North Carolina BBQ

The following is an old, long usenet post from "Bob in Ga". He explains the pit techniques and saucing methods for North Carolina, whole-hog barbeque. The BBQ joints referred to in this account are:



"Here's some thought on how to build a pit for this "Classic BBQ"...

This is a very difficult subject to be able to describe in print. At least to me :) So I'm not going to try too hard.

The biggest mistake I see people make is in the actual surface they lay the hog on. This, I believe, is a crucial part of making this type of bbq. In my opinion, the surface you must have is STEEL BARS. Not a hamburger or some all purpose cooking surface. To give you a reason why, I'm going to have to sort of jump way ahead for a second.

After you have finished cooking the hog (skin up) and deem it properly cooked, you will be turning to blister the skin.

Upon turning, all of the grease will immediately flow down toward the skin. This grease, when further heated by the coals actually fries the skin like a pork rind. The grease-filled skin will expand downward. You need the large gaps between the bars to allow this to properly happen. The skin directly touching the bar will not expand and cook well normally and often be inedible. Imagine having a mesh or other all-purpose type of grate and attempting to pick the useable skin from the non-useable in little diamond shaped patterns that cover a large percentage of the hog.

Another reason this is a "must" is the same reason that bars are not generally suitable for open-faced meat, such as shoulder pieces, briskets and ribs. The uneven weight distribution created by a small number of bars allows the skin to sag and expand much better.

The reason that I don't consider bars to be optimal for open-faced cuts is that the uneven weight distribution of the bars tends to put too much weight on the areas resting on them, thus creating hard inedible area's on the outside or exposed meat. It's not a problem on a hog because there's very little outside meat exposed, it's rests mostly on bone areas and the "intactness" of it doesn't allow much sagging. I do, however, cook open-faced cuts on my bars, but they can't be done at very high heat/radiation without a detrimental affect on some parts of the outside meat. Best is probably to lay a more all-purpose grate over the bars. But that's not what we're talking about here :)

Bottom line is try to get bars or a surface that has as large of gaps as possible. I usually use about 5 bars or so under a small hog. A larger one will take more.

Now back to the rest of the pit.

The cooking height is a question that I could write forever about, but may confuse myself more than I confuse you :)

The lower you get, the more dangerous it is to drying out and burning up your meat. This is less of a concern with a hog than with the more popular open-faced cuts. But not something to take lightly. Every inch causes severe changes in how it will cook, especially as you start moving below 24".

Here's my take on the subject via what I learned from The Wilber's and Pete Jones operations combined with my own experiences.

I would guess that Wilber's cooks at between 16" and 20". They fire the open doors putting all of the coals directly under the meat. They cook smaller (70-100 lb) hogs very fast in 4-6 hours. Skin-up the entire way allowing them to cool for several hours before turning to cook the skin.

Their pits are covered with roofing tin that is laid flat over the pit without much ventillation. They fire every :20 minutes to 1/2 hour. Grease fires are more the norm than the exception according to one pitmaster. Their hogs turn out generally very charred, which makes for a good taste much like a good steak. But they often overcook the meat or burn it. This isn't really a shot against the pitmasters, only a product of the methodology and height. In fact I believe the meat gets overcooked occasionally because the pits become so hot it continues to cook far too long.

But they have their orders as to when to have it cooked by. This bbq, as I said, is often not perfect. Oooh, but when it's good........there's nothing like it. But they generally fall short on the skin aspect (burning it) and that alone, in my opinion is why I may give a slight overall nod to the bbq at Pete Jone's. I have the advantage of cooking only one hog and being able to pay much closer attention to it.

The further you move away from the coals the less chance of having a grease fire actually flame up high enough to burn up your hog. I had many experiences with grease fires at below 15", especially when turning skin down.

Now for another method... This is the Jones methdod. Their pits are about 2 feet high. He keeps at least 1 foot of ashes and grease built up in them so the hogs cook at about a foot or so. The pit has no door on the bottom to shovel coals. They lay the butterflied hogs in the middle and fire along the sides just to the outside of the hog. This is not exactly direct, but some coals do end up underneath the hog. Also it's so low that the radiation factor may be as strong as having the coals directly beneath at a higher height. (I don't know the formula but it was posted here a couple of years ago) They have metal tops that swing down which are left slightly open.

