Carolina barbecue is a battle of East versus West, with smoked pork on point. For this Carolina pulled pork, we smoke a pork shoulder and drench it in a tangy vinegar-based barbecue sauce for fantastic finger-licking barbecue.
Table of Contents
- What is Carolina Style BBQ?
- What is Carolina Barbecue?
- East Vs. West.
- Mustard Sauce Vs Vinegar Sauce
- Barbeque Pulled Pork Ingredients
- How to Make Carolina Pulled Pork
- GirlCarnivore Expert Tips
- Leftovers and Reheating
- What to Serve with Carolina Pulled Pork
- more savory smoker recipes
- Carolina Pulled Pork Recipe
This recipe is the perfect introduction to Southern barbecue. It’s bursting with flavor, especially when you drench it in a tangy sauce. Well worth the wait, it’s a versatile protein-packed dish perfect for serving at your next gathering. Try this easy recipe on pork sandwiches for some of the best barbecue you have ever tasted.
What is Carolina Style BBQ?
When discussing barbecue, it’s fun to explore the conversation about the unique BBQ regions in the U.S. There’s Texas barbecue, which is its own thing, but I’d say brisket. Then the battle of ribs between the dry rub and spicy sauces in the heart of America.
It’s not just the meat, it’s the spice blends and sauces that accompany the experience. But one thing they all have in common, besides aromatic smoke pits, is knowing how to feed people.
Carolina is its own region of barbecue
While visiting Charlotte, North Carolina, for a barbecue event, I made sure to book a few extra days to explore the city and the famous “Carolina-style” barbecue. On my adventure, I made sure to take about an hour-long detour to head over to Lexington Barbecue to receive amazing hospitality, and I am pretty sure one of everything on the menu.
Lexington’s been a community staple since 1962 and has roots in the battle of Eastern vs. Western barbecue. Of all the bites I had that day (and no lie, I am a sucker for a hush puppy), the chopped pork slow-smoked over hickory was the best bbq.
What is Carolina Barbecue?
Barbecue is a lot of things to a lot of people. But when you hear Carolina barbecue, people are referring to smoked pork, It comes pulled, shredded, or chopped. It’s based in a vinegar sauce and served on a plate as is, or on a bun dipped in that tangy vinegar-based sauce.
Carolina pork can be a whole hog or just the shoulder, but often not rubbed in much more than a quick salt blend with nothing too fancy. Paired with the simple, not fruity or overly pungent woods, produces a subtle flavor without over smoking the meat.
The key to picking the wood for Carolina barbecue is to keep it simple. Post oak and hickory are the way to go here. They burn with a subtle flavor for the hours the pork will be lingering over the coals. The smoke ring you can get is pretty impressive without worrying the flavor will be too overpowering.
East Vs. West.
To the untrained eye, Carolina may just seem like a state hung up on ‘just barbecue pork,’ but there is a difference between Lexington-style and the eastern region of the state. Things on the east are simpler with just the pork and a tangy vinegar sauce, whereas the further out in the state you get, things get spiced up a bit with a dash of sugar and sweet tomato in the sauce and slaw.
Whether you like one or the other is open for friendly debate, but one thing is for sure with Carolina barbecue, it’s all about the hog.
Mustard Sauce Vs Vinegar Sauce
Welp, here’s another battle of tastes, but it’s more a North vs South thing (well, at least between the Carolinas) as the thin vinegar-based bbq sauce is more of a North Carolina tried and true classic while the Mustard-Based BBQ Sauce (and also vinegar heavy) sauce is regionally more common in South Carolina.
Barbeque Pulled Pork Ingredients
Ingredients for the Spice Rub
- Kosher salt
- Ground mustard
- Black pepper
- Cayenne Pepper
Ingredients for the Pork
- Whole pork shoulder – bone in
- Apple juice vinegar mop sauce (or apple cider vinegar)
How to Make Carolina Pulled Pork
Wanting to introduce some West Coast friends to East Coast BBQ the other day, I popped a pork shoulder in the smoker over hickory chunks and set out for a few hours, just letting the time go by. When it was all said and done, served with a quick slaw, vinegar sauce, and mustard sauce for sampling, and some fried mac and cheese on the side. Even those friends that don’t like smoked pork, because it’s too smokey, agreed this was delicious.
Prep the Pork
- First, mix the spice rub ingredients together in a small bowl. Rub the seasoning onto the pork (generously, on all sides). Cover the pork and place in the refrigerator until it’s ready to smoke (4 to 24 hours).
Prep the Smoker
- In a chimney starter, prep your charcoal. Once the embers are ashed, carefully transfer them to your smoker (per the manual). When you’re ready to smoke, place the wood chunks over the coals and arrange a drip pan in the smoker (if your smoker’s big enough). Place the grate in the smoker.
Smoke the Pork
- Remove your rubbed pork shoulder from the smoker and cover it. Smoke the pork for 3-4 hours until the pork’s internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F with a digital meat thermometer.
- Then, remove the meat and wrap it in aluminum foil (but before you pinch to seal the foil, pour your vinegar over the pork). (Note: If you’re using a vinegar-based mop, spray it liberally every 30-35 minutes.)
- Put the pork (still wrapped in foil) back in the smoker for 2-3 hours (it should reach 190 to 200 degrees F with an instant-read thermometer).
- Finally, remove the pork from the smoker and allow it to rest in the foil for at least 30 minutes.
