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~My Carolina-Style Pulled-Pork BBQ (Oven Method)~

IMG_6987About the only thing Americans love more than a parade is a barbecue, and, no barbecue comes close to being as familiar, beloved or nationally recognized as Southern pork barbecue. Apologies to you barbecuer's of beef -- I love your stuff, but, pork fat rules.  Period.  That being said, I'm marching to the beat of a different drummer with this post.  Why?  Experts have published so much material on the art of outdoor smoking on pits and grills, I couldn't begin to add anything of substance that hasn't already been said in a million different opinionated ways.

This post is all about a different approach:  convienience without (too much) compromise.  Back in the latter '80's and early '90's, two of our three sons, at two different times, lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  When they moved back to Pennsylvania, both of them begged me to develop a recipe for the famous North Carolina pulled-pork sandwiches they had grown to love.  No arm twisting was necesssary.  Over the years, Joe and I had eaten these sandwiches on our trips to and through the Carolinas, so we had well-formed opionions as to which renditions of rubs and versions of sauces we preferred.  I opted for finding a user-friendly way to produce pulled-pork.

Southern Barbecue, the Barbecue Belt & Carolina-style BBQ:

A_Southern_BarbecueThe origins of American barbecue date back to colonial times, and, as the country expanded westward barbecue went with it.  The first record of BBQ in America is dated 1697, and, George Washington made mention of attending a "barbicue" in Alexandria, VA in 1769.  Barbecue in its current form had its humble beginnings in the South where cooks slow-roasted tough cuts of meat or whole animals over fire pits to tenderize them.

IMG_4449There were only three components to early barbecue:  meat, wood & sauce.  

ImagesThe Spanish explorers brought pigs to the Americas, which became "feral" (escaped domestication and became wild), so free pork became hands-down, the most commonly used meat.

6a0120a8551282970b01a73de73698970dThe wood was the source of flavor for the meat (they did not have pantries full of spices). Nowadays we know stronger-flavored woods are used for pork and beef, while lighter-flavored woods are better for fish and poultry, but, in the early days, the wood used was the wood that grew in that region.  It was wood, not spices, that provided the first regional flavor profiles for American barbecue.  In the early days, barbecue was often served naked (no sauce to cover up the flavor of the smoke-flavored meat), and, if it was sauced, there were no rules:  thick or thin; sweet or savory; mild or spicy -- cook's discretion.

Academia_us_starter_lgThe Barbecue Belt:  North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (along with closely surrounding areas).  Their spice rubs, sauces and side-dishes vary, but, they are indisputably bound together by one common ingredient.  Pork.  Oink not Moo.

The Carolinas hold a unique position in terms of Southern barbecue because it is believed to be the oldest form of American barbecue.  Their pork, the whole hog or cuts from parts of the hog, depending on the region, can be served pulled, shredded, chopped or occasionally sliced. Nowadays it may be dry rubbed with a secret spice blend prior to smoking and/or it may be mopped with a vinegar concoction during smoking, but, in the end, it's all about the sauce baby. Follow any roadmap anywhere and Carolina BBQ sauce will never taste the same way twice.

The Carolinas are mostly famous for their pulled-pork sandwiches.  They take the fattiest piece of inexpensive pork available, rub it with a most distinctive dry spice blend and wood smoke it over low heat (190-200 degrees) for the longest period of time (10-12+ hours) until it is fall-off-the-bone tender and is easily shredded with the fingers. The shredded pork is then combined with the most savory, vinegar-based sauce (thin enough so it can easily soak into the shreds of spiced meat), served on freshly baked-that day soft rolls (or ordinary sandwich bread).

IMG_4193A bit about the pork:  "Boston butt", is a bone-in cut of pork that comes from the upper part of the "pork shoulder" from the front leg of the hog.  Smoked or barbecued, Boston butt is a southern tradition.  This cut of meat got its name in pre-Revolutionary War New England:

Butchers in Boston left the Pork_101_final_b-fixedblade bone in this inexpensive cut of pork shoulder then packed and stored the meat in casks called "butts". They sold the pork shoulders individually to their customers, and, when they got popular, they began shipping "the butts" Southward and throughout the Colonies.  Simply stated:  the way the hog shoulder was butchered, combined with "the butt" they arrived in, evolved into the name "Boston butt".

Don't have or want a barbecue pit in you backyard?  Read on!

If you are a pit-master, let me start by saying I appreciate what you do, but, simmer down.  I'm not here to steal your pork-pulling thunder or compete with you.  I am here to give some folks some precise instructions for producing some excellent pulled pork made indoors in a conventional oven.  Fire was the invention that changed mankind but it was the oven that made womenkind happy, which in turn made mankind happier in general.  Please note this is my favorite version of dry rub for my pulled pork, along with my favorite version of sauce for my pulled pork.  The following recipe has gotten me so many accolades over the years at outdoor gatherings and tailgates, I stopped apologizing for my lack of devotion to cooking it outdoors on a pit or a grill. Feel free to substitute your spice rub or sauce and just follow my oven method instructions.

IMG_6914For my pork roasts, sandwiches and slaw:

2  7-8  pound, bone-in Boston butt pork shoulder roasts

2  dozen, freshly-baked, soft-textured, large-sized rolls

2  quarts coleslaw, preferably homemade, made a day ahead

(Note:  You can find recipe for ~ Mel's Creamy-Crunchy Seriously-Good Coleslaw ~ in Categories 4, 10 & 17.)

