A ‘low and slow’ recipe for pulled pork that will give you taste of the Carolinas and quite possibly a hankering for a real barbecue pit in the back garden
• In pictures: how to cook barbecued pulled pork
Thu 9 Jun 2011 10.00 BSTFirst published on Thu 9 Jun 2011 10.00 BST
Pulled pork in a bun
Tim Hayward’s pulled pork in a bun. Photograph: Tim Hayward for the Guardian
I think it’s safe to say that Americans take their barbecue seriously. Get most US food-lovers into conversation about it and they’ll bang on for hours about the relative virtues of the different styles.
In Texas and Kansas City – cattle country – beef is popular, particularly ribs and brisket, with big, sweet, hot and smoky sauces. The variations between the two can be discussed endlessly and with positively rabbinical precision. In Memphis, the hog is favoured. Great slabs of pork, slathered in enough sauce to satisfy big, Kung Fu Elvis at his most unhinged. But for me, the barbecue of the Carolinas is the best.
I was lucky enough to live in various parts of North Carolina over a few years and I’ve never forgotten the experience of driving off the main roads to some grape-vine publicised pit, hidden in a mountain hollow or a coastal backwater, to see a legendary pork-master slaving like a kobold in the smoke. Furniture in these places usually stretched to the plastic and folding. Tables were covered with newspaper if you were lucky and iced tea, on the rare occasions it was available, came in jam jars.
I hope there are a still a few of these places around, but the last time I visited was 20 years ago so there are no guarantees. What sticks in the memory though, is the pulled pork – shoulder in the east of the state, whole hog towards the Appalachians. A thin, vinegar based sauce towards the coast, sweeter, thicker and with tomatoes west of Raleigh. The meat is cooked as slowly as possible over indirect heat until, at around 85C (internal temperature) it gives up any structural integrity at all then it’s literally pulled apart, usually by a huge guy to whom you’re distantly related, wearing thick rubber gloves, and served in an awful cotton-wool bun with coleslaw.
It’s sublime. Completely, overwhelmingly delicious. As the juices run down into your stubble they mingle with discreet tears of sheer joy. God’s food.
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As it happens I got married in North Carolina, to a local girl. Though the marriage, sadly, didn’t survive, this means I still have relatives over there. Good, strong men and beautiful women, many of whom own guns and who will probably hunt me down and kill me for what I’m about to say.
I think I’ve finally cracked a way of doing a pretty good North Carolina pulled pork barbecue in England.
OK. I’m aware – really aware – that we’re on dangerous ground here, but let me explain the thinking.
In a normal pit barbecue, the meat is dry-rubbed and then slow-cooked, usually overnight, with indirect heat from burning wood. The air temperature in the closed cooking vessel rarely gets above 100C and the gentle smoke builds up tarry layer of flavoursome particles on the surface of the meat which is enhanced by constant mopping with a liquid.
Many barbecuers believe that the smoke flavours actually penetrate the meat during the process though a more practical cook might argue the point. There is certainly a limited penetration of the marinade and the rub (the legendary “smoke ring”) but the beauty of pulled pork is that it bypasses all such controversy – before serving the meat is shredded so the moist interior, the gorgeous layer of lubricating fat and the charred, tarry exterior “bark” are thoroughly mixed so the flavours really can marry together. To my mind it’s this effect, plus the acidic bite of the special vinegar-based sauce, that makes North Carolina pulled pork the uber-‘cue.
This recipe achieves a similar effect though using methods that owe little to tradition and will, I know for certain, cause Uncle Buzz to reach for his old thirty-aught-six with malice aforethought.