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Infusion Technique For Homemade
Eastern North Carolina Style BBQ

Tom "Big Heat" Solomon bigheat@earthlink.net
Barbeque Compound - Gun Mountain, Virginia
Eleven acres of hickory and oak--send me your pigs!

INTRODUCTION

Eastern North Carolina style barbeque is, by most accounts, the oldest style of barbeque in the United States. Originating during Colonial times in the coastal regions of Virginia and the Carolinas, it endures and thrives today in the eastern third of the state of North Carolina. According to Vince Staten and Greg Johnson, this style of barbeque "originated in those days when people thought tomatoes were poisonous and refused to eat them. When the early settlers wanted a seasoning for their barbequed pig, they chose English ketchup, a vinegar seasoned with oysters and peppers and other spices, but containing no tomato."

Staten and Johnson observe that "[today] Down East they cook the whole hog, with no baste, over hickory coals, then 'pick' the meat off the bone, chop it into fine hunks, and coat it with a thin, hot vinegar-based sauce." Since cooking a whole hog is not a valid option for most home barbequers, I have come up with a three-step "infusion" technique that yields a reasonable facsimile of Eastern North Carolina style barbeque.

EQUIPMENT

The recommended smoker for making homemade Eastern North Carolina style barbeque is a horizontal wood-fueled smoker with an offset firebox, such as the Brinkmann Smoke 'N Pit Professional, or similar style smokers made by companies such as Oklahoma Joe, BBQ Pits By Klose, etc. I have had some success using the small, vertical, $30 dollar "water smokers" as well; however, it is an onerous process and does not, as a rule, produce the deep, rich, smoky results that off-set smokers yield. I have no experience with gas smokers, but many people have reported good results using gas and wood chips and/or wood pellets. If you have a gas smoker rather than a wood unit, I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to make a perfectly acceptable version of Eastern North Carolina style barbeque. After all, the key is "heat, smoke, and time," with smoke I think being the most important element. While using gas will not make your barbeque "authentic" or "traditional", you are not cooking a whole hog, either, so by all means use what you have.

WOOD

This technique assumes you will be using wood for both heat and smoke. Those using wood only for smoke can make the necessary adjustments.

As noted, hickory is the traditional wood of choice for Eastern North Carolina style barbeque. However, oak is also commonly used, and both are good, strong, full-bodied woods. From my experience, the ideal mixture is 40 percent hickory, 40 percent oak, and 20 percent apple wood--apple imparts a distinct, slightly sweet essence that nicely balances the slightly bitter, high harshness of hickory and the deep, mellow baritones of oak.

Different schools of thought exist regarding in what state (pre-burned coals, split logs, or whole logs) the wood should be added to the burn chamber, and what color the smoke produced by the burning should be--a barely perceptable blue, or a clean white smoke. Nearly everyone agrees that the wood should be well-seasoned, as green wood tends to produce a bitter creosote that can ruin barbeque.

In my experience, the bitterness sometimes produced by a white smoke is mitigated by the use of the infusion technique. What I do is start a fire in the burn chamber using plain old charcoal, let the charcoal burn down to glowing embers, and then add split wood logs, using a ratio of two dry logs to one wet (pre-soaked) log. These are not hard and fast rules, however--I would encourage you to experiment with pre-burned wood coals, whole logs, all dry logs, whatever you feel would work best for your own taste buds and expertise. The only word of caution I would add is that if, instead of using the infusion technique you will be pulling the pork and adding a table sauce (i.e. having a "pig pickin'"), you would be well advised to use pre-burned coals rather than split and/or whole logs in the burn chamber.

MEAT

In a word, pork. Period. No exceptions.

How much barbeque you want to make is up to you. The ideal cut would be what Dave Lineback calls a "barbeque cut", which is a whole shoulder (a picnic, commonly refered to in grocery stores as a pork shoulder) and Boston Butt joined together. If you have access to a friendly butcher, by all means use that cut. If, like me, you do not have access to a custom butcher, use a ratio of two Boston Butts to every one pork picnic shoulder. Most retail grocery store butchers will be happy to "special order" a whole shoulder for you; likewise, they will also be more than happy to charge you the price of the more expensive cut (typically the Boston Butt) for the whole thing when it arrives. Picnics, at least here in Virginia, are often significantly cheaper per pound than Boston Butts, so for me at least it makes more sense to just buy them the way the retail grocers package them. Hey, it's all going to be mixed together in the end anyway...

THE INFUSION procedure

STEP ONE: Bring the meat up to room temperature. Get your smoker started, and when you have a good base of coals in the burn chamber put the pork in the cooking chamber--fat side down for the first hour, fat side up for the rest of the smoking process. Maintain a steady smoke and a temperature between 220 and 260 degrees at the surface of the meat. Ideally, stay as close to 220 degrees as you can. Have about 8 whole bulbs of garlic soaking; every couple of hours toss a couple of the bulbs into the burn chamber [trust me :-)]. Smoke the meat (no baste, no mop, no rub) for a minimum of 8 hours (this would be if you were using a vertical water smoker, since 8 hours is about the outside limit of what you can get from those units in a single session). Ideally, you should smoke the meat for between 10 to 12 hours. Beyond that, I have found you begin to run into diminishing return in regards to smoke penetration of the meat.

STEP TWO: Transfer the meat to a large, covered Dutch Oven. Put a little bit of water and apple cider vinegar into the bottom of the oven so that the pork does not dry out. You can leave the oven in the smoker, or bring it inside and put it in your range oven. Bake the pork at 275 degrees for an additional 2 hours or so, until the internal temperature of the pork at it's thickest point reaches 160 degrees. The pork should be separating from the bone at this point.

STEP THREE: Let the pork cool until you can handle it without burning your fingers. Pull the pork into thumb sized chunks, discarding as much fat and gristle as you can. In a large cast iron skillet, pack about two or three pounds of pulled pork. Make a finishing sauce of 16 ounces good quality apple cider vinegar and 1-2 tablespoons cayenne pepper flakes (this is a rather fundamentalist finishing sauce--by all means feel free to experiment with other variations of Eastern North Carolina sauces if you desire something a bit more elaborate). Dissolve 2 tablespoons of salt into 2-3 cups hot tap water and pour this over the pulled pork. Add 8 ounces of finishing sauce, turn the heat to medium, and cook the liquid down by about a third. Add another 4 ounces of finishing sauce, and cook the liquid down some more, stirring frequently with a spatula so that Mr. Brown and Miss. White each spend some good quality time together in the sauce. When the liquid is cooked down to the point that it just oozes over the spatula when you press down on the pork, remove from heat, and serve your homemade Eastern North Carolina style barbeque.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While this procedure is for Eastern North Carolina style barbeque, I see no reason why it couldn't be adapted to other regional styles of barbeque. Experiment, make improvements, and above all have fun with it. I hope it works as well for you as it has for me.

Enjoy!

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