So I was talking to some friends the other week about how they needed to come out to the Ranch, and had a rare moment of clarity-the next weekend was Memorial Day, they’re from NC, NC does Pig Barbecue, and I have been wanting to do Pig Barbecue for quite some time. I immediately suggested they come out for Memorial Day, and they said, “Sure!” I’d like to think I told them they were going to be culinary guinea pigs, but I don’t think I’m that ethical. Eh-whatever, they all lived.
I am, however, pretty respectful of culinary tradition, so I did want to do this in a way at least vaguely reminiscent of NC Pig.
So to start with, before I ever looked at a recipe or technique, I picked up a 9 lb. pork butt. Figuring I’d wing my way through this. I also picked up a bottle of ketchup because last time I tried to make a thin sauce, I ran out of ketchup and didn’t want to make that mistake twice. (This plot device is called “foreshadowing”.)
And THEN I began consulting my sources. And while I didn’t do anything wrong, per se, pork shoulder is apparently the preferred cut for this preparation. Lessons learned.
Also-my go-to reference for any meat is nearly always Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here For The Food”. And this is particularly true for pork, but my copy is currently in storage. Which is very sad.
So anyway, the night before the big day arrived. Most places advise applying your rub up to 12 hours in advance. But that would have required planning. I managed to get the rub on five hours in advance, which I called good. You can go nuts on a rub-coffee, pepper, cayenne, tears of blind virgins, it seems like everybody has a secret ingredient. I am leery of relying on external ingredients. The meat should stand on its own (J-this is the first part of the answer to your most astute question about sauce.) without the rub. That being said, I’ve had rubs that take it to the next level. Transcend, really. Since I’m trying to figure out my own rub, starting from scratch, I decided that for this time, I’d let the meat flavors stand alone, see what those were, and then tinker from there. I sprinkled (LIBERALLY) salt-plain old kosher salt-and garlic powder, because though I wanted the meat flavors to shine alone, I also know that nearly any meat, particularly large, “miscellaneous” cuts of meat, benefits from liberal application of salt in advance. (Usually in the form of a brine, but here I wanted drier meat to go into the smoke, so I put the salt on there and called it a dry brine.)
And then I contemplated what time this thing needed to go into the smoke. So I backed it up, and made a little time chart.
In case that isn’t clear, I wanted to eat in the 4:00 zone, so I had to get up and put the beast on at 4:00 in the AM. No greater love hath man than this or whatever…
Having never done pork in the Big Green Egg before, I could only go based on what I read for pork butt, and I’m here to testify that the pig had fun with me and cooked about an hour fast during each phase of the cooking. I’ve taken note, Sir, for next time. Paybacks…
Anyway, I got up at four and built my first ever non-Girl Scout-sanctioned fire. And I’m not just totally sure I did it right. Daddy has what I call a “curling iron”, though he failed to see the resemblance, to start the fire with, and so I held the curling iron up to the charcoal lumps until the thing was spitting out sparks and the coals were orange. Since my hand was in proximity to the coals (the curling iron is short, like all good curling irons) I didn’t really want to hang around until it made the leaping fire I was used to seeing on the Weber grill. So I have no idea if the fire was right or not. (Plus, it’s been A WHILE since Girl Scouts so I don’t remember our fire lessons…)
But the main point is that the fire never got above 300 degrees. Which was good. Low heat is going to be your friend on these big cuts of meat that have lots of different sub-primals kind of running every direction through them. Because with all of those different culinary characteristics in the mix, you want to cook for a long time, and low, in order to break down enough (say it with me now) connective tissue to make the meat tender.
So then it came time to add some smoke to the fire. Depending on the wood used, they add interesting flavors to the meat. But that would have required me to be capable of coherent thought at 4:00 in the dark and I think we all know that calling my thoughts coherent is generous, even at 11:00 in the morning, after coffee and a full night’s rest. I looked in (one half of) the cabinet beside the BGE and didn’t see anything besides the lump charcoal. So I figured that this pig was just going to have to be lacking that certain je ne sais quois.
