There’s a mystique around barbecue that it’s a skilled craft best to leave to the pros, it requires all day, you need a pit or a pig cooker to make it right, and so on. Though these ideas have some truth to them, they shouldn’t dissuade you from cooking your own ‘cue once in awhile. In fact, you really should cook your own ‘cue. As they say, give a man directions to a BBQ joint and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to barbecue and he’ll eat for a lifetime (or at least until he burns his house down).
Cooking passable barbecue is really not that difficult. Just block off five hours or so, grab a beer, call up a friend, gather at least one bag of charcoal (not instant light) plus a charcoal grill, round up a meat thermometer and ideally an oven thermometer to leave in the grill, and make sure you have some hickory chips on hand. Now all you need is a Boston Butt or two and some salt. If you’re making your own sauce/dip, you’ll also need some cider vinegar and pepper flakes, if you are an Eastern-style minimalist and a little ketchup if you are into the Lexington lifestyle. Or you can just buy some Scott’s or other NC barbecue sauce at your local grocery store. Here’s how my buddy and I prepared ‘cue a few weeks ago:
- Start with a 4 to 5 lb Boston Butt (which is the top piece of a pork shoulder and is commonly available at grocery stores, at least in this part of the world) or a larger one if you have extra time and are patient while it cooks. Get two if you have the room on the grill–no point spending 4+ hours cooking a half-empty grill.
- The night before cooking be sure to rub salt onto the pork. As the authors of Holy Smoke write, “if you’re the type who turned in extended bibliographies with your middle-school papers, you might want to ‘brine’ the cut by soaking it in salt water overnight.” They recommend a tablespoon of table salt in a pint of water for each butt. Either way, on the day of your barbecuing, bring the butt to room temperature for half an hour before cooking and rub a little more salt on the meat. Throw some hickory chips in water to let them soak while you prepare the grill.
- While the meat is sitting out and the hickory is soaking, start your charcoal grill. If you don’t own a chimney starter, you should. (Do not use instant light charcoal unless you really like the taste of petroleum). Before cooking you want a single layer of coals well ashed over and spread across the grill (or you can put the coals in two even piles on either side of the grill so there is space for the meat to cook indirectly over the gap between the coals). Add some wet hickory chips to the coals to impart some smoke flavor. Cover the grill and try and get the temperature close to 250 degrees. Avoid a very hot grill at all costs or you will char the meat.
- Cover the grill and cook (i.e., rest and drink some beer). You’ll want to check the thermometer every 30 to 45 minutes or so and add more pre-ashed coals as needed to maintain the 225 to 250 degree temperature. The chimney starter is essential for starting and adding these coals.
- Keep up this basic routine–drink beer, add coals, repeat–and occasionally add more wet hickory chips for approximately four hours for a 4 to 5 lb butt. (You’ll want to flip the butt after 3+ hours.) The meat is done when its internal temperature reaches at least 170 degrees (wait until it reaches 180 or even 190 degrees for more tender ‘cue), but be sure to not measure the temperature on the bone.
- Take the pork off the grill and bring it inside. Let it cool on a rack or chopping block. When its cool enough for you to handle it, cut off any large fat deposits but be sure to leave the crispy outside brown. Use a cleaver or two (careful with those fingers, kids!) to chop it down to whatever consistency you want. Add vinegar, salt and hot pepper to taste, mix around, eat some yourself and share the rest with your friends.
What you have created is pretty darn close to traditional NC barbecue. The fact that you are using just a Boston Butt instead of a whole shoulder or whole hog means the meat will be a bit moister and fattier. Ain’t nothing wrong with that, just enjoy it.