hour mark, insert the probe in the center of the shoulder, away from any bone. After the probe is in, keep adding coals every 2 hours or so , and the occasional wood chunk, until the internal shoulder temperature reaches 190 degrees– that’s the magic number that will cause the collagen and connective tissue in the meat to dissolve and melt, causing the fall-apart shreddability you want for pulled pork.
When the temp reaches around 150 degrees though, you have a decision to make. This is about the point where the temperature levels off for a long time, and it seems to take forever to start rising again. If you have the time, you can wait it out and this will help create a nice brown “bark” on the outside of the shoulder. OR…you can wrap the shoulder in heavy-duty foil to help cook it in its own juices and hurry up the rise to 190 degrees. I had a deadline, so I opted for the foil.
While the shoulder cooks, mix together the sauce ingredients while heating up in a pan on the stove. I like to just heat things long enough to help the ingredients combine, about 20 minutes-1/2 hour. Don’t boil, just heat below a simmer while stirring. then let the sauce cool to room temp.
When the shoulder is at 190 degrees, take it off the heat and let it rest for a 1/2 hour if you can (unless you have hungry guests ready to eat, like I did). If you didn’t already wrap it in foil, wrapping it now would be a good idea. When you’re ready for pulling, take two large sturdy forks and shred the pork up. Mix up the shredded pork with a little of the sauce to keep it moist, and leave the rest of the sauce on the side for people to add more as they like. Have some type of buns to serve the pulled pork on, sloppy-joe style. Enjoy!