Pulled Pork #1 (Spice Rub Ingredients)For my dried spice rub:

2  tablespoons dry English mustard

4  tablespoons smoked paprika

4  tablespoons Jane's Original Krazy Mixed-Up Salt, or sea salt

1  teaspoon cayenne pepper

4  tablespoons coarsely-ground  Pulled Pork #2 (Getting Started)black pepper

(Note:  I like to mix my dry-rub together a few hours before I rub my roasts, and, putting it in an ordinary, glass cheese shaker w/large holes makes it really easy to apply the rub as needed and where needed.)

For my vinegar sauce:

3 1/2  cups apple cider vinegar

Pulled Pork #5 (Vinegar Sauce Ingredients)1  cup ketchup

1  cup maple syrup, or, brown sugar, honey or molasses 

3/4  cup yellow mustard

6  whole bay leaves

1/4  teaspoon hickory-seasoned liquid smoke, a bit more or less

1/2  teaspoon pure orange extract

2  pounds medium-diced yellow or sweet onion

1  teaspoon Jane's Original Krazy Mixed-Up Salt, or sea salt

1  teaspoon red pepper flakes

IMG_6592~ Step 1.  Pat the roasts dry in a few paper towels.  Place the roasts on a rack that has been placed in two large disposable aluminum roasting pans that have been doubled to form one sturdy pan (trust me, you'll want to throw the inside pan away afterwards).  Begin applying the spice rub by sprinkling it over the tops.  Rub, rub, and continue to rub, turning the meat as you work, until the roasts are generously coated over all surfaces of the meat.

IMG_6594Note:  Applying the spice rub with the roasts in the pan allows the extra rub to filter to the bottom of the pan and combine with the fat as it drips down as the roasts cook.

Set aside for 1 hour, or, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.  Overnight is best. Remove from refrigerator and return to room temperature, 1-2 hours, prior to cooking according to the following directions:

IMG_6614~ Step 2.  Preheat and maintain an oven temp of 320-325 degrees. Roast meat, uncovered, on center rack, 7-8 hours, or until an instant read thermometer placed several inches into the thickest part of the meat in 2-3 places reads 190-195 degrees.  Remove roasts from oven, cover tightly with foil and set aside until they cool enough to be manageable for pulling with your fingers (about 1-1 1/2 hours).  Do not cool to room temperature.

Pulled Pork #7 (Sauce Simmering)Prepare the sauce while the roasts are in the oven cooking.

Note:  I like to prepare the sauce right after the roasts go into the oven then let it rest on the stovetop until they're done.  The flavors come together and it tastes better.

~ Step 3.  Place all of the ingredients for the sauce, as listed in a 4-quart stockpot as you work. Bring to a gentle, steady simmer Pulled Pork #8 (Sauce Finished)over medium heat.

Partially cover and maintain a gentle, steady simmer for 45-60 minutes.  Remove from heat, cover and set aside until roasts are cooked and ready to be pulled.

Note:  You can prepare the sauce a day ahead.  It really doesn't need to be refrigerated overnight, but, in the event you do refrigerate it, make sure it is not cold when you add it to the pork.  You want it slightly warm.

Pulled Pork #11 (Bones Pull Right Out #2)Warm the sauce prior to pulling pork -- warm not steaming hot.

~ Step 4.  Remove the foil from the pan.  Remove the rack from underneath the roasts and place them in the bottom of pan with all of the flavorful fat and juices.

Give a gentle tug on the blade bones.  They're going to come out clean and easy.  Discard the bones.

Note:  The dark, almost burned looking fat cap on the top of the meat is referred to as "bark".  DO NOT even think about removing or discarding it -- it tastes amazing.

IMG_4443Begin by pulling each roast into 5-6 large chunks and pieces that have naturally formed during the cooking process, meaning:  if you tried to pick the roast up, it would almost naturally fall apart into 5-6 pieces.  

Next, pull each chunk into large, succulent, strands, doing your best Pulled Pork #16 (Adding Sauce #1)to keep them bite-sized, not small and stringy.  Some folks prefer to chop the meat into bite-sized pieces.  This choice is yours. Remove and discard any pieces of chewy gristle as you work.

~ Step 5.  Begin ladling and stirring the sauce in two cups at a time at first.  After each addition, give the meat a minute or two to absorb the liquid.  Continue adding sauce, until the meat is plump and juicy, not saturated and soggy.  I have two cups of sauce leftover today.

IMG_6922I serve my pulled-pork sandwiches the traditional way:

Topped with coleslaw & dill pickles, 

IMG_7003drippy & delicious: 

IMG_7035My Carolina-Style Pulled-Pork BBQ (Oven Method):  Recipe yields enough pulled pork for 2 dozen sandwiches.

Special Equipment List:  cheese shaker (optional); paper towels; 2, 20" x 12" x 4" disposable aluminum roasting pans (doubled to form one sturdy pan); 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" cooling rack; plastic wrap; instant-read meat thermometer; heavy-duty aluminum foil; 4-quart stockpot w/lid; soup ladle

IMG_6965Cook's Note:  Some straight talkin' advice about pulled-pork leftovers:

Pulled pork can be served warm or at room temperature, but, it is best served the day it is made.  Leftovers the next day are very good too, but, after that that, as time passes, the vinegar in the sauce begins to break down the fibers of the meat (over tenderizes it), rendering it soft, then eventually, mushy.  

It is for this same reason that I do not recommend freezing pulled pork under any circumstances.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)


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