The result of this method is a more consistant, tender, and juicy bbq. But also a somewhat milder flavor than the aggressive approach used by the Wilber's method. I was told by Jeff Jones (Pete's nephew) that if you were going to stay with it, you could fire it as fast as you can make the coals and cook one in 4--5 hours. And that's for a 150+ lb hog.

Notice where I'm going with this ? :) Right !! As controversial as it may be, I'm trying to dispel the misinformation that pollutes the internet as to classic bbq pork being a "low and slow" product ! Or that coals are used for nothing more than heating up a cooking chamber to a certain temperature as judged by a thermometer or any other type of temperature gauge.

But then again most of the information that abounds is not intended for classic pork bbq. But unfortunately most people who read this don't realise this. But as I have been able to gather, most don't care anyway :) The faster meat cooks, the better flavor it will have. Unless the actual intention is to bathe it in smoke ala the new-fangled smoker version of bbq.

But that's not what I'm talking about here. That's an entirely different dish.

I can do either of the above methods on my pit. My personal experiences with both methods has been positive. I will say that the Jones method is quite preferable to the Wilber's if one is cooking a large hog or large shoulder. This is because the Wilber's method will dry the outside before the inside gets done, especially at lower heights. You'd have to get me at least two+ feet from the coals to get me to cook a 40 lb shoulder using the Wilber's method. Maybe more, or else I'd be totally slow-baking it, which may be the only way to approach a cut like this. I'll leave cuts of this size to the pitmasters at Dan gill's get-togethers :)

Remember again that this bbq, it's flavor and the method was used to cook small hogs, which generally speaking, might have a shoulder that weighs 6 pounds which translates into a butt of only about 3 pounds or so. There's a lot of misconceptions that abound as it pertains to cooking times required for whole hogs versus pieces of shoulder. For starters, the 1 hour+ per lb at 250 F "internet formula" goes right out the window once you're you stop dealing with #1 hog shoulder pieces that are sold in the grocery stores.

I think most of these folks that say they are going to cook an under 120 pound hog for some ridiculous period of time are simply out for a good time. Or from the contest crowd that produced that embarrassing steamed-looking, 24 hour cooked #120 lb hog from the drunk who won the Memphis in May in '99. I don't think that cooking times are greatly extended by having the hog intact.

I think this is something that is born out of people who live by "the formula" and think that because they have a 100 pound carcass, they should apply the formula and cook it some comical amount of time. But in all fairness to them, once again, this is an entirely different dish.

That should give you some things to think about as to how to build your pit. You're no stranger to building pits, as I've seen on your web page. As for tops, we both know the dangers of using wood/wafer board :) I'd opt for roofing tin. If you opt for the Wilber's pit/method, place the tin flat down on top of the pit. This will reduce upward draw, lessening the chance of a grease fire. Build it 3-sided or leave enough room to comfortably fit a shovel and swing it side to side. Don't cover the door during cooking. Leave it as is. If you go with the Jones method, build it 4- sided and leave your top slightly ajar during cooking to give ventillation. I simply use a brick (layed flat) under the top/tin to prop it open when cooking this way.

As for making coals. Do it in something that will make a lot of them. Too many is far better than not enough. Keep a good fire going at all times. Make sure to have a good supply at the end if, for some reason, the skin is giving you trouble.

Take some garden tools as you'll probably find a use for most of them during some point during the process :) Remember, in this method, the goal isn't simply to heat your pit, but to cook the meat with the coals.

I'm going to advise you to salt the skin (only) after you lay the hog on the pit. Give it a good coating. Neither Wilber's nor Pete Jones salts the meat-side before cooking. I have done it and didn't care for the result. Wilber's doesn't put anything at all on either side of their hogs.

But because skin is such an intregal part of classic pork bbq, I recommend salting it. Pete Jones swears by it and his skin is consistantly top-notch. My own experience backs up his view.