(Later, Mama showed me THE OTHER HALF OF THE CABINET, where the different wood chunks are.)
Pig went on, uncovered in a foil pan because I didn’t want flare-ups to char the outside of my meat, the BGE was closed, and then I went back to bed. But not before setting my alarm to wake me up every hour to check the temperature gage on the BGE.
If your smoker or other outdoor cooking device lacks one of these? Get one. You need to be able to check and take steps to regulate your temperature without opening the lid. It’s what separates us from the animals.
To regulate your temperature, there are usually vents at the top and the bottom of the cooking device. More air=hotter flame.
So anyway, it was supposed to cook/smoke until it was 165 degrees inside, around noon, at which time I was to drain the pan of the juices (Save those! If you went plain and simple with your rub like I did, they will turn into the most scrumptious pan sauce. AKA, “Served over tomorrow night’s dinner”.) and then use half a cup of apple juice and cover tightly with foil for the last few hours of cooking until it reached 190 degrees internally. (I detest apple juice and pork, it’s totally unimaginative and so I used the REALLY CREATIVE white wine and I eyeballed it rather than measuring. But follow your own bliss there.)
(I don’t have pictures of the actual pork because I forgot…)
But the pork had other ideas, because it got to 170 degrees internally around 10:30. So he went back to finish up the last few degrees a few hours early. But this is illustrative of the point that while you want to cook low and slow, in barbecue, temperature controls. Don’t be smitten with the clock. But keep the temperature of your heat low.
Anyway, after the pork came out, it rested for half an hour-ish until we couldn’t stand it any longer, and then we began shredding. It should, if you have done it right, fall apart into shreds with nearly no effort on your part. But take two forks and place them in your hands, back-to-back, and hold them near the pork to make it look like you expended lots of energy on this.
Here’s where a photo would be totally gorgeous and useful, but I don’t have one of the finished cooked pork. It looked INSANE, trust me. Glistening, shred-y, pork-y.
Anyway, then it was time for sauce. Upon further research, I learned that many NC sauces were not the thin tomato and vinegar creation I envisioned. Indeed, many sauces had no tomato whatsoever. And while I can accept a thin and vinegar-y sauce as completely delicious, one without tomato of any kind is blasphemy of the highest order. So I set about creating a thin, vinegar-heavy, with some ketchup, slightly spicy sauce with some richness. My expectations were totally reasonable.
I pulled out the ketchup, the brown sugar, the molasses, the red pepper flakes, the salt, and the pepper. And then I went to get the cider vinegar. You know how they say vinegar doesn’t go bad? True, but it does begin to regenerate the mother after awhile. (If you don’t know what that is, research vinegar some. It’s fascinating.)
Apparently we need to use our cider vinegar faster. 🙂 Anyway, I solved the vinegar issue by pouring it through a tea strainer and caught most of the mother, and it’s not like a little bit of mother ever hurt anybody.
So I wound up with a base of 1:1 vinegar/ketchup. Then I threw in about four heaping tablespoons of brown sugar, “enough” salt, several hits of ground black pepper, and four glugs of molasses. The molasses was key to developing the richness and smoke.
And then finally, the red pepper flakes. NC uses a LOT of them. Some of us prefer our heat to have a bit of flavor and purpose, so I wanted to dial it back a notch. I didn’t photograph how much I used, but my ring in my palm is actually a really good approximation:
And honestly, it could have used about half again as much and been glorious.
All of the sauce ingredients cook together on the stovetop until syrupy. Pro tip: Do NOT stick your face in the top of the pan and inhale. Hot vinegar fumes have a way of bonding to the insides of your lungs and making breathing difficult for awhile.
And now I’m heading back to bed as the left half of my face is swollen and hurts. Thanks for sticking with me through my essay on pork, and if this root canal (Thanks, Internet! They were able to schedule me for Monday!) doesn’t fix things, I’m just going to start going at my teeth with a hammer. At this point, I’m pretty sure dentures would actually have been cheaper.