Pulled pork sandwich, from Ruhlman's Twenty. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

With these last few posts on cooking for groups, it occurred to me that I should post one of my go-to, fabulously easy, always-gets-raves main course that serves a lot of people.  East Carolina barbecue, called pulled pork here up north.

When I arrived at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, from Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1980s I knew the word barbecue to be a verb. You did it on a grill. As a noun, it meant a gathering to eat food cooked on a grill—it was something you had, something you invited neighbors to.

But on the drive back from a place called Jugtown (to get there we’d gone through a town called Whynot, with a church named after the town; loved that), we stopped at what looked like an actual shack in the woods, billowing smoke, and had the most amazing true-blue unbelievable Carolina barbecue.  I remember asking, “It’s just called barbecue?”  I’d never had anything like it.  It marked my introduction to the pig.  I’d grown up with pork chops, pork roast (with Lipton dried onion soup on top), and spareribs, but barbecue was a revelation.  Sweet, sour, porky, smoky, giving a pleasure that made my spine hum.

It wasn’t till years later when friends made a version of it that I thought to develop my own, or really just read a few traditional recipes and create a version that is as close to what I ate and still eat when I return to North Carolina.  (Not many traditional recipes call for fish sauce.)

But it’s true to East Carolina barbecue traditional: vinegar, sugar, red chilli flakes, mixed with pork that’s cooked low and slow till it pulls apart between two forks.  (Go west, go south and barbecue morphs into a whole other dish).

The following recipe should be enough sauce for a 5-pound bone-in pork shoulder. How you cook it is your business.  In my pre-Big Green Egg days, I’d sear it hard over coals in the Weber, covered, then put it in a Dutch oven for 4-6 hours at 250 degrees. Now I cook it 90 percent of the way on the big green egg for serious smoke flavor. I think smoke is critical, but if you want to make it super easy on yourself, put the raw shoulder in a Dutch oven and roast it covered at 225 overnight and that’ll do the trick as well.  Stir in the sauce. Taste for seasoning—salt, sweetness, acidity,heat. Adjust as you wish.

Having a superbowl party? This is a fabulous thing to prepare. It gets better the next day, so you can make it a day ahead and reheat. A five pound shoulder will feed 20 people.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

  • 1 cup/240 milliliters cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup/50 grams firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dried red chiles
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Kosher salt
    1. In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, chiles, fish sauce, 1 tablespoon pepper, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring just to a simmer, stirring to make sure the sugar and salt are dissolved.

Want to read more on the history of Carolina barbecue, this is an excellent history, Flavored By Time. One of the best barbecue books I’ve come across recently, and it’s heavily weighted in Texas Barbecue but it’s a great, is Peace, Love and Barbecue.

If you liked this post on Pulled Pork, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved

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54 Wonderful responses to “Eastern North Carolina BBQ”

  • Jens

    How would you do the pork shoulder sous-vide? I’ve had very mixed results.

    • Rick

      With all due respect, you wouldn’t. While sous-vide likely creates some great meals, it can’t create barbecue. Barbecue needs wood smoke.

  • Bryan

    Look forward to trying this East Carolina sauce, even though S.C. mustard BBQ is still king!

    @Jens, I regularly do a modified the Cook’s Illustrated pulled pork recipe (http://goo.gl/Btkbx) substituting (i) pork shoulder/Boston butt for regular butt and (ii) sous vide at 175F for 12 hours (or 167F for 24+) instead of the oven. Comes out great.

  • Bill

    This is how we do it in North Alabama, too, but instead of chile flakes it’s ground cayenne. No gloopy sauces there (except the white sauce for the BBQ’d chicken!).

    • Foop

      That’s how some people do it in North Alabama. I’m from there and NC style BBQ never sat well with me. Even as a kid I didn’t like vinegar based BBQ sauce. As adult, food enthusiast, and a member of the service industry, I appreciate the purpose of the vinegar based sauce, but the best BBQ is with a molasses base, or is at the very least thick and on the sweeter side like the cayenne and peach BBQ sauce I basted spare ribs with last 4th of july.

      Of course, there’ve been near fights (and probably a driunken brawl or three) in the past between member of opposing BBQ camps over which is better, but I would have to argue that the dominant style in Alabama is a thicker, sweeter sauce.

  • Andrew

    I too have fond memories of NC BBQ after spending 13 years at Duke University. I’ve made this at home using this process twice now, and it’s a true winner. Had the leftovers last night for dinner, in fact. It’s eliminated one of the main motivations for return visits to NC for me. So easy to do it myself at home, and since I’m using better quality, pastured local pork, it’s even better than what I remember. Serve it with some sauteed greens, homemade slaw, and cornbread for the full experience (I also served up some Hoppin John with this the last time).

