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Meat

Bringing North Carolina Pulled Pork to Boston

Here’s how—with the right tools—I didn’t let distance or cost restrict me from enjoying my favorite dish from back home.
By Published Oct. 4, 2018

When I moved from from North Carolina to Boston, a plate of pulled pork went from $6.10 to $19. I get it. These Boston-owned shops have higher rents to pay and need to balance the books. But now that I live here, so do I.

Traditionally, where I’m from, pitmasters will take a whole hog and slowly cook it in a professional smoker—or over wood—in their spacious barbecue shacks located out back. This smoking process typically goes on throughout the night. When it’s reached daylight or after the pork is tender enough, it’s brought to the kitchen to be chopped with a pair of meat cleavers before it’s served to hungry customers. In Boston, where space is at a premium, a good amount of the restaurants don’t even have this luxury setup. And unsurprisingly, even fewer home cooks—like me—have it.

Still, having made my fair share of pulled pork, I understood the process behind smoking it at home. But I knew if I wanted to forego eating pulled pork at restaurants in favor of making it at home, I would need to outfit my apartment with some equipment.

First and foremost was the grill. I’m lucky enough to have a small grassy patch outside my apartment that my landlord lets me and other tenants use for outdoor cooking.

But I knew if I wanted to forego eating pulled pork at restaurants in favor of making it at home, I would need to outfit my apartment with some equipment.

I considered a gas grill. I was sure the other tenants would appreciate this given how easy they are to start up and keep clean. But deep down, I’m a charcoal girl. I love the flavor that charcoal grills give to the pork and there’s a certain showiness to cooking for friends over a smoking charcoal grill.

The Weber Performer Deluxe Charcoal Grill, which I’ve worked with in the test kitchen, is great for the extra work surface and storage bin for charcoal. But with my tiny grassy space, I opted for the smaller Weber Original Kettle Premium Charcoal Grill, 22-Inch. The actual size of its kettle, and the cooking surface, are the same as its deluxe counterpart. And it can create food that tastes like it came off a real North Carolina smoker for $149. Good enough for me.

I also opted to invest in the OXO Good Grips 16" Locking Tongs. These long tongs make it easy to take pork butt (which is the perfect cut for pulled pork when you don’t have a whole hog on hand) on and off the grill without risking any singed arm hair.

Since smoke is a key factor to good barbecue, every few months I stock up on plenty of charcoal and a bag or two of hickory wood chips, enough to last a few months. I choose hickory chips, which are stronger than apple wood or cherry wood and more neutral than mesquite, because hickory is the most common wood used in North Carolina. To me, pulled pork made with any other wood just tastes wrong.

If you care about what kind of wood you use to make your pulled pork—as I clearly do—then you should also care about what you use to light the charcoal. Using petroleum- or alcohol-based lighter fluid can impart unpleasant flavors to grilled food, so I always make sure to use my Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter to light the charcoal.

The biggest mistake home cooks make with pulled pork is that they don’t cook it to a high enough temperature. If you don’t get a pork butt to at least 190 degrees, you’re asking for it to be chewy. A Thermoworks Thermapen Mk4 is the best way to monitor that temperature. (Or, if I’m in the middle of doing other things while the grill is going, I’ll pop my Thermoworks ChefAlarm into the meat—it has a really great feature where an alarm will ring once you’ve hit your goal temperature.)

In North Carolina, when it comes time to shred, the pit masters often use huge heat proof rubber gloves and metal bear claw-looking tools to shred pork quickly. (Well, in Eastern North Carolina they swear by chopping the meat, not pulling it, but that’s a debate for another day). But at home I use another tool that makes quick work of breaking down the meat: my KitchenAid Classic Plus Stand Mixer. All you do is remove the bones from a fall-apart tender pork shoulder and put it in the mixer bowl—fitted with a paddle attachment—and set it to low speed. It will turn shredding pork from a 20 minute job to a two minute job. And that’s how you get pulled pork, North Carolina-style, anytime you want it in the comfort of your home. Can’t beat that.

Visiting North Carolina?

These barbecue spots are worth visiting for the pulled pork—if you want to take the night off from making your own, of course.

If you're looking for more artisanal gear to help you make pulled pork at home check out our other grilling tools.