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Barbecue History: North Carolina

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East Carolina Barbecue 101

If you want to talk about Barbecue, we have to talk about history and tradition. Anyone and everyone I know who chooses to make barbecue themselves has very definite ideas about the way it ought to be done. As a human who was raised on the North Carolina border, I’m no exception. And despite all my higher education and the decades spent in professional kitchens, I still do it the very first way I learned how. The way I was taught involves no ketchup whatsoever. Let me repeat that because its important, NO KETCHUP WHATSOEVER.

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North Carolina Barbecue History

I’ve tried Barbecue all over the country and Eastern Carolina Barbecue on a soft roll with extra sauce and wet slaw is the only right way. Maybe I believe that because I have a nostalgic attachment to the BBQ joints back home or maybe it truly is superior. At this point there’s no way to know for sure. What I do know is that the way we Barbecue in East Carolina has been going on since before this country existed. In fact, it’s yet another thing that Europeans appropriated upon their arrival on those shores four hundred years ago.

 

Native peoples all over the globe have been slow cooking whole animals and primal cuts over open flame one way or another since before the dawn of civilization. If you’re in Greece it’s called gyros. If you’re in Mexico it’s al pastor. If you’re in the Caribbean it’s barbacoa. And if you’re in North Carolina it’s Barbecue.

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A tradition this old is bound to spark some differences in opinion. You can see that in East vs. West in North Carolina and then Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. Since East Carolina is my jam, that’s the history I’m most interested in and those are the recipes I’m going to show you. I’ll say this at least one more time and maybe more: there is no place for ketchup in barbecue sauce. Why? Tradition. When Barbecue began in the Carolinas, most Europeans and European settlers believed that tomatoes were anything between a deadly poison or a wild aphrodisiac. Either way they wouldn’t have been running around slathering it all over their roasted hogs. Of all the decisions they made, I’m most supportive of this one so let’s run with it.

 

When you make up your mind to infiltrate the world of coastal Carolina Barbecue there are three words you start with: rub, mop, sauce.

Each is vital to the process and important in its own right.

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First the rub! What you’re going to do is create is mixture of dry herbs and spices to coat the whole exterior of your Barbecue. While I would love to roast whole or half hogs, I’m a young woman based in a second floor apartment in Los Angeles, and that can really put a damper on  the whole-animal cookery. So instead, I opt for pork shoulder. Sometimes I go bone-in; sometimes bone-out. It all depends on the mood and how many other things I’m trying to accomplish in a day.

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The most important part of the dry rub is giving it time to absorb into the meat. No matter what your rub is made of, it needs time to really penetrate into the outer layers of muscle. I always advocate for around an hour of resting time at room temperature after you’ve fully coated your pork. Pro tip* I also always suggest having dry mustard as 10% -15% of the overall mixture. The reason for this is that mustard naturally possesses a LOT of enzymes and when they come in contact with meat they start to break down the composition of the muscle which translates into really tender Barbecue.

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North Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich Recipe

What you will Need:

Ingredients

Dry Rub:

(For 6 Pounds of Pork Shoulder)

  • 4 tsp.   (10g) Paprika
  • 1 Tbs  (12g) Dark Brown Sugar
  • 1 Tbs   (17g) Kosher Salt
  • 1 tsp   (2g) Dry Mustard
  • 1 tsp   (3g) Garlic Powder
  • 1 tsp   (1g) Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 tsp   (1g) Ground White Pepper
  • 1 tsp   (1g) Cayenne

Method

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Combine all the ingredients into a small container and mix well making sure there are no large clumps. Once combined, rub the mixture all over the outside of the pork shoulder. Cover with plastic wrap and rest the rubbed meat at room temperature for approximately 1 hour.

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After it rests, put the whole shoulder, fat side up, onto the grill and cook at 250° – 275° until the center of the meat is 190°. (about 4 – 6 hours) Every 20 – 30 minutes, using your favorite brushing utensil coat with mop.

 

Side note: Since the logistics and standards for grilling and smoking is a truly intricate process in itself I’m not going to try to cover it here in a paragraph. The essentials are: grill at a low temperature between 250° -275° until the internal temperature of the center of the meat is 190°. I promise I will address this some other time at better length and detail.

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Once your pork is rubbed and rested, then comes the mop. This is undoubtedly my favorite part. My very first Barbecue memory is standing outside next to my grandfather next to a smoker that was so huge I could barely see up over the edge when it was open. I was watching him dip a pastry brush into a bowl of mop and then gently and generously splashing the liquid all over the roasting pig. It smelled like nothing I had ever known before. Then I went inside the house to watch my grandmother make salad dressing that her father had taught her. That was the day I fell in love with vinegar.

