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How-To

Smoky, Tender Barbecued Pork

Slow cooking over indirect heat is the secret to delectable pulled pork

Fine Cooking Issue 66
Photo: Scott Phillips
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In my family, we are as obsessed with food as other North Carolinians are with football and basketball. When I was growing up, my rites of passage included trips to every kind of eating establishment imaginable, from Michelin three-star venues in Europe to shacks that could hardly be classified as restaurants. And as much as I love foie gras and remember my first crème brûlée, North Carolina barbecue is the food that stole my heart.

Texas has beef barbecue, but in North Carolina, pork—seasoned by wood smoke and cooked until fall-off-the-bone-tender—is the star. Typically, we start with a tough but flavorful cut like pork butt and cook it slowly over a constant low fire, either charcoal or gas. When grilling with this kind of indirect heat, hot air rotates around the food just like in a convection oven, so that the food roasts slowly and evenly. The meat’s resulting melt-in-your-mouth texture and crisp, deeply caramelized exterior are positively addictive.

Besides low and slow cooking, there are two other tips you’ll need to get the best flavor and texture in your barbecue. First, while the meat is still hot, you’ll want to “pull” the pork—remove it from the bone and tear it into pieces by hand, or shred it with two forks. Then, you’ll want to season it with a flavorful sauce. My favorite sauce for this dish is a sweet vinegar and pepper version that hails from Lexington, North Carolina. I’ve also included two other popular regional sauces, a South Carolina style honey-mustard sauce and a Kansas City style sweet cola barbecue sauce, so that you can flavor your pork to suit your taste. But don’t mistake any of these regional variations for barbecue heresy—no matter how pulled pork is dressed, the cooking technique is what makes the dish.

Try tangy rubs and mops instead of sauce

Another great way to flavor barbecued pork is a rub-mop combination. Dry rubs for pulled pork are ­usually a combination of sugar, salt, and piquant spices. Use your own homemade version or your favorite store-bought brand.

Accompany a dry rub with a mop. Thinner and less sweet than a sauce, a good mop addsmoisture and subtle flavor and promotes caramelization.

To make a mop, I usually combine 12 oz. beer (I prefer a domestic kind like Budweiser), 1/2 cup Sweet Cola Barbecue Sauce, or use a store-bought sauce), and 1 Tbs. barbecue rub. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Put the mop in a squeeze bottle (or leave it in a bowl) and set it aside.

Before grilling, pat the pork dry and brush or rub it with a thin coat of olive oil. Rub the dry rub over the entire surface of the pork. Grill as ­directed in the North Carolina Style Pulled Pork recipe, basting with themop after 45 minutes and then every 40 minutes thereafter. To ensure that the crustis dry, caramel­­ized, and crisp when you remove the pork from the grill, don’t baste ­during the last 20 minutes of cooking time.

How to set up your grill and cook with indirect heat

Charcoal Grill
What you’ll need
. a large bag of charcoal briquettes
. a large chimney starter or electric starter
. a 9×13-inch disposable aluminum roasting pan
. about 1 cup hickory chips, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes and drained
. an oven thermometer
Heat it up
Remove the grill’s cooking grate. Light about 50 charcoal briquettes in either a large chimney starter or in a pyramid-shaped mound over the electric starter on the charcoal grate.
Bank your fire
Once the briquettes are covered in a white-gray ash, pour or rake half of the briquettes to each side of the charcoal grate, and set the aluminum roasting pan between the two piles of coals. (The pan will catch fat and juices as the meat cooks.)
Set up for smoking
Just before you’re ready to cook, put the wet wood chips onto the charcoal. Replace the cooking grate.
Keep it hot
Even if your grill has a built-in thermometer, set an oven thermometer directly on the cooking grate to get a more accurate reading. When it reads 325° to 350°F, position the meat in the center of the grate directly over the aluminum pan, cover, and proceed with the recipe. To maintain the cooking temperature, add about ten briquettes to each pile of coals every hour or so, or when the temperature gets below 250°F. (If you add briquettes before this point, your grill temperature may rise too high.) The best way to add briquettes to the fire is to light them 20 minutes before you need them (with a chimney starter or electric starter set in a heavy-duty disposable foil pan on a nonflammable surface, such as a walkway or patio) so that they’re already hot when you add them to the grill.

Gas Grill
What you’ll need
. an LP gas tank that’s at least half full
. about 1 cup hickory chips, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes and drained
. an 8 1/4×5 1/4×1-inch disposable aluminum pan (if your grill has no smoking box)
. an oven thermometer
Set up for smoking
Before heating the grill, put the soaked and drained wood chips in the small disposable foil pan and set the pan on the upper left corner of the grill, directly on the heat source (the flavorizer bars or ceramic rocks) under the cooking grate, or in the smoker box, if your grill has one.
If your grill has three burners
Turn all the burners to high. Close the lid until the grill is hot (500° to 550°F) and the wood chips have begun to smoke, 10 to 20 minutes. Turn off the center burner and turn the others to medium low.
If your grill has two burners
If the burners are near the perimeter of the grill, the center of the grate is already set up for indirect cooking. (If the burners aren’t near the perimeter and are too close together, your meat will get too much direct heat. In this case, once the grill is up to temperature, you’ll need to turn off one burner and put the meat over this side.) Set the burners to high. Close the lid until the grill is hot (500° to 550°F) and the wood chips have begun to smoke, 10 to 20 minutes. Turn both burners to medium low.
Adjust the temperature
Set an oven thermometer on the center of the cooking grate. Adjust the controls to reach a temperature reading of 325° to 350°F. Put the meat in the center of the grate, cover, and proceed with your recipe. To maintain the cooking temperature, be sure to watch the heat and adjust the temperature controls as necessary.

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