The Pull of Pork & Its Sauces: 12 Must-Read Tips
It’s an icon of American barbecue—spice-blasted, hickory-smoked pork shoulder, torn or chopped into meaty shreds, electrified with peppery vinegar sauce (or elevated with a unique white barbecue sauce, as with Big Bob Gibson’s pulled pork sandwich, pictured above), topped with crunchy coleslaw, and piled on a butter-grilled bun.
Of the “big three” of American barbecue (the other two being brisket and ribs), pork shoulder is the easiest to get right. You can indirect grill it. You can smoke it. You can even cook it on a rotisserie. It requires no split-second timing. It’s nearly impossible to overcook. And it reheats well—not that you run the risk of leftovers when you follow this North Carolina Pulled Pork recipe.
Pulled pork is ridiculously simple to make, but it looks and tastes like you’ve been cooking all day. In a sense, you have. You’ll need about 30 minutes of prep time, but you’ll cook the shoulder for 4 to 5 hours or more. Happily, it’s not very labor-intensive. All you do is add charcoal and wood chips every hour or as needed. Beer is optional, but it certainly helps pass the time.
Do it right and you’ll wind up with a paradisiacal counterpoint of crisp crust to moist, meltingly tender meat. And that’s before you add the “cracklings”—crunchy bits of grilled pork skin. The vinegar sauce makes you sit up and take notice. An altogether adult form of barbecue in a world where all too often all you can taste is sugary sauce.
Here are 12 things you need to know about nailing the perfect pulled pork sandwich:
- Anatomy lesson: A whole pork shoulder tips the scale at 12 to 16 pounds. It’s comprised of two parts: the Boston butt (the upper portion) and the picnic shoulder (the lower leg portion—sometimes called a shoulder ham). You want former, which offers a higher ratio of meat to bone.
- Pedigree matters: Hogs used to be bred for flavor: Today, most supermarket pork is an industrial product raised for maximum growth in minimum time so it can be sold quickly and cheaply. Seek out “heritage” pork—varieties bred for flavor and high fat content (remember, fat = flavor) and humanely-raised. These include Berkshire (sometimes sold by the Japanese name kurobuta), Duroc, Mangalitsa, and Tamworth—each with its own distinct texture and flavor. Look for heritage pork at specialty butcher shops and farmers’ markets, or order online from Heritage Pork International or other purveyors.
- Skin in the game: One of the distinguishing features of a truly superior pulled pork sandwich is the presence of crisp bits of pork skins. Buy shoulders that have some skin intact, if you can find them. Markets that cater to a Hispanic clientele often carry them.
- Keep it simple: The best barbecue joints in the Carolinas keep the seasonings simple—salt, pepper, and occasionally paprika or hot red pepper flakes. There’s no need to use elaborate marinades or seasonings.
- Don’t knock wood: Traditional Carolina pulled pork is roasted over hickory embers. (At landmark restaurants like Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina, and Allen & Son BBQ in Pittsboro, they burn logs to embers in a firebox, then shovel the glowing coals under the meat.) At home, you can achieve a similar effect by indirect grilling—with soaked drained wood chips tossed on the coals to generate wood smoke.
- Overcook, please: Current food fashion calls for serving pork medium or even medium-rare, and this is fine for lean tender cuts, like loin and tenderloin. Proper pulled pork must be cooked well done, that is, to about 195 degrees F. Only at this internal temperature is the shoulder tender enough to be pulled (torn) or chopped into the meaty shreds so prized in the Carolinas. Be sure to pull it while it’s still nearly too hot to handle.
- Give it a rest: As with all grilled or roasted meats, you should let a cooked pork shoulder rest before chopping or serving it. This “relaxes” the meat, making it juicier and more flavorful. Let it rest on a cutting board for 15 to 20 minutes loosely tented with foil.
- Pulled, chopped, or sliced: Depending where you go in the Carolinas or elsewhere in the South, the pork will be “pulled” (torn into meaty shreds), chopped (with a cleaver), or thinly sliced (which is often how they serve it in Memphis). When pulling pork, invest in some insulated food gloves. For chopping, use a cleaver.
- Sauce like you mean it: Unlike Texas brisket, pork shoulder requires sauce to achieve perfection. But which sauce depends on where you’re sampling it and your personal taste. In the eastern part of North Carolina, they douse the pork with chili flake-stung vinegar sauce (which also contains salt, black pepper, hot sauce, and just a little sugar). In western North Carolina, the vinegar sauce is often enriched with a little ketchup. In South Carolina, mustard sauce (roughly equal parts mustard, brown sugar, and vinegar) is de rigueur. In northern Alabama, there’s the tangy white sauce, created and made famous by Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q, in Decatur. In my book BBQ USA, you’ll find an offbeat pulled pork served with espresso barbecue sauce.
- Stint not on slaw: Coleslaw is an indispensable component of a great pulled pork sandwich, its piquancy balancing the fattiness of the meat and contrasting cold and hot, crunchy and meaty. To make slaw, flavor chopped or sliced cabbage with some of the barbecue sauce. It’s that easy.
- Bliss on a bun: The bun is the last element and it should be lightly buttered and toasted until golden brown on the grill before serving. Remember: this is all about contrasting textures: The toasted bun counterpoints the soft meaty chew of the pork.
- Perfection is in the details: A pulled pork sandwich may seem simple, even simple-minded, but unless you start with great pork, season it assertively, smoke it like you mean it, let it rest, shred or chop it properly, crisp the skin, make the sauce, chop the slaw, and toast the bun, you’ll never experience this icon of American barbecue in all its glory.
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