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The mop I use now is very similar to that one. It’s made from distilled vinegar, hot sauce, sugar, salt and pepper. That’s it! To me, this is what makes Barbecue the real deal. Any old Joe with a grill can smoke and cook meat but if there’s no mop he better not call it Barbecue. Once your pork is on the grill, I like to baste every 20 minutes. That may sound crazy to spend 6 hours babysitting a piece of meat but believe me, its worth it by the end. Whenever I baste, I also like to turn the pork shoulder slightly each time so the edges char evenly. Its important in addition,  that you keep the fattier parts of the shoulder facing upright as much as possible, especially in the beginning of the cooking process.  You do that because as the fat between the muscles melt, the flavor from the melting fat sinks into the meat rather than just falling onto the coals.

Ingredients

Mop:

  • 3 cups  (720g) Distilled White Vinegar
  • 2 tsp   (30g)  Hot Sauce
  • 4 Tbs  (50g)  Granulated Sugar
  • 2 Tbs  (35g)  Kosher Salt
  • 4 tsp   (6g)    Chili Flake
  • 4 tsp   (3g).   Ground Black Pepper

 

Method

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pot and bring to a boil.  Once the sauce boils and all sugar and salt have dissolved, remove the sauce from heat and allow to cool at room temperature.

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You continue mopping and turning, mopping and turning for anywhere from 5- 12 hours depending on how much meat you’re working with. I like to say it takes about 1 – 1.5 hours for every pound of raw pork you start with. While the meat is cooking I usually take that time to knock out all the sides, or fixins like they say back home. My personal favorites are hush puppies, cole slaw and pimento cheese!

 

After at least half the day spent over a grill its finally time to eat, and for that you need sauce.  I’ve seen a lot of cooks get lazy and use the same sauce for their finished pork as they use for the mop and I just plain don’t agree with that. I look for a decent amount of sugar in my mop which some pit masters will take issue with because the sugar can burn. I respect that observation but if you don’t go overboard and you’re watching your pork closely you’ll get good caramelization and flavor without murdering your Barbecue. When it comes to the sauce I like to use more stringent vinegar, like white distilled or white wine vinegar, and less sugar to get a more tangy flavor. I’ve said it already. I LOVE vinegar.

 

Another big difference between my mop and my sauce is that I cook the sauce but I don’t cook the mop. I make both at least 24 hours before I start cooking to give the flavors time to marinate. That’s especially important for the mop because you’re not using heat to dissolve the sugar, so it takes time and movement to dissolve the sugar into the vinegar.

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Sauce:

Ingredients

  • 2 cups  (485g) Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 2 Tbs  (24g)  Dark Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 tsp  (1g)  Cayenne
  • 1 tsp   (1g)    Chili Flake
  • 1 tsp   (1g)    Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 tsp   (6g)    Salt

Method

Combine all ingredients in an airtight container and allow to sit for 24 hours. Shake as necessary.

 

Once your pork is cooked, take it off the grill and wrap it with plastic and then aluminum foil and rest at room temperature for another 30 minutes. After resting, remove the meat from the bone and chop the meat into sandwich style pork. If you’re in Southern California, I’d say chop it like carnitas.

 

The only adaptation from the original style I’ve made in my adulthood is switching from Kaiser style rolls to Kings Hawaiian. The sweetness just adds a touch more flavor and depth. You can slice the Kings Hawaiian in half and build a sandwich or you can serve them alongside piles of Barbecue and cole slaw and treat them like biscuits or dinner rolls. It’s up to you! Whether you build sandwiches or serve separately, you definitely need more sauce. I make it a day ahead and store it in squeeze bottles because that’s most convenient for me but any airtight container will do.

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All that said, even though I believe that I’m doing what I was taught, my own grandfather would still find a way to tell me that I’m not doing it North Carolina enough; for starters because I’m not actually in North Carolina. Seeing as how I very much love being in California and I have no intention of turning my entire apartment into a hog smoker because I’m pretty sure my landlord would be upset, this style of Barbecue runs in my veins and at the end of the day it tastes right. In addition, the original hog smoking involved digging a very large hole in the ground and I don’t see my grandfather asking for a shovel. So, if tiny discrepancies in the way you barbecue are the worst thing someone has to say about you, you’re doing great and keep going.

Happy Barbecuing! And remember Happy Barbecue has no ketchup!

By Colleen Blackburn

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