Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's Special About North Carolina Barbeque?

OK, I guess I should come clean and confess the following before I continue with this post: I am not a native North Carolinian. It gets worse: I wasn't born or raised in the South. Now brace yourself for the biggie: I'm from............ New York City. {horrified gasp - "New York City?!?"} Now that that's out of the way, I can honestly say that I fell in love with North Carolina barbecue when I moved to Winston-Salem at the impressionable age of 18. Until then, I thought "barbecue" was only a verb (as in, "to barbecue") or an adjective ("barbecued pork"). One taste of the pulled pork at my first pig pickin' and I quickly learned that "barbecue" is quite properly used as a noun - and it's delicious! Since then, I've had barbecue from one end of NC to the other, at family-run BBQ joints, chain restaurants, catered events and private homes. I know better than to try to make authentic smoked pulled pork BBQ myself, but I've certainly eaten enough of it to understand what makes NC barbeque unique, and what distinguishes the different styles of NC barbeque. And you can certainly slow-cook a boston butt at home on your grill without too much effort and make a pretty good pulled pork. But with apologies to those of you who already know this, I'll proceed with the explanation. And even if you know the basics, you might want to keep reading as I'll mention some representative sauces that you might not be familiar with.

First, "barbeque" (regardless of how you spell it) in North Carolina always means pork. More specifically, real NC barbecue is slow-cooked (at least 16 to 18 hrs), preferrably over real charcoal, at a very low temperature for pork (usually between 250 to 300 degrees). The long cooking time is needed to ensure that the meat is cooked thoroughly to kill the parasites commonly found in pork. Dry rubs, sauces or seasonings usually aren't used during cooking, except perhaps for occasional basting with a vinegar sauce containing a few spices such as red or black pepper, salt, and maybe something else relatively innocuous. The basting is merely to keep the outside of the pork from completely drying out, and not to add specific flavors. The pork is done when it easily pulls off the bone - and the key word is "easily". If you have to tug at the meat or use a knife to remove it from the bone, or (heaven forbid) the meat is pink, then it ain't done yet! The sauce is added after the pork is pulled from the bone, chopped and ready to be served.

Second, there are two main styles of NC barbecue: Eastern style, and Western (also called Piedmont or Lexington) style. The differences are in the pork, and the sauce. The dividing line for the styles is somewhere in the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), so that both styles are found in the Triangle, but Eastern Style is dominant east of Raleigh while Western Style is common west of Raleigh.

Eastern style NC BBQ uses the whole hog, as in, meat from the entire pig, and the meat is chopped to a relatively fine consistency. The star is the pork, and eastern style sauces are "simple" in that they are supposed to enhance the meat instead of hide any flaws in the meat or the cooking process. Accordingly, true eastern NC style BBQ sauces are vinegar-based without any tomatoes, and usually include a definite peppery flavor. Two classic eastern NC style barbecue sauces are Scott's Barbecue Sauce and Ole Time Hot Sauce. Some authentic eastern style sauces add a bit of sugar to "soften" the acidity of the vinegar - an example of such a sauce is Duplin's Finest BBQ Sauce. One of the most beloved authentic eastern NC BBQ sauces is Wells Hog Heaven Barbecue Sauce, which adds a touch of sugar and also a hint of natural smoke, but stays true to the tomato-less, straight vinegar base.

Western or Piedmont or Lexington style NC BBQ uses only the pork shoulder, and the meat is more coarsely chopped than eastern style BBQ. The western NC BBQ sauces add tomato (in varying amounts) to a vinegar base, and usually also some sweetener and additional spices or other ingredients. The resulting sauce is somewhat thicker (although usually still "thin" compared to Texas or Memphis sauces) and sweeter than eastern NC style sauces. A typical example of a Piedmont style barbecue sauce is Jim's Own Homestyle BBQ Sauce (which also comes in a Hot version). It's not uncommon for western NC style barbeque sauces to include unusual ingredients to add complexity to the flavor. One prime example (which is also one of my favorite sauces) is Ole Time BBQ Sauce, which includes a touch of coffee and tamarind, although you can't taste either ingredient individually. Another excellent western NC style barbecue sauce that's thicker and sweeter than most is Lazy J Bar-Bee-Q Sauce - and it's an anomaly because it's actually made in the eastern part of the state! In the far western NC mountains, you can find much thicker, richer sauces that start bringing to mind the thick, sweet and smoky sauces more typical of Texas. One of my favorite NC barbecue sauces from the mountains is Old Mule BBQ Sauce, a tomato and vinegar based sauce that's slow-cooked down to a rich thickness for complex flavor with a peppery kick.

Finally, a lesser known style of barbeque sauce found in North Carolina is "low country" or mustard-based BBQ sauce. This style is more typical of South Carolina and Florida, but it can be found in the southernmost and southeastern parts of NC, especially near the SC border. A good example of low-country BBQ sauce is Joe Bud's Everything Sauce.

I hope this information has been useful, and that you'll try some NC barbecue sauces at home. In fact, we'll gladly send you our instruction sheet on how to make NC barbecue if you mention this blog when you order a North Carolina barbecue sauce from the Carolina Sauce Company!

Zestfully yours,

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