Outer Banks Style: Eastern North Carolina Barbecue

Welcome to a culinary exploration that takes us to the heart of Eastern North Carolina, a region synonymous with an unparalleled barbecue tradition. Today, we’re not just sharing a recipe; we’re inviting you on a journey through the history, techniques, and flavors that define Eastern North Carolina barbecue. This dish is more than food; it’s a cultural institution, deeply woven into the fabric of its community.

The Roots of Eastern North Carolina Barbecue

Eastern North Carolina barbecue is distinguished by its focus on pork, specifically the shoulder, slow-cooked to perfection over low, indirect heat. What sets it apart is its unique vinegar-based sauce, a blend of tangy, spicy, and sweet elements that penetrates the meat with its bold flavors.

The Ingredients

  • Pork Shoulder: The star of the show, ideally bone-in for maximum flavor.
  • Dry Rub: A simple yet potent combination of kosher salt, coarse black pepper, smoked paprika, and granulated garlic.
  • Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce: A vivacious mix of apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.

The Method

  1. Preparation: Begin by generously applying the dry rub to the pork shoulder. The rub’s components are chosen to complement the pork’s richness and prepare it for the smoking process.
  2. Smoking: The pork should be smoked at a low temperature for several hours, allowing the meat to become tender and infused with smoky flavors.
  3. Saucing: Once cooked, the meat is either chopped or pulled apart, then doused in the vinegar-based barbecue sauce, ensuring the sauce thoroughly mingles with the meat.
  4. Serving: Typically served on a simple bun or with sides like coleslaw and cornbread, this barbecue is a testament to the beauty of simplicity in cooking.

Mastering the Smoke: Whether on a Smoker or a Grill

The essence of Eastern North Carolina barbecue lies in its slow-cooked, smoky flavor, traditionally achieved through hours of smoking. However, not everyone has access to a smoker, especially vacationers who might only have a grill at their disposal. Fear not, as both equipment can yield delicious results, bringing that coveted smoky essence to your barbecue.

Using a Smoker

  1. Preparation: Preheat your smoker to a steady 225-250°F (107-121°C). This low and slow approach is key to tenderizing the pork shoulder, allowing it to absorb the smoky flavors deeply.
  2. Smoking: Place your seasoned pork shoulder in the smoker, fat side up, to keep it moist during the cooking process. Add your choice of wood chips—hickory, oak, or applewood are excellent choices for pork—into the smoker to enhance the meat’s flavor.
  3. Maintenance: Maintain the temperature within the 225-250°F range, adding wood chips and checking the smoker’s temperature regularly to ensure consistent smoke production.
  4. Duration: The pork shoulder will need to smoke for about 1 to 1.5 hours per pound. This means a 10-pound shoulder could take 10-15 hours to reach the perfect tenderness.

Using a Grill

Not everyone has the luxury of a smoker, but a grill can be ingeniously adapted to smoke meat, allowing you to enjoy authentic Eastern North Carolina barbecue without specialized equipment.

  1. Setup for Indirect Heat: For a charcoal grill, arrange coals on one side of the grill, creating a hot zone and a cooler zone. If you’re using a gas grill, light burners on one side to achieve the same effect. The goal is to cook the pork shoulder indirectly, avoiding direct heat that could lead to uneven cooking or drying out.
  2. Wood Chips: Soak wood chips in water for about an hour before you plan to start grilling. This prevents them from igniting too quickly and promotes a longer, more consistent smoke. Wrap the soaked wood chips in aluminum foil, poke a few holes in the foil for ventilation, and place the packet directly on the coals or the heated side of the gas grill.
  3. Placing the Pork: Position the pork shoulder on the cooler side of the grill, fat side up, to protect it from direct heat. Cover the grill to trap the smoke inside and mimic the environment of a smoker.
  4. Monitoring and Adjusting: Maintain a grill temperature around 225-250°F, adding coals or adjusting the gas as needed. Similar to using a smoker, expect the cooking process to take about 1 to 1.5 hours per pound. Keep the lid closed as much as possible to maintain a consistent temperature and smoke level.
  5. Adding Moisture: To keep the meat moist during the long cooking process, consider placing a water pan on the grill’s hotter side. This will help regulate the temperature and add humidity to the cooking environment.

Whether using a smoker or a grill, the key to perfect Eastern North Carolina barbecue is patience and attention to detail. Once the pork shoulder reaches an internal temperature of 195-205°F, it’s ready to be pulled apart and dressed with the tangy, spicy barbecue sauce that characterizes this beloved regional dish.

The Sauce: A Tangy Tradition

The Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce is what truly defines this dish. Its vinegar base, enhanced with the sweetness of brown sugar and the kick of red pepper flakes, is a tribute to the region’s preference for tangy over sweet. This sauce’s history is as rich as its flavor, tracing back to early cooking methods that favored vinegar for its tenderizing properties and preservation benefits.

A Cultural Culinary Experience

Barbecue in Eastern North Carolina is not just about the food; it’s about the gathering of community, the sharing of traditions, and the passing down of recipes from generation to generation. It’s a culinary experience that embodies the spirit of the region, reflecting its history, its people, and its heart.

Crafting Your Own Eastern North Carolina Barbecue

Embarking on the journey to create your own Eastern North Carolina barbecue is to partake in a tradition that is both deeply personal and universally shared. It’s an opportunity to bring a piece of North Carolina’s culinary heritage into your home, to savor with friends and family, and to add your chapter to the ongoing story of this beloved regional dish.

Conclusion

Eastern North Carolina barbecue is more than a regional specialty; it’s a culinary legacy. As you explore this recipe, remember that you’re not just cooking; you’re participating in a tradition that has brought people together for generations. Whether you’re a seasoned pitmaster or a curious cook, the essence of Eastern North Carolina barbecue is its ability to unite us through the universal language of food.