Barbecue (as understood in the NC parlance) is known to excite passions. I, myself, am an addict, hopelessly hooked after serial childhood family reunions featuring pig pickin’s catered by a gentleman from eastern NC, reinforced by college years spent in western NC. I have been known to travel hundreds of miles out of my way to scratch this itch. I’ve also been known to fire up a grill a time or two and try my own hand at making the stuff.
So, when my wife suggested that I make some ‘cue for a parish dinner last month it didn’t take me long to find an afternoon-sized hole in my week during which I could tend a flame and whip up some sauces. Wheels began to spin; plans began to formulate.
On the Monday night before the Thursday night dinner, I prepped six Boston butt roasts – the top half of a pig’s front shoulder. I rubbed them thoroughly with a mixture of equal parts brown sugar and kosher salt spiked with some black pepper, wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap, and stowed them in the fridge. The sugar/salt mixture acts almost like a brine. Moisture is pulled out of the meat and then reabsorbed, seasoning the meat and helping to create conditions that will result in a lovely, dark crust after several hours of smoking. Unlike brining, however, the meat will not be waterlogged and mushy.
Tuesday, at about noon, I began to get my trusty Char-Griller Super Pro up to speed. I started a charcoal fire in the offset firebox, put two drip pans under the grilling surface, and filled the drip pans half-full with hot water.
By 1:00 p.m., the grill was cranking along at 225 degrees at the dome, 250 degrees at grill level. Perfect. I threw a chunk of oak and a couple chunks of hickory on the coals, closed down the vents, and put the roasts on the grill. I closed the grill top and waited for the magic to happen.
Of course, adding 40 or so pounds of cold pork shoulder to the grill dropped the temperature pretty dramatically. At about 1:15 I had to add some more coals and open the vents a bit to coax it up to speed. The wood was just smoldering and the smoke level was good. (There is no happier site in the world than watching smoke pour from a smokestack. Just my opinion, of course.)
At 2:00 p.m. I refreshed the coals and put on a new batch of wood. On my last ‘cue-making outing I used only oak. That wasn’t my favorite, so I skewed more heavily towards the hickory this time at bat. The temperature was staying low – even for low and slow standards. The grill was really struggling to get back to that optimal temperature of 225 degrees and I began to worry that I would run out of charcoal because I was really loading down the firebox, adding coals every 15 minutes or so.
At 3:00 p.m. I refreshed the coals and added more wood, shifting the roasts on the grill surface because the area just beside the firebox is a hotspot. I also began to think about a Plan B so that I would not be tending a fire all night long. The dome temperature was still on the south side of 225 degrees.
The point of barbecue is to take a basically inedible cut of meat and make it supremely edible. The pork shoulder is sinewy – crisscrossed with connective tissue, gristle, and fat. However, our forebears discovered that if you cook that chewy, tough piece of meat slowly over a low heat, bringing the internal temperature of the meat to a scorching 190 degrees or so (pork is “done” at about 140 degrees) over a very long period of time, a magical thing occurs: all that connective tissue, which is made out of collagen, melts into gelatin. That gelatin is really the secret of good barbecue. It bathes the meat in a glistening, lip-smacking flood of succulence. Couple that succulence with a kiss of hardwood smoke and a splash of vinegar and the results are nothing short of alchemy.
The goal is an internal temperature of 190 degrees. For a 6-8 pound pork shoulder, if the ambient temperature is about 225-250, it will take between 6 and 8 hours to get there – and you want it to take that long so all that internal rendering can take place.
But if the ambient temperature is hovering at 200, you may never get to where you want to be. Six to 8 hours can stretch to 12 pretty easily. I needed to get things moving along a little faster if I was going to get to bed that night. Thus, Plan B.
At 4:00 p.m., after three hours of smoking, I moved four of the roasts to a 300 degree oven. Some hardliners may scoff – so be it. It is well known that after 3 hours the meat has absorbed as much smoke as it is going to absorb, so you really don’t lose anything by finishing in an oven. Just in case that dictum is wrong, however, I continued to add wood to the coals for the duration of the cooking so that the two roasts remaining on the grill could offset their oven-finished brethren.
All that meat had certainly been a drag on the grill’s performance. After implementing Plan B the temperature in the grill immediately shot up to 240-250 degrees at the dome. I was able to easily maintain the optimal temperature of between 225 and 250 degrees for the remainder of the evening.
At about 4:30 I began to monitor the internal temperature of the roasts. At that time the smallest roast in the oven was registering 147 degrees so I knew there was still a fair amount of time to go.
The performance curve of a roasting pork shoulder is not a straight line. Rather, it moves up the thermometer in fits and starts, rapidly jumping up a few degrees within a few minutes then costing along a plateau for 30 or 40 minutes. It can be maddening. I fell into a rhythm of feeding the fire, checking the temperatures, for the next few hours.
At 6:30 p.m. the small roast in the oven was clocking in at 185 degrees. The roasts on the grill were at about 175 degrees. Things were looking good. I made my sauces – a piquant eastern NC concoction of cider vinegar, red pepper, salt, and black pepper, and a classic version of the tangy-sweet, tomato-inflected “dip” preferred in Lexington, NC, and parts west.
It was now just a waiting game. By 7:30 p.m. the smallest roast was done and out of the oven, waiting to be shredded. The rest were running at about 178-180 degrees.
Once you’ve done this a couple of times you come to know that those last 10 degrees can take forever. But by 9:15 p.m. all of the roasts had hit the 190 degree mark and were just waiting to be pulled. They were beautiful, covered in a caramelized crust, dark from the smoke, full of flavor.
At 10:00 we started the pulling – I removed the fat caps and pulled the bones out of each roast (if the bone comes out cleanly, you know you’ve done it right) and watched the meat literally fall apart. Each roast had a beautiful, dark red, inch-thick smoke ring. We then shredded them with forks, leaving the meat quite coarse, with very little chopping. Shell doused it with a liberal splash of the Lex dip and we put it in the fridge to wait for the dinner on Thursday (a very difficult thing to do!).
The ‘cue was reheated for the dinner on Thursday night and was very well received. The Lex dip and eastern-style sauce turned out exceptionally well, too (if I do say so myself … and I do). One diner told Shell he had made it to fourthsies before quitting. There was not a lot left over and what was left over was claimed quickly. We managed to secure a small amount of ‘cue to take home – it was a big hit.
I love sharing the good news of NC barbecue.