Pull the Meat
- Once the pork is cool enough to handle, remove the bone and shred the meat (or simply chop it into bite-sized pieces). Shred pork using our favorite Oxo meat claws or whatever tool you have on hand. Dig in! The browned bits are always packed with extra tangy flavor!
GirlCarnivore Expert Tips
Best tools for BBQ Pulled Pork
- Other than the pork shoulder and sauce, you will need a smoker, charcoal, wood for smoking, and a drip pan.
- Heavy-duty rubber gloves are also great to have on hand to keep the mess at bay.
- The smoker for this is method is a classic pit-style smoker with coals and wood chips on the charcoal under the pork. However, an offset smoker would work perfectly as well. We used Pit Barrel drum-style smoker for this cook.
- Hickory or post oak smoking wood and Cowboy All-Natural hardwood briquets were the fuel.
The Trick to Perfect Smoked Pork
- Patience. Delivered low and slow. Slow cooking the meat will help it maintain it’s delicious flavor.
- When you smoke a perfect pork shoulder (or even whole hog), the pork shreds easily. Things like weather and temp affect the cooking time as well as how steady your smoker is holding heat. You want to maintain a pile of embers that lingers in the 225 to 250 degrees area for the duration of the cook.
- For a shoulder, the bone will pull clean from the meat in an easy tug once things have cooled enough to get a good handle on it. To achieve this, you want to smoke your pork to a temperature of 190 to 205 degrees so that the collagen breaks down and the pork easily shreds.
- Good barbecue is about temp, not time.
- All in all, the pork smoked for about 7 to 10 hours, depending on the size of the shoulder. I let it cook for about 3 to 4 hours until it temps at 160 before wrapping it in foil and mopping it. After that, it returns to the grill for another few hours until it temps at 190 degrees.
- Remove the pork at 190 from the smoker and wrap it in foil. Let it rest for 30 minutes to an hour before shredding the meat. Even then, it may be retaining a lot of heat, so make sure to pop on clean heavy-duty grilling gloves if needed to handle it or use forks or grilling ‘claws.’
Leftovers and Reheating
Smoked pulled pork should stay fresh in your fridge for 3-4 days. You can also freeze it in an airtight container for up to three months.
Reheat this pulled pork on the stove (or in the microwave in a pinch). You can also reheat it In a pressure cooker to make a BBQ Pork Stuffed Sweet Potato Pile or BBQ Pork Breakfast Quesadillas. Good BBQ is always amazing when added to next-day meals.
What to Serve with Carolina Pulled Pork
Any classic barbecue side or Southern dish makes a delicious pairing with this recipe. Try it with hush puppies, jalapeño cornbread, rice pilaf, or cowboy caviar (or even a simple side salad! Try one with apples and carrots). Other great choices include smoked cabbage, umami smoked mushrooms, or creamy dutch oven mac and cheese.
When it comes to smoking pork for hours, the key is using the right cut. I recommend the shoulder because it has all the right components to work the magic. Long fibers, plenty of fat and collagen to keep things moist, and flavor for days.
But, there are other cuts you can use, like butt, no pun actually intended. Pork butt is also pork shoulder. However, it comes from a spot higher up on the leg close to the shoulder.
It is every bit as fatty and tough before you get it on the smoker, which is perfect. You want that fat to melt into the meat. The toughness from the extra collagen melts down, too. Those make the pork so delicious after sitting by hot coals for hours.
For the vinegar mop, stick with apple cider vinegar. Can you use white vinegar or other vinegar? Sure. But apple cider vinegar has a nice level of acidity and adds just a touch of sweetness to the meat as well.
You can’t go wrong with it, and it won’t color the meat like a red wine vinegar will. White vinegar tends to be higher in acidity, so use them if your goal is to up the level of tang.
This Carolina-style pulled pork recipe makes some of the best shredded pork you will ever taste. The grocery store-prepared pork just won’t do it after trying this recipe.
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Carolina Pulled Pork
- 1 tbsp Salt
- 1/2 tbsp Ground mustard
- 1 tsp Black pepper
- 1 tsp Paprika
- 1/4 tsp Cayenne
For the Pork
- 5 lbs pork shoulder bone in
- 1/2 cup apple juice vinegar mop or apple cider vinegar
Prep the Pork
- In a small bowl, mix the salt, ground mustard, pepper, paprika, and cayene together.
- Rub the pork liberally on all sides with the seasoning.
- Cover and place in the fridge until ready to smoke, for 4 to 24 hours.
Prep the Smoker
- Prep your charcoal in a chimney starter and once the embers are ashed, carefully transfer to your smoker per the manufacturer's directions
- When ready to smoke, place the wood chunks over the coals.
- Arrange a drip pan in the smoker if your smoker has the room for it.
- Place the grate in the smoker.
Smoke the Pork
- Place the rubbed pork shoulder in the smoker and cover.
- Smoke the pork 3 to 4 hours until the pork temps at 160 degrees.
- Remove the pork from the smoker and wrap in heavy duty foil.
- Pour the apple juice or cider over the pork and fold the foil up over the top and pinch to seal.
- If you are using a vinegar based mop, spray liberally every 30 to 35 minutes
- Place the foil wrapped pork back in the smoker and cook for another 2 to 3 hours until the pork reaches an internatl tempature of 190 to 200 degrees.
- Remove the pork from the smoker and allow the pork to rest in the foil for at least 30 minutes.
Pull the Meat
- When the pork is safe to handle, remove the bone from the pork and shred the meat or chop into bite sized pieces.