  • Phillip

    I noticed that your article is titled “East Carolina Barbecue,” but your recipe is titled “Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce.” Down here in NC, the two expressions would have very different connotations. “East Carolina” always means a university in Greenville, and we wouldn’t ever use the expression “East Carolina” barbecue. When we refer to slow smoked pulled or chopped pork, it’s always “Eastern North Carolina barbecue.” Or, if you’re a true Eastern NC native, it’s just “barbecue.” Thanks for promoting our state’s most passionately enjoyed dish…even if you did put a particularly unusual spin on it with that fish sauce!

  • Linda

    Hmmm – I’m headed to Hilton Head for some golf this weekend. May have to make a batch of this at this house along with some low country oyster stew and shrimp and grits!

  • Liz @ Butter and Onions

    I still need to eat at The Pig. An acquaintance of mine runs that place, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it! I was in Chapel Hill for 4 years, and now I’m in Raleigh. Definitely no shortage of good bbq places to go to here.

      • cleek

        If you’re downtown, Cooper’s is a great place to go; it’s a bit of a hole-in-the-wall, but in a charming way. For a more upscale experience, The Pit is good.

  • Bagel

    We do a pork shoulder in the slow cooker with cheap root beer at least once a month, cooked for about 20 hours. It feeds the family for about a week, favorite applications are stir-fry and BBQ (though we do call it “pulled pork”). Looking forward to trying this sauce with it, I’m trying to get away from store-bought sauces as our refrigerator is stuffed to the gills with them for some reason.

  • Karen J

    I’m glad you added a link to Amazing Ribs- great site for all things smoky and delicious!

  • Mike

    Great article. Love Pork Butt on the Keg! Never tried the fish sauce. What is the theory behind it? Thanks!

  • Chappy

    “Now I cook it 90 percent of the way on the big green egg for serious smoke flavor.”

    So what’s the other 10 percent? Grilling first? Leaving in the oven for a few hours? I only ask because I have a Weber smoker and this seems easily adaptable. How long does a 5 lb shoulder take on a smoker?

  • Sam

    Same question as Chappy…do you braise to finish to increase the moisture?

  • joelfinkle

    I can strongly recommend the book “Low and Slow” by Gary Wiviott, barbecue life coach and pitmaster at Chicago’s Barn & Company. You can do the whole thing in a BGE, a barrel smoker, or even a kettle grill (with a lot of care of the coals), no need to move it.

  • Billy Merrill

    FIsh sauce in the BBQ sauce? You have got to be pulling everyone’s leg. This has to be a joke.

  • Bradford lewis

    I like to rub two pork shoulders the night before. Then I slow roast them at 225 degrees for about 12 hours until they falling apart. I take one shoulder, shred it, crisp it up in its own rendered fat and make carnitas tacos. The next night, we eat pulled pork sandwiches from the other shoulder. Pretty wonderful couple of days when we do this.

  • Maureen

    I love this bbq. Ever since I strayed over the border from Eastern Tennessee years ago. That first picture had me drooling.

  • Susan

    I’m with Bradford Lewis, above..it can be a dual purpose application. Pulled pork on corn tortillas, even with BBQ sauce and some slaw, is a wonderful pairing.

  • Todd

    A South Carolina trick…4 hours of smoke (really, after 4 hours smoke ain’t going much deeper in the meat), Rub liberally with Yeller Musterd, wrap in foil, bring to 180F in a 200F oven (8 or so hours). Pull and mix with the drippings in the foil. Now take your sauce above and finish to taste. You got something right there!

    • Darcie

      Do you ever have problems with the mustard eating away at the foil? I did something similar once, and the acid ate through the foil. But I agree with you and Bryan above – definitely need mustard in the BBQ. And I’m a damn Yankee.

  • Peter Filardo

    My pregnant-at-the-time wife (Owen is 4 now, crazy!) and I saw you at The Regular a few years ago when Reynolds Price was on hand. Pretty cool, you should come back. Anyways, thanks for the Triangle NC shout out! I just mangled a pulled pork, it was quite an accomplishment. I’ll be doing yours from now on.

  • Caitlin

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to suggest this – come down this way, and try out Allen & Sons off of 86 in Chapel Hill. It’s much better than The Pig, although The Pig’s is still pretty good.

  • Peggy

    It’s amazing how many different types of barbecue there are. Carolina BBQ is definitely tops on my list though – it’s the acidity that wins me over!

