Recipe: NC Barbecue, Your Way

Cary, NC — Matt Young, a featured Food Cary contributor, shares his entire step-by-step process for preparing, smoking and serving eastern NC-style barbecue.

It’s Time for Barbecue

The weather is getting warmer, and soon you’ll be spending more time in the North Carolina fresh air. My thoughts turn to beaches, mountains, fresh cut grass, cold beer…and barbecue. Odds are that your thoughts are turning too, to at least some combination of those things. If barbecue isn’t one of them, stop reading.

NC Barbecue

I lived in various states before moving to eastern North Carolina over two decades ago. I lived in states where one barbecues or goes to a barbecue. Here, barbecue is neither a conjugate-able verb, nor is it a picnic. It’s something you eat.

The rules are few. It’s pork. It’s smoked slowly. That’s the recipe.

If it’s cooked right, it’s good. At the same time, every pit master has his or her own secret recipe for sauces and rubs. But let’s face it – they are all pretty similar.

Admittedly, I’ll do something different recipe-wise every time I make barbecue. And I never had written down measured recipes for this before. You will need some pork, some patience and just a little bit of science and planning.

Get ready to spend 12 or more hours babysitting your barbecue.

The Right Smoker, Charcoal & Logs

I have an Oklahoma Joe offset smoker.

“Offset” meaning that the wood is burned in a side compartment, and the warmth and smoke is channeled in so as to not grill the meat but to cook it slowly.

These smokers can get pricey. Many years ago, I started with a $50 chimney-style smoker that uses a bowl of water between the fire and the meat to keep it from cooking too quickly.


I start up a small amount of charcoal, and when it gets hot (20 minutes) I put in two or three logs. I use hardwoods, like oak or fruit tree logs. These are not only the best in my opinion, but they grow in my yard – probably in yours, too. I use trimmings from my Bartlett pear trees, my cherry tree and my oaks. If you are using a smaller smoker, you can buy the wood chunks. I’m not a fan of hickory for this. I don’t want my barbecue to taste like bacon. But, as an aside, mmmm, bacon! The fire is ready when the smoke is coming out nearly clear.

The Right Meat

Go to one of the hundreds of grocery stores in Cary and get a ten pound or so pork butt, Boston butt or pork shoulder. They are all names for the same thing. The only bone in it is the shoulder blade – which is really a great thermometer.

When the meat is done, you can easily pull it out of the meat. If I am making barbecue, I buy a few shoulders when they are on sale (often $1 a pound or less), and I either make a few at one time and freeze what I cook or I keep a couple in the freezer for those summer Sunday parties. Make it on Saturday, eat it on Sunday.

Prep Time

Wash the meat and pat dry. Put on a rub and inject the pork with a sauce. Or not. I’ll give you some recipes for these, but they are not necessary for good barbecue. It’s all about the cooking and the sauce that you put on the pork after it is pulled.

Recipe: Rub and Sauce to Inject – Use this (or not) when you prep your meat.

For each butt:

  • Rub – ½ cup brown sugar, ¼ cup paprika, ¼ cup garlic salt, 2 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp cumin, 1 tbsp cayenne pepper
  • Inject – ½  cup apple juice, ½ cup cider vinegar, ¼ cup of the above mixture, Texas Pete to taste

Time to Smoke

Put the meat on the smoker. I put the meat in one of those disposable turkey pans. Keep the smoker as close to 250 degrees as you can. And wait. And wait. Mop – or spray or spoon – the meat with the injection mix or plain apple juice every couple hours. The meat is done when the internal temperature is 204 degrees (that’s the science part I mentioned). When the meat is about an hour from being done, wrap it in foil to sustain the moisture content.

No Cleavers, No Claws

This is just my preference. After resting for a good hour (not you, the meat), it is time to pull the pork. I put on my barbecue gloves, the big rubbery kind, and pull it into strips by hand.


Serve with cole slaw and your favorite sauces in squirt bottles. I usually make a hot one, a vinegar one and a sweet one made with…wait for it… ketchup (native eastern North Carolinians want me to move somewhere else right now).

I also always have Texas Pete on the table. And rolls if you so desire – King’s Hawaiian or cheap hamburger rolls are pretty standard with barbecue in the Old North State.

Here’s the recipe for vinegar-based barbecue sauce.

Eastern Vinegar Sauce

Combine ½ cup apple cider vinegar, ½ cup apple juice, a pinch of red pepper flakes, a couple shakes of Texas Pete to taste and a touch of molasses (optional).

Bring to a boil and then let it cool.

I planned and prepped the meat, I had my smoker in my driveway,

But pork, pulled pork like this, I did it myyyyyyy way.

Story and photo by Matt Young.