I have done good skin without salting it, but the results, like Wilber's, have been less than consistent. The meat, however, is a preference call as to whether to salt. Actually there's not that much exposed meat to salt.

As for cooking the hog, try to think of it as one piece of meat. You're not trying to cook the different parts that just happen to be connected. (parts cookers can be prone to approach it this way) Also try not to think in terms of temperature, as measured in any terms. I know this can be hard. Just keep a close eye on it to make sure you're not cooking too fast. A full shovel spread evenly at about 1/2 hour intervils should be sufficient for the first couple of hours. You can use two shovels at first to get it cooking good.

After that, just try to keep the heat up and keep it cooking as rapidly as possible without burning it, much like you would a good, thick steak. It may require more or less due to the effect of the wind on the coals, but you get the general idea. (Mine is inside so I don't have a problem with the wind, but simply leaving the door open can stir up the coals and make them burn much hotter and out faster)

When is it done ? Again, hard to verbalize. But if you are used to cooking shoulders or picnics you should know what to look for. There will be a gap or space between the skin and meat. This will happen in the middlin'/rib area first. Then probably the ham. Wait for this to happen on the shoulder. Once it starts to happen in one spot, it can happen in the rest rather quickly, so keep a close eye on it, especially if you've got it cooking pretty hot and fast. The only part that may not pull away completely is the area on the shoulder directly on the end leading up to the head. There will be thick fat here.

Try to wait for it or even fire under it heavier if the rest looks done. Let the rest get a pretty good gap, not just barely pulled away. That part of the shoulder is just a judgement call based on what it looks like in relation to how thoroughly you think the rest of the hog is cooked. The more fat the hog has, the less you have to worry about it. Just as would be the case with the "low and slow" method due to the very forgiving temperature environment that the methods uses.

But these are types of things that seperate pitmasters from thermometer watchers. But at this point there's a fine line between having perfectly acceptable meat and perfect meat.

(Disclaimer: Just like Wilber's and Pete jones, I don't always cook mine perfectly either. But that's the challenge that makes this a hobby, rather than simply an alternative method of cooking cookie-cutter meat that can only be distinguished by variations in some type of external seasoning.)

Once you have determined that it's cooked, take something and wipe off the ashes and any excess salt that may be left on the skin. Now is time to turn it. As I said, I generally prefer to cook them in half's, so it's not nearly as difficult. If whole, I take an old feed sack and stick my arms through to protect my forearms. Then get under it as far as possible with my forearms, pull toward me and filp it as best as possible. It's delicate and I usually ask for help. Bill Tolbert had a unique method posted a while back. Unfortunately I cannot get to both ends of my pit and cannot use it. Don't forget to brush off the salt as it can make your skin too salty.

Pete Jones claims he cooks his skin with the coals to the outside of the hog. Personally I have had very limited success with this. Actually one of his pitmen told me that they put coals outside to cook the hog and then underneath to cook the skin. I watched as another guy put them to the outside and closed the lid.

I walked away for a while after that. About :45 minutes later the skin was perfectly cooked. Did they add coals under while I was away ? I suspect they may have, but it's still a mystery to me. The cooking time was made longer due to the meat and pit being not up to heat.

My advice is to go directly under, regardless of how you cook the hog. I get almost perfect results this way. If you've been firing underneath and the pit is good and hot, it may not be necessary to add many coals.

Once turned, leave the top off of the pit ! The hog is already cooked. You don't want to add any air temperature which may further cook your hog. You're simply cooking the skin with radiation at this point. Once you have turned it and fired it, you should almost immediately see the skin start to protrude down between the bars almost like a baloon filling with air. It has to be hot to blister properly, but be careful not to burn it, which can happen more easily the lower you choose to cook. Keep in mind that the actual skin will be much closer to the coals than the bars by virtue of the dropping. It should cook in about 20 minutes or so. It will be soft when it first drops. It's ready when it hardens up. If it's not happening right, add more coals. You'll get your best skin from the middlin'/rib area. It gets more difficult to get done as you move towards the ends of the hog, but you'll get more than enough from the center for your barbecue.

This part of the process can be seemingly violent with tons of smoke from grease hitting the coals.

