Growing up in South Africa it seemed that every weekend in summer we would braai (barbecue). Never on gas. Unheard of! It was always on charcoal and when my dad let me turn the boerie (farmer-style bratwurst) on my own, my rite of manhood was complete.
Fast forward a life time and a move to Australia; I have my own restaurant. I find a guy who is custom making charcoal barbecues in his back garden and I’m off. Grilled steaks, chicken and sausages are on the menu. Specials of slow-cooked lamb that are left in the dying coals overnight become the norm. I’m liking this slow-cooking thing. It’s real food that doesn’t require tweezers to put it on the plate. That’s not my style of food. I’m a big guy. I was always called “big boy” in restaurant kitchens. The name stuck and after working for Stephanie Alexander as her head chef at Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder, I opened my first restaurant, Rusk in Caulfield, which ran for nearly six years before we closed and turned it into the first Big Boy BBQ.
On a visit to New York in 2009, my family and I ended up at a run down, quite dilapidated BBQ joint under the Chelsea Hotel. The toilet door didn’t lock, there was sports playing on the TV, blues banging in the background. I’ll be honest, I was wondering why I was there, it was a dodgy place, man! And then the food was delivered.
A BBQ meat platter that knocked me across the side of the head and gave me a wake up call. Turkey, brisket, sausage, pork, ham, wings, pickles, sliced white bread, chips and cornbread were on the platter. I was gobsmacked! Why hadn’t I heard more about this BBQ thing? Why wasn’t it in Australia? I needed to bring it to Australia. (If you're curious about semantics, BBQ refers to the American “low and slow” style of barbecue. More info below!)
That first bite of pulled whole hog was like a piggy symphony with all of the different cuts being mixed together ... the highlight of the combination was the crackling, chopped through, playing hide-and-seek in the meaty pork.
US BBQ is as regional as wine is in France or pasta is in Italy. Each region, each sub-region, often each town, has its own quirks and touches that you won’t find anywhere else. For example, some of the defining characteristics of Kansas City style BBQ are the sweet, thick tomatoey sauce, the spice rubbed meats and the burnt ends of brisket, which are generally a Kansas City-only thing. Texas is all about the beef, mainly brisket, but also ribs and sausage. Sauce isn’t always available, it is not part of BBQ lore here. In Memphis, it’s all about pork ribs.
In the Carolinas it is also all about pork and this is where I discovered how good pulled pork can be. That first bite of pulled whole hog was like a piggy symphony with all of the different cuts being mixed together. Each flavour and texture contrasted and complemented and the highlight of the combination was the crackling, chopped through, playing hide-and-seek in the meaty pork.
There in the Carolinas BBQ pork is referred to simply as BBQ, where any other form of barbecued meat is called by its own name, such as chicken or beef. North Carolina is broken down into two main styles of BBQ; eastern-style and Lexington-style. Eastern-style BBQ is found east of Raleigh (the capital of North Carolina, it’s located pretty much smack bang in the middle of the state) and is all about whole hog – picked, chopped and dressed with vinegar, salt and peppers. Lexington-style BBQ is popular in the area west of Raleigh and originated in Salisbury, Lexington. The further west you travel, the more tomato is added to the sauce. They BBQ pork shoulders (also known as Boston butts, picnics or scotch fillet on the bone) rather than whole hog and they cook over hickory or oak. The pork is salted, not basted, during the cooking process and it is served pulled, sliced or chopped with a dipping sauce, also known as a red sauce or red dip. The dip is a thin sauce usually comprised of vinegar, peppers, tomato in varying amounts, sugar and Worcestershire sauce. The dip is added after cooking the pork rather than basted on during the cooking process.
It’s almost like a transformation happens when the smoked pork has the dressing added – my mouth is watering now, even as I think of it - the smokey pork goodness doused in vinegar, salt and chilli takes the whole meal up a notch and gives it wonderful balance and punch. It’s just so delicious!
My favourite way to eat pulled pork is simple, like the dish itself… with a slice of white bread wrapped around some juicy pork. I often have leftovers when I smoke pork butts, though. Honestly, I cook the amount I do because I love leftovers! I use them to make tacos, carnitas, loaded baked potatoes, breakfast “hash”, stuffing for spring rolls and my favourite, a Cubano sandwich with shaved ham, pulled pork, mustard, pickles and Swiss cheese all pressed in my trusty toastie maker.
So are you ready to barbecue some amazing pork? Let’s do it! Here are my top tips, and recipe, for making Lexington-style pulled pork:
Ultimate BBQ pulled pork
• In American you’d use the picnic cut, which is the shoulder above the hock or leg, and the Boston butt, which is from higher up on the pig. In Australia, we refer to this cut as scotch fillet. It is sometimes hard to find the scotch fillet with the bone in, which is my personal preference, as the scotch fillet is wonderfully forgiving with its high percentage of fat, and easier to keep moist. In these photographs I’m using a scotch fillet.
• Always look for female pigs to cook, as they don’t carry the smell of the males due to their testosterone levels. Many butchers carry female pigs so ask the gender of the pig before you buy it. In fact, develop a good relationship with your butcher so you can discuss the best cuts of meat that will work well for your BBQ and the style you’re cooking. The cut may not even be on show but there is nothing like getting the “good stuff” from out the back!
