Growing up in North Carolina, I fell in love with North Carolina barbecue. But then the unthinkable happened…I moved out of state and a barbecue sandwich was only available when I made the trek home to visit. Being homesick for barbecue called for drastic measures so, one day, about 15 years ago, I decided that I was going to try making North Carolina barbecue at home. This doesn’t sound so preposterous today, but when I was growing up, and even 10 years ago, no one made barbecue in his or her backyard—you bought barbecue at a pit or joint or restaurant.
For my barbecue experiment, I bought the biggest Boston butt I could find, and with no written guidance—just my memory—I generously seasoned it with salt and pepper and put it on my gas grill over indirect heat. Six hours later, I lifted the lid and saw the most beautiful piece of barbecued meat; all the fat had slowly rendered out, leaving a deeply caramelized, crisp, crunchy exterior with meltingly tender interior meat. The butt pulled apart “like butter.” Once again, going from memory, I made the vinegar sauce, remembering notes of sour, sweet, salt, and a bit of heat. I concocted a sauce that was very close to the one I make today, after perfecting my recipe for all these years. I couldn’t believe how good that first bite of homemade North Carolina barbecue was!
Since that fateful afternoon, I have made it my business to learn about every style of barbecue from pitmasters all over the South and parts of the Midwest. However, a nod to how simple it is to make meltingly tender pulled pork at home is that my extensively researched techniques are almost exactly the same as my first attempt.
The secret to my success is cooking slowly over low heat or “low and slow,” as the saying goes—and that means indirect heat. And the trick that is never written into most recipes is to let the meat reach 190°F to 200°F. This internal temperature is higher than most books recommend; but trust me, I’m right! It is the temperature needed to be able to separate or pull the pork into perfect tender strands and melt all the connective tissue that is found on these traditionally tough cuts of meat. There is no other cooking method that has such a high flavor return for such a low investment of hands-on time. Slow-cooking with indirect heat couldn’t be easier or more hands-off! Basically, you put it on the grill and forget about it for hours until the smoke, indirect heat, and the natural fat and flavors inherent in the meat work the magic.