Actually, the burning grease makes me nauseous if I inhale too much of it :) It's also probably not a scene that the "low and slow" crown would ever associate with bbq. The chances for a grease fire are at their peak during this process. Watch it closely. If some coals catch on fire, watch that they don't touch or climb the grease stream up to your meat. Simply having a few small coals burning isn't going to hurt anything. You can move the ones that catch fire out of the way if you deem necessary.

Now comes the fun part ! Take it off whole or cut off the various pieces, whichever is easier.

Pull all of the meat and stack it up somewhere. Now take the skin and cut or break off the parts that really blistered and expanded nicely. Cut away the parts that were laying on the bars. Now chop the skin finely.

If any sems tough and doesen't want to chop, discard it, as it will we inedible. It should almost be like chopping up a fried prok rind, with a light airy texture.

Next chop up your bbq somewwhat coarsely. Then sprinkle a reasonable amount of skin over the meat. If you put to much it can become too dominant in my opinion, but this is more of a personal preference thing. Chop it a little bit more mixing the skin it well. (the skin is reason #2 as to why Lexington Style cannot be considered THE classic) Pick up the meat from the bottom and flip occasionally during chopping.

You asked for seasoning...I truly believe the classic seasoning for this is simply a little vinegar, (traditionally cider) salt and pepper. With some red peopper flakes sprinkled in, more or less for decoration than anything else. When I say this, I mean take some vinegar and pour over the pile of bbq. Just enough so that it gives it a good smooth looking texture. Err on the side of not enough as this can be added at the table but not taken away. You don't want it watery at all. Then take the salt and lightly sprinkle over the meat. Same with the peopper and flakes.

Chop this into the bbq.

And hey......LET's EAT !! It's that simple :)

The seasoning is the least important thing here. Many recipes for East Carloina pork vinegar sauce exist. But to me they are far too much trouble for something that should be barely noticeable. Whatever you do, don't use any tomato product on the meat. (this is the 3'rd reason why Lexington Style can not be considered THE classic)

I would also shy away from using any sugar. Some may argue that it is acceptable, but I've heard that East Carolinians often hid themselves in a closet if they had a mind to put sugar in their vinegar :) The above seasoning method is a close proximity of what is done at the Pete Jones's.

Although they use vinegar and Texas Pete (still vinegar) as their vinegar portion and does not use red pepper flakes. Since they have been doing it this way for 130 years longer than Wilber's (since the 1830's), I would tend to believe this was the more classic method. But the only way you can go wrong is to over-sauce it or vinegar it or destroy it with tomato or sugar.

Wilber's puts some type of cooked sauce on their's, although not the same stuff they sell in the front. They're seasoning is normally well done and has a nice peppery taste. I have not detected nor do I have any reason to believe there is any sugar present in their seasoning, either.

The amount that that I advised you to chop it may strike a nerve in some pulled pork and pig-pickin' fans. But my ideal of classic pork bbq is somewhat more finely chopped than many big thick steak loving Americans would find proper. But I believe the "classic" is meat designed to be put between two pieces of bread. And to me, I think the idea of chopping at all would be lost if I didn't get a taste of all of the various parts of the hog with the wonderful differences in flavor and texture in every bite !

However, BY NO MEANS... am I in favor of grinding meat to oblivion such as has been popularized by Parker's and other "has-been", gas burning Eastern Joints.

Well, you asked for my opinions and what I know. That's all I can think of at the moment for someone who has their eyes set on the "Classic". I want everyone to know that while I do all of this somewhat regularly, it doesn't mean that I hate "low and slow" smoked meat. On the contrary, I have quite an appreciation for a well-done version of that dish. But I just hate like hell seeing the the classic, along with and all the thoughts, skills and equipment needed to produce it get swept into oblivion by the mass propaganda that abounds promoting another dish commonly referred to by the same name.

But what do I know ? There's a guy on this list from California (I forget his name), I believe from the Frisco area that privately e-mails listmembers claiming that I am a fraud and have never actually cooked bbq :) So keep this in mind just in case anyone decides try something that I say.

All thoughts, corrections and critique encouraged and welcomed !

Bob in Ga"