Within the state of North Carolina (and generally, in the South), the term barbecue refers to slow-cooked pork which is slow-cooked over coals using hickory wood, or other select woods may be used. The pork is then either sliced, chopped or “pulled”, a technique in which meat is pulled from the bones once it is tender. The meat is typically served as a “tray” (with coleslaw and hushpuppies), a “plate” (same as a tray but with french fried potatoes or other vegetables) or in sandwiches using buns. There are two generally accepted types of barbecue that are native to North Carolina: “Lexington style” and “Eastern style.”
Types of North Carolina Barbecue
The Lexington style of barbecue (occasionally referred to as Piedmont style) uses a vinegar-based “red” sauce that is seasoned with ketchup, vinegar, and pepper, along with other spices that vary from recipe to recipe. It is most common in the Piedmont (central) and western areas of the state. This style uses only the pork shoulder section of the pig. As with other styles of barbecue, the recipes vary widely, and can include many different ingredients, and range from slightly sweet to hot and spicy. The sauce also serves as the seasoning base for “Red Slaw” (also called “barbecue slaw”), which is coleslaw made by using Lexington-style Barbecue Sauce in place of mayonnaise.
The Eastern style is the most common type in eastern North Carolina. It is a light vinegar-based sauce and is more common in the eastern and coastal sections of the state. Eastern style sometimes uses the “whole hog” as the meat (not including internal organs), and is often said to use “every part of the hog except the squeal.” Many recipes use only vinegar and pepper, and rely on the smoking process for the overall flavour.
Pork ribs are a common alternative to the two most common types of North Carolina barbecue and a variety of festivals and competitions, such as the Twin City RibFest, are held annually. Baby Back Ribs, sometimes called top loin ribs, are short, succulent, well-marbled ribs cut from the center section of the loin. Spareribs come from lower down the rib cage (from the sides and upper belly of the pig). Larger and longer than baby backs, they contain more connective tissue, so are a little tougher, but more flavourful.
Many other types of barbecue can be found in restaurants in North Carolina, with influences from Texas, St. Louis, Kansas City, Jamaica and other places, but they are more recent additions and not necessarily a part of the cultural history. Nonetheless, they are an important part of the variety that can be found throughout the state. Additionally, North Carolinians barbecue a variety of other meats and cuts, including chicken and beef, although they are found less frequently.
A “Pig Pickin'” is cooking a whole pig and the guests come to the cooker and pick the meat from the grill.
A pit barbecue is a method and constructed item for barbecue cooking meat and root vegetables buried below the surface of the earth. Indigenous peoples around the world used earth ovens for tens of thousands of years. In modern times the term and activity is often associated with the Eastern Seaboard, the “barbecue belt”, colonial California in the United States and Mexico. The meats usually barbecued in a pit in these contexts are beef, pork, and goat, with pork being the predominant choice in North Carolina.
Pit barbecue can also refer to an enclosed, above-ground “pit” such as a horno or outdoor pizza oven. The method of cooking the meat is slowly, using various hardwoods to flavour the meat. This breaks down the connective tissue in the meats, producing a tender product. The types of meat cooked in this fashion include both beef and pork.
Contrast to grilling
Often the two phrases “barbecuing” and “grilling” are mistakenly used as interchangeable words, although they imply completely different cooking methods. Grilling is a cooking method that uses dry heat, supplied by burning wood, charcoal or gas flame, and the heat is applied to the surface of the food being cooked. Typically food is cooked quickly using this method. Barbecuing is a slower process that uses lower heat and often the food is cooked by the heat of the smoke itself, rather than directly by the heat of the burning wood.