DIRECTLY INDIRECT COOKING
Traditional Carolina BBQ is cooked over glowing hardwood embers or charcoal. This largely an East Coast preference as you will find ribs cooked very similarly in Memphis. Despite what people will tell you, it is not indirect heat and the meats are fairly close to the heat source. You can see this in most clearly in the traditional cookers of the regions. Kansas City (KC) and Texas cook largely with smokers whereas literal “pits” are the tools of choice in the Carolinas. One is certainly not better than the other.
The choice of cookers is dependent on taste. Offset (where wood is burned in a metal box & heat is funneled into a chamber) smoking is popular with KC and Texas BBQ. This low and slow method of cooking allows deeper penetration of smoke flavor into the meat. Texans in particular enjoy their smoke fairly aggressive. The type of smoking most Americans are familiar with is KC-style. The KC BBQ Competition Society is the largest organization in the country promoting BBQ.
Since Carolina BBQ is not smokey as her relatives, what does she depend on for her flavor profiles? The steady direct cooking of Carolina BBQ produces a small bit of smoke and what has come to be known as the Maillard Reaction. If you want the deep scientific background on this you can read it here. This is that slow browning taste that explain why we love toasted marshmallows, broiled steaks, and crispy french fries so much. These are example of acute Maillard Reactions due to their short intense cooking times. Imagine the depth of flavors created through a 12-15 hour Maillard Reaction! This is Carolina BBQ! It is this combination of subtle smoke flavors and hours of micro-roasting that makes Carolina BBQ so special.
PIG is King!
In the Carolinas BBQ is pork. It gets even more specific than that. BBQ in the Carolinas is either whole hog or shoulders. No Baby-back ribs, no tenderloins, etc. If you want those you’ll have to get it mixed together with the whole hog. One of the reasons KC BBQ is so popular is its ecumenical stance. They will include chicken, beef brisket, pork spareribs and all into their definition of BBQ.
Carolina BBQ is best understood like Italian Tuscan cooking or Japanese Sushi. The sauces are very basic (though people still keep their recipes secret) and there’s no use of rubs. I have traveled the entire state of North Carolina eating BBQ and have yet to bump into a rub anywhere. Because there are so little ingredients, there’s basically nothing to hide bad BBQ. The flavorings are salt, smoke, and that delicious maillard reaction we just mentioned.
Chopped or Sliced
It’s pretty funny that people know the Carolinas by their pulled pork. I traveled the entire state and didn’t see a single pulled pork sandwich. In fact, I’ve noticed more Thai restaurants than any place serving pulled pork. BBQ in North Carolina is chopped or (out in the Piedmont area) offered sliced. The fact that you can have it sliced brings up a point against pulling. If you think about the mechanics of slicing, a pork shoulder cooked until “pulled” state (185-190F), would be a bit difficult as the meat would crumble. You would be more frustrated than an Amish electrician trying to slice that thing. Obviously, in the eastern region (where sliced is not offered) hogs are cooked to pulling temperature.
East vs West
One of the more boring “debates” in Carolina is the regional styles between east and west. I’m sure there are hardcore fans out there, but every single Carolinian I have ever spoken to will gladly eat either.
Eastern Carolina is simply whole hog basted in vinegar pepper sauce. One thing you’ll notice when you first try Carolina BBQ is how little of sauce you’ll taste. Just as you don’t drown your homemade pasta in tomato sauce nor soak your delicate salad greens in dressing – BBQ gets just a touch of sauce. The whole hog gets chopped up and the crispy crackling (skin) is mixed into the pork.
Western (Lexington) BBQ is basically the same thing except they only cook with shoulders and they use a little ketchup in their sauce. Since there’s more flesh areas exposed in Lexington style BBQ they have a bit more bark (“Outside Brown”) which gets mixed into the meat instead of skin.