Lexington Style BBQ Pork
North Carolinians take their barbecue very. Very. Seriously. The eastern half of the state has an “everything but the squeal” approach to their whole-hog barbecue, which is prepared with a light sauce made from vinegar and black pepper. Route 1 is the convenient boundary between east and west; it bisects the central part of the state from top to bottom, and eastern and western barbecue does not cross this border. On the other side of Route 1, you’ll find western-style barbecue, also called Piedmont- or Lexington-style barbecue. Lexington was the site of the first barbecue restaurant in North Carolina and has held a barbecue festival since 1984. This beloved event has been recognized by the state of North Carolina as the official state barbecue festival of…the western half of the state. It draws nearly 160,000 attendees during its annual one-day run, and every single one of those 160,000 people is there for Lexington barbecue. It’s traditionally made with pork shoulder and cooked with a pert red sauce made of vinegar and black pepper, and a healthy dose of ketchup. And therein lies the difference.
We wanted to celebrate the rich and tangy flavors of Lexington and the spirit of the South with the welcoming warmth of our North Carolina BBQ Rub. This rub is sweet and warm, with cozy paprika and some glaze-making brown sugar, and just enough sass from cayenne and cloves to keep you on your toes. We rubbed that on a beautiful piece of pork shoulder and smoked it, low and slow, so that the meat was loaded with rich, smoky flavor and was juicy and tender. We even collected the pork-laden juices and added it back into the sauce, so everything was bursting with savory depth.
To stay true to Southern pork, we made a sweet slaw for this dish with cabbage and onions. But we had to amp it up with the gently bitter, sweetly caramel fragrance of Vermont Maple Sugar. The cabbage and onions carry this flavor with them when they’re doused in the tomato-ey sauce. In the same vein we couldn’t resist boosting the essence of the ketchup in the barbecue sauce by adding a hit of Tomato Powder. There’s a lot of pork to season in this dish, so we wanted to infuse everything it touches with much flavor as we can.
As you should do with all meats, we rested the pork after it reached the proper temperature in the smoker. Set it on a serving tray or a baking tray with a lip while you let it rest, so you catch any of the juice that come out of it during that time it doesn’t dribble down your counters. First, it’s a mess. And second, what a waste.
This pork is served sliced rather than pulled, so we carved off some beautifully thin slices and piled them on our plates, topped with the sweet slaw and an extra drizzle of savory red sauce. The pork is sweet and complex, with the bright accents of ketchup and vinegar balanced by a bit of peppery heat and spicy pops, resting on a deep layer of smoke. We made some crispy hushpuppies to have on the side, because you have to have something in which to dip in that delicious sauce. When you make this at home, we recommend that you serve it with a pitcher of ice-cold sweet iced tea. Then you can imagine yourself dining on a graceful, open porch with just enough breeze to keep you comfortable, enjoying a summer’s day in steamy North Carolina.
1 Boneless Pork Shoulder (2 1/2 – 3 pounds) cut in 2 pieces
1 cup plus ¼ cup North Carolina BBQ Rub, divided
1 head cabbage, chopped roughly into a medium dice
1 medium sweet onion, finely diced
2 teaspoons Kosher Salt
2 teaspoons Vermont Maple Sugar
⅔ cup apple cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons Pennsylvania Pepper
1 Tablespoon Tomato Powder
1 teaspoon Fine Sea Salt
Pork broth from cooked shoulder
1. Season the Pork Shoulder with 1 cup of the North Carolina BBQ rub.
2. Preheat smoker to 250 degrees
3. Smoke until the internal temperature of the pork reaches 150-160 degrees (2-3 hours). Remove and tightly wrap in aluminum foil and return to the smoker.
4. Add cabbage, sweet onion, Kosher Salt, and Vermont Maple Sugar to a large bowl and toss.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk vinegar, ketchup, remaining North Carolina BBQ Rub, Pennsylvania Pepper, Tomato Powder, and Fine Sea Salt.
6. When the pork reaches 185-190 degrees, which should take another 1-2 hours, remove from the smoker and pour all the juices from inside the foil into the vinegar mixture. Allow the pork to rest for 15 minutes.
7. Pour the vinegar over the coleslaw and reserve a couple of tablespoons to pour over the pork
8. Slice the pork very thin and serve with the coleslaw and extra sauce.