When Chef Elizabeth Karmel moved away from her native North Carolina to New York City, she had to learn how to make North Carolina-style pulled pork herself — or go without. Obviously the latter wasn’t an option, so she taught herself how to make it, simply by remembering the tastes of her childhood.
“It was all taste memory,” Karmel says. “I just really craved it one day after moving to New York, so I got a Boston butt and cooked it indirectly until the fat rendered out, and I made the vinegar sauce I grew up with: apple cider vinegar, ketchup, a little dark brown sugar, white pepper, black pepper, chili flakes and salt. Basically, the recipe I created that day, with a little of this and a little of that, is pretty much the same one I use today. It’s so much simpler than everybody thinks.”
These days Karmel is one of the country’s top grilling and barbecue experts, sharing her wisdom on her web site, Girls at the Grill and cooking at restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C. Try her North Carolina-Style Pulled Pork Sandwich — the recipe that started it all — below.
North Carolina-Style Pulled Pork Sandwich
Grilling method: indirect/low heat
Hickory wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 pork butt, Boston butt or untrimmed end-cut pork shoulder roast, 7 to 9 pounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Lexington-Style BBQ Sauce (see below)
North Carolina Coleslaw (see below)
1 package plain white hamburger buns
Prepare either a charcoal or gas grill for indirect cooking.
Remove pork from wrapper. Do not trim any excess fat off the meat, this fat will naturally baste the meat and keep it moist during the long cooking time. Brush pork with a thin coating of Olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside on a clean tray until ready to cook.
Before placing the meat on the grill, add soaked wood chips. Place chips directly on white-gray ash briquettes or in the smoking box of your gas grill. For more tips on smoking on a gas grill, see sidebar. If using a charcoal grill, you will need to add charcoal every hour to maintain the heat.
Place pork in the center of the cooking grate fat-side up. Cook slowly for 4 to 5 hours at 325-350°F, or until an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the middle of the pork registers 190°F-200°F. The meat should be very tender and falling apart. If there is a bone in the meat, it should come out smooth and clean with no meat clinging to it. (This is the real test for doneness on the barbecue circuit.) Remember, there is no need to turn the meat during the entire cooking time.
Let meat rest for 20 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Using rubber food-service gloves, pull meat from the skin, bones and fat. Set aside any crispy bits (fat) that has been completely rendered and looks almost burned.
Working quickly, shred the chunks of meat with two forks by crossing the forks and “pulling” the meat into small pieces from the roast. Alternately, you can chop the meat with a cleaver if you prefer. Chop the reserved crispy bits and mix into the pulled pork. While the meat is still warm, mix with enough Lexington-Style BBQ Sauce (recipe follows) to moisten and season the meat, about ¾ cup. The recipe can be made in advance up to this point and reheated with about ¼ cup additional sauce in a double boiler.
Serve sandwich style on a white hamburger bun and top with North Carolina Coleslaw (recipe follows). Serve additional sauce on the side, if desired. Serves 10.
Lexington-Style BBQ Sauce
2 cups cider vinegar
1 Tbs. kosher salt
1 Tbs. ground white pepper
1/2 to 1 Tbs. red pepper flakes (the more flakes, the hotter the sauce*)
2 Tbs. white sugar
1/4 cup cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 cup cup ketchup
Mix all ingredients together and let sit at least 10 minutes or almost indefinitely in the refrigerator. (*Note, the longer the sauce sits, the hotter it gets since the heat from the red pepper flakes is brought out by the vinegar. Start with ½ tablespoon red pepper flakes and then add more to taste.)
North Carolina Coleslaw
1 recipe BBQ sauce (above)
1 medium head cabbage, chopped
Mix sauce and cabbage together until well mixed and not quite wet. Refrigerate. Let sit 2 hours or overnight.