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This Carolina pulled pork recipe is loaded with big bold flavors that can be achieved with minimal ingredients and is a great recipe for both experienced pitmasters as well as weekend warrior bbq enthusiasts.
Carolina Pulled Pork
Every region of the country has their style of barbeque. In East Carolina they are all about the hog. Traditionally the whole hog is smoked over hickory low and slow and mopped with a vinegar sauce that has a balance of spicy, sweet and tangy flavors. Unless you plan on feeding a small army a whole hog may be a little more pig then you need. Find yourself a good 6-8 pound bone-in picnic shoulder instead. That will be perfect for feeding 8-10 people or 6 really hungry folks.
Picnic Shoulder vs Boston Butt. What's the Difference?
The primal shoulder of the hog is often divided into two subprimal cuts referred to as the Picnic Shoulder and the Pork Butt. They can be used almost interchangeably in recipes. The Picnic Shoulder is found on the front shoulder just above the Hock. The Boston Butt sits just above the Picnic Shoulder. Both cuts contain multiple muscle groups with light and dark meat.
Both cuts have a high fat content and need to be cooked for long periods of time to break down connective tissue so that the meat is tender. Picnic shoulders are normally sold with the outer skin attached whereas the Boston but has the skin removed but still has a large fat cap on top.
Should I Smoke the Pork Shoulder Fat Side Up or Down?
This may chap a few nipples but contrary to bbq folk lore the fat does not drip into the meat as it cooks. It just rolls off the sides and vaporizes in the pit. It's just plain physics. As the shoulder cooks the muscles contract pushing moisture out. This makes it impossible for fat to somehow magically navigate its way into the shoulder. So to not let this fat die in vein its best to smoke the pork fat side down so that it can protect the meat and allow the shoulder to absorb maximum smoke without burning on the bottom. Truth be told there is no wrong way as long as you can maintain a fire and cook the pork to the correct internal temperature. Depending on where the heat source is on your pit you always want the thickest part of the meat closer to the heat with the fat side shielding the meat from the flame. We use a Traeger Grill to smoke our meat.
Time and Temperature
When smoking any type of meat be it Beef, Chicken or Pork the number one Question is How long do I cook it at what temperature? Well it's not a cupcake sweetie and meat doesn't work like that. Every single cut of meat will cook differently depending on the weight, size, shape and even the weather conditions outside. Any true Cook will tell you that the only thing that matters is whether the meat is tender. You will want to take an internal temperature to know when the meat is close but the true test is the feel of the probe when it's plunged deep into whatever protein you're smoking. A Pork Shoulder or Brisket will normally be tender at Between 200-205 degrees F. but that's not a hard number. Higher end cuts like Berkshire pork or wagyu beef can be tender at a lower temperature because of the exceptional marbling whereas a cheaper cut may need to cook longer to achieve tenderness. Moral of the story, your smoker ain't an easy bake oven. Even with all the new technology in pellet smokers these days. The meat will tell you when it's done, not the alarm on your timer.
Carolina Vinegar Sauce vs other BBQ Sauces.
Carolina vinegar sauce has a distinctive blend of spice and tanginess that separates it from other sauces. Traditionally vinegar sauce is made very simply with just a few ingredients but the ratios and that one secret ingredient is what sets each blend apart. There are a number of local varieties like Georges and Scotts or you can create your own at home. Here is a Basic Recipe that you can play around with:
Carolina Vinegar Sauce:
2 cups Apple Cider Vinegar
1 cup Water
½ cup White Sugar
⅛ cup Crushed Chili flakes
2 tbsp Ketchup
1 tbsp Molasses
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Black Pepper
Simmer ingredients for 15 minutes on low heat until warm stirring every few minutes until the salt and sugar has dissolved . Don't bring the sauce to a boil. Cool for 30 minutes.
The Great Slaw Debate
Coleslaw is almost always served on top of any proper pulled pork sandwich but what type of slaw is highly debated. There are a number of recipes, some made with a creamy mayonnaise based dressing, Red Slaw that is basically carolina vinegar sauce tossed with cabbage and even a mustard based slaw. We don't dare try to tell you which is best but we will leave you with a Basic White Slaw Recipe to try and decide for yourself
1 head thinly sliced White Cabbage
¼ cup Shredded Carrot
¾ Cup Mayonnaise
¼ Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
¼ cup White Sugar
1 tsp Celery Seed
1 Tbsp Fresh Chopped Parsley
Thinly slice or chop cabbage and combine with carrots in a large bowl
In a separate bowl combine remaining ingredients and whisk until smooth. Pour about ¾ of the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss to combine. Add additional dressing as needed. Chill for 30 minute before serving.
Chopped or Pulled??
Traditional Whole hog is chopped so all of the different parts of the pork can be incorporated together. It's also a great way to incorporate the lean and fatty sections for a perfect balance of textures. When cooking a picnic shoulder it comes down to personal preference whether you want to chop the pork using a cleaver or to pull the tender meat into larger chunks. Both methods are delicious and you can't go wrong either way. For tacos I like to have larger pulled hunks of meat so I can showcase the beautiful bark on the outside of the shoulder. The Folded Steel Cleaver or 8" Chef Knife will make quick work of the pork shoulder no matter how you choose to serve it.
Carolina Pulled Pork:
Bone in Picnic Shoulder ( 6-8 Pound Average)
3 Tbsp Yellow Mustard
¼ Cup BBQ Rub
Preheat your smoker or oven to 250 degrees F.
Remove the picnic shoulder from the packaging then pat dry with paper towels. Apply a light coat of yellow mustard to all sides of the pork then generously season with your favorite bbq dry rub. Concentrate the rub on the exposed meat. Most of the fat will render and be discarded so you don't need to season that much.
Place the picnic shoulder fat side down with the larger side closest to the heat source. Cook for 3-4 hours until the internal temperature is about 170 degrees F. and the pork has a deep caramelized exterior.
Place the pork shoulder in an aluminum pan then pour over 1 cup of Carolina vinegar sauce then cover with foil.Raise the Temperature of the smoker or oven to 300 degrees F. and continue to cook until the pork reaches and internal temperature of about 205 degrees F and is tender in all areas when you probe the meat. Rest pork for 30-45 minutes covered.
To serve the pork remove the fatty skin and any large pieces of fat as well as the bone. Shred or chop the pork as fine or chunky as you prefer and pour over the juices leftover from the cooking process.
Serve with Slaw, Pickles and Additional Vinegar Sauce on Flour Tortillas or Rolls if you prefer.