  • Jay

    I was raised in Rocky Mount and love the BBQ there. The recipe for the sauce looks great but what is “fish sauce”?

  • Duffy

    Fish sauce? Really? Out of a bottle? There look to be about 20 different brands — any recommendations?

    • Stephen

      I did a bit of research before I bought mine a couple months ago and I ended up with Three Crabs brand. Seems like a popular choice.

  • Mike

    out of this world! Never would have tried the fish sauce. I went just under a TBS and it is great! Will drop the butt on the Keg at 5 am and can’t wait for kick off. Thanks for the new idea! Cheers!

  • SusieMT

    Just had pulled pork for half time added a bit of fish sauce to the mix, it really made everything POP ! Thanks for the tip.

  • Custard

    If serving this recipe to strangers/casual acquaintances, please be sure to tell them there is fish sauce in it. Most of us with allergies wouldn’t think that seafood would be in there. (I say this a few months after a trip to the hospital because of some idiot who still believes it’s ok to not tell anyone, even if they ask, if there are anchovies in the food)

  • Abigail Blake

    I second the Flavored by Time recommendation. Great book on NC bbq. And also Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue (by the same author) with listings of the 100 or so of the best bbq joints in the state. Wish I’d had it with us this summer when we were looking for a place my dad had heard about in Shelby. Got terribly lost and ended up pulling into the hospital parking lot to ask directions. Because we consider a craving for bbq to be an emergency.

  • Gemma Seymour-Amper

    Ah, a subject dear to my heart, Eastern North Carolina Style Barbeque Sauce. I’m gratified to see that your version uses a similar proportion of vinegar to sugar as mine.

    The differences are that I arrive at the depth of my sauce not through fish sauce, but by using 1/2 c. red wine vinegar and 1/2 c. apple cider vinegar, 1/4 c. dark brown sugar, 2 tsp. fine sea salt (not kosher), only 1-2 tsp. red pepper flakes (good balance, but hotter is good, too), and 2 tsp. minced garlic.

    I don’t use fish sauce or black pepper, and I don’t heat it. Just mix it all up, and let it sit for 24 hours before using. That’ll make a generous cup for the table, but if you want to mop with it, you’ll need to make a bigger batch!

    I’m sure I get accused of being non-traditional as much as you do, but one thing is for sure about barbeque, and that’s that everyone does it just a bit differently, and most all are still good.

    Pretty soon, I should have my “Miss Gemma’s Sweet, Hot, and Tart Citrus Barbeque Mop & Glaze” nailed down. It’s not far removed from my “Miss Gemma’s Eastern North Carolina Style Vinegar Barbeque Sauce”, in that it’s primarily a sour, a sweet, a hot, garlic, and salt, but this time using orange juice and lemon juice in place of the vinegars. This can be used thin as a mop, or boiled down to a nice thick glaze which is excellent for ham, also. It’s coming along nicely, and just needs a little refinement in the proportions.

  • Gemma Seymour-Amper

    I also have my “Miss Gemma’s Special Sweet Hot Barbeque Dry Rub”, which I find quite satisfying as an example of the breed, and that just leaves me to come up with a Kansas City Style Barbeque Sauce, for which I am thinking a fermented, tomato-based sauce, to round out all my favorite Usamerican barbeque styles.

    I’ve become very dissatisfied with the store-bought varieties. It seems they get sweeter every year, and most are so sweet that they’re only good for condiment use; when cooked they go far too sweet. A good cooking sauce needs to be a bit on the sour side so it balances out when it’s cooked!

  • Matt

    Delicious. Sauce is excellent. Our 5 lb. bone in shoulder took approximately 10 hours on our BGE btw a range of 225-255. We doubled the sauce recipe and injected some of it into the shoulder before cooking. One comment…a 5 lb. shoulder does not come close to feeding 20 people…more like 10 people after you account for fat rendering, bone, etc. Overall a real crowd pleaser. Thanks, Michael. Does injecting meat with salt possibly dry out the meat?

    • EB

      On yield and amounts, a good rule of thumb for slow cooked pork butt (shoulder) to pulled pork is in the range of 50-55% finished pulled pork relative to raw butt weight. If serving as sandwiches a general guideline would be 3-4 oz per serving. Hence a 5 lb butt should yield about 2.5 lbs of pulled pork, which will comfortably produce 10 sandwiches. If serving naked the consumption may increase a bit, to about 6 oz per person.

  • John

    I got “Twenty” two weeks ago and I’m going to make this pulled pork for dinner tomorrow night. Thanks so much for writing this book, Technique is key.

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