Note: We like to toast and grind our own dried chile peppers for better flavor, but you can certainly just use your favorite chili powder or your own combination of dried chiles.
Very quickly: for those who want pulled pork in 2 or 3 hours: please check out this almost-as-good-as-smoked Faux-Smoked Pulled Pork recipe. Once pulled, use the sauce recipe below. For the real deal, keep reading.
Successful barbecue is evidence of a patient mind and good fire-tending. It is boring and laborious when compared to the easy sizzle most people content themselves with. Searing fish steaks, or even slowly and methodically basting and crisping a grill-roasted chicken, turkey, or lamb leg is much more exciting, and gratifies much quicker.
Grilling happens in a manageable span of time, hence it is usually a good spectacle for your dinner-guest audience, who can admire your deft handiwork—or share in the drama of near (or, sadly, complete) failures, flare-ups, etc. Plus, if conversation is at an ebb, advice can be proffered to or solicited by the chef as the process unfolds… it’s all very participatory, fun, and produces convenient and flavorful meals for a crowd in a pinch.
Barbecue—the way Southerners and most right-thinking people understand it—is a day-long process (if you’re lucky). You’re cooking solo, using (hopefully) precise instruments, and being kept “in the dark” as to the condition of your food—and most especially how much longer it needs to be smoked for the whole magical process to finish up. Each shoulder, rack of ribs, and brisket is different—only time and attentive personal observation will tell. But, as many can attest, the famously rich, smoke-infused results are worth every bit of the effort and will earn you gratitude with your friends, family, and whoever else you choose to share the riches with.
There is no art to barbecue in the sense most people think of artistic genius… barbecuing is an educable skill that merely requires the right tools and a measure of patience to master. How fast you become proficient at producing barbecue is dependently solely on your equipment, your ingredients, and a little attention. No really—very little, but spread over 8 hours or more. Don’t worry, there are a few tricks you can use to speed up the process… or, for the truly patient cook who thinks ahead, you can keep the pork “loosening” overnight without early-morning alarms and fire-marshal paranoia.
Regardless of what type of barbecue you prefer—or what style of sauce (sometimes an even more contentious subject)—the specific alchemy of all barbecuing remains uncontested: a tough, fibrous, fatty, or connective-tissue-rich cut of meat is slowly smoked at a very low a temperature for a long period of time. If successful, this yields tender, unctuous results, especially when you consider how cheap traditional barbecue cuts are. It must be said, brisket and ribs are climbing in price, but pork shoulder remains very economical. Pork is also the least-affected by the quality of meat you purchase… a good brisket yields good barbecue, but even the poorest shoulder will, generally, be comparable in flavor and texture to the best you can find.
For these reasons, we will deal solely with smoked pork shoulder for this set of blogs (please don’t hate too much in the comments). To start, I think it’s probably best to tease those who are considering smoking for the first time with a simple, iconic dinner they can look forward to: the pulled pork sandwich.
A few particulars should suffice, as assembling the sandwich is a no-brainer. Though some prefer to chop their shoulder meat after pulling it apart, I love keeping the “bark” –the layer of blackened meat, toasted spices, and caramelized sugar that forms on the outside of the shoulder during the smoking process— in recognizable chunks, and the moist, interior meat pulled just enough to be distributed on a sandwich. Some sliced red cabbage that’s been marinated in your sauce is a good, crunchy counterpoint to the fall-apart-tender pork (though many like a creamy coleslaw). The pork should be tossed with your sauce of choice as well before being served on a toasted sesame bun.
I throw down my sauce gauntlet: Eastern NC vinegar-based sauces—ones that go easy on the tomatoes and heavy on spice—are by far my favorite accompaniment. They balance the pork’s smoky richness with a nice, enlivening twang. The basic recipe for Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce in the 75th Anniversary edition of JOY is a wonderful starting point for those who enjoy that style of sauce. The very German approach of many South Carolinians to seasoning pork—yellow mustard and vinegar-based sauce—is also very enjoyable. As a sort of compromise, I usually throw in a teaspoon or two of ground mustard seeds into the sauce (yellow or brown both work just fine). A tablespoon or more of tomato paste adds flavor without any of the cloying sweetness that ketchup lends to many barbecue sauce recipes.
I must warn you: if you try grinding mustard at home, don’t gas yourself. Take the lid off the grinder only after all the granules of mustard have calmed down and keep the fumes away from your nose. You will only make that mistake once! Better to avoid it right off the bat.
Remember: a teaspoon or more of ground mustard seed and a tablespoon of tomato paste are excellent in here. Microplaned garlic is a welcome heresy. A stray cumin seed has been known to taint our renditions on this simple vinegar infusion as well. I guess the point is: start here, choose your ultimate destination.
Mix in a bowl:
3⁄4 cup distilled white vinegar
3⁄4 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce, or more to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and black pepper to taste