• It’s good to remember that the pork will shrink about 40 per cent (in weight) without the bone and up to 50 per cent with the bone, so allow for this when cooking. I would usually allow 200–300 grams of meat per person, so in reverse, allow 600 grams raw weight per person. I always cook extra and often make tacos, nachos, Brunswick stew, tamales or carnitas from the leftovers.
• Remember, there is no such thing as too tender when it comes to BBQ, rather more cooked than tough and chewy. The old BBQ saying… “you don’t need teeth to eat my meat” rings true here.
• The thickness of the meat rather than the overall weight will determine the cooking time. The thicker the meat, the longer it takes to cook.
• For me, it’s not "BBQ" unless it’s smoked. Let me explain: grilling is the method by which direct heat is applied to food, for example on your typical Australian four-burner backyard barbie. That causes the food to char and caramelise on the outside. BBQ-ing, also referred to as smoking, happens at a lower temperature range, usually 80°C to 150°C, and takes longer - so it’s often referred to as low and slow. I love to cook with fire both ways; there is a place for everything. However, when I get down low and slow there is a rhythm that seems to occur where I’m not rushing to get the food grilled, cooked and eaten but rather feeling the crackle of the fire and transformation of the meats and this is where I’m happiest, at one with the cooking process. There are a lot of options when it comes to this style of lower temperature cooking, from top-of-the range custom offset smokers to a device called a smoke tube that for just $50 will allow you to smoke anything from meat and fish to cheese - even if you don't have a barbecue. Read my guide to all the options here.
• The first step is to mix your rub ingredients together and liberally season your pork with it. A rub is essentially a spice mix of the flavours in exact ratios to give you the bark that you want. A rub could be as simple as salt and pepper, which I would use on a Texas-style brisket, and tend to get more intricate as you head towards Memphis or Kansas City styles. Most importantly the rub needs to complement, not dominate, the flavour of the meat.
• After cooking the pork in your smoker for about 4 hours, then do a scratch test. When you scratch the rub with a fingernail, the rub should have set and not come off. If the rub is still wet and comes off, the meat needs to stay in the smoker longer before wrapping.
• Once your bark is set, baste with a red dip and apple juice mixture (see my full pulled pork recipe for details) every 30 minutes for another 3 hours. At this stage, your bark should be nicely set and caramelised from the extra basting.
• Wrap the pork in silver foil, with any remaining baste, around 3 tablespoons (if you are out of baste, use three tablespoons of apple juice). Return to the smoker, seam side up, for 2 more hours, then check if it’s done. If your pork is tender, remove it and allow it to rest covered, until the internal temperature drops to 65ºC.
• Next up: pulling the pork. You could cut up the meat, but I prefer the “mouth feel” of pulled pork. Before you start, reserve any juices. And don’t chuck out the outside bark, which has the strongest flavour. Break it into smaller pieces so that it can be well dispersed throughout the meat giving those little bursts of BBQ flavour.
Break up the meat, removing any fat. Try to leave the pieces of pork as large as possible to avoid them drying out. There are many ways to “pull” pork: bear claws, forks or hands. My preference is to use my hands, well-washed, without gloves. I find that when I wear the gloves, I miss some of the fatty bits that I can’t feel through the gloves.
Once all the meat is pulled, add the remaining red dip and massage it into the meat. The texture should change and become more combined. I like to also add back some of the juices from the rested meat, as well as some of the rub, to accentuate the flavours already in the meat. Sometimes a little bit of salt will help the overall flavour.
And the final step? Eat!
As well as my pulled pork (get the full recipe here), I’m sharing recipes for for Lexington red dip and two great side dishes.
Despite the name, Lexington red dip is a sauce. It's served alongside pulled or chopped pork, or used as a dressing for 'slaw.
Hush puppies are a brilliant accompaniment to the pork. Corn is native to the USA and is one of the staples of Southern cooking and soul food. In many cultures, savoury batters are fried and used to sop up sauce, meats and gravy. Hush puppies are a kind of quick bread and the default bread served with North Carolina BBQ. The name “hush” puppies is sometimes attributed to cookouts where these savoury dumplings were fried and thrown to the hunting dogs to keep them quiet. For me, it’s all about the hushed tones that fall over the table of people dipping these cornmeal puppies into their meat or gravy.
I also like to use the batter over hot dogs to make corn dogs. Nothing is better than smoked meat on a stick, covered in corn batter and deep-fried.
And oh my…coconut cream pie.
Pie is the dessert of the South; baked, fried or fridge pie, all are amazing. Coconut cream pie sits happily alongside all the others. My version has a rich coconut flavour and an Aussie twist or two. I use Anzac biscuits as I love the base coconut flavour, which adds to the flavour and texture of the whole pie. The biscuit base holds its texture better than a pastry base after being filled, too – there is nothing worse than a soggy base when it comes to pie. My recipe also uses coconut in different forms, adding to the overall texture and complexity in flavour of the finished pie.
This is part one of our Ultimate BBQ series. In part two, Lance shows us how to make an amazing barbecued chicken and in part three, delicious sticky ribs. For all the recipes, including sides, desserts and drinks, our guide to American BBQ and tips on smoking, head here.
Photography by Mark Roper. Styling by Vicki Valsamis. Food preparation by Lance Rosen and Merryl Batlle.
A pioneer of American BBQ in Australia, Lance Rosen is the founder of Melbourne's Big Boy BBQ restaurant, and the author of the award-winning book Temples Of BBQ ($49, hb). Buy it here and see our review here. This article was co-written by Hilary McNevin.