I bet you’re wondering how I got here. It’s me. A guy raised in North Carolina, sharing chopped pork sandwich recipes, but he isn’t actually smoking the pork? Yes, that’s it. That’s me. But you know what, this is a fantastic sandwich and it’s how I often make a quick batch of pulled pork because it’s so easy.
Here’s the deal. If you own a smoker, you’ve probably already smoked and pulled pork. This blog post isn’t about that. I’m not writing about a sandwich made from smoked meat. What this is, is a sandwich that is similar to an Eastern NC chopped barbecue sandwich. It’s not barbecue, and it’s not smoked. But it’s very tasty and super easy to make. As long as you have 3.5 hours to sit and watch seven episodes of Family Matters or pretend to work from home, you should have the time to tackle this recipe.
If you’ve never had it, Eastern North Carolina barbecue is almost always from a whole hog that is smoked over wood for a long time at a low temperature. The meat is then pulled from the cooked pig and chopped into small pieces for serving.
North Carolina does not typically serve their barbecue with a thick reddish bbq sauce like you find at the grocery store. Instead, North Carolina barbecue sauces will be heavily based on vinegar. Eastern North Carolina sauce is primarily vinegar and red pepper flakes, and Western North Carolina uses Vinegar as the base, but they also include small amounts of tomato sauce which changes the color of the sauce and brings a bit of sweetness and differing flavors to the mix.
For the sandwich I’m writing about today, we’re focused entirely on the flavors from the eastern part of North Carolina (blue part on the map graphic).
If you want to know more about Eastern North Carolina chopped barbecue (that is smoked over wood), here’s a fun-to-watch fifteen-minute video about an Eastern North Carolina barbecue restaurant called the Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina.
What is this sandwich?
An Eastern North Carolina chopped pork sandwich (just called a barbecue sandwich in NC) will typically be on an inexpensive white bread bun with very little on the pork in the way of sauce. Your options are slaw or no slaw (always choose slaw). There should be a vinegary Eastern NC sauce on the table or made available for you to use as much or as little as you like. You sauce your own. If this is your first Eastern NC barbecue sandwich, I’d suggest you go light on the sauce at first and then add more if you are enjoying it.
The milk bread burger buns
I did a bunch of math and calculations to convert my potato bun recipe to include a tangzhong. A tangzhong is a technique that originated in Japan with the purpose of making bread softer and more tender.
The main jist of the science behind a tangzhong is that you’re exposing a bit of the flour to hot water or milk which changes the starches in the flour to encourage them to absorb more water. With this method, you’re able to raise the moisture level in your bread recipe which results in softer bread that will last longer and rise higher.
If you want to learn more about the tangzhong method, here’s a great article from King Arthur Baking that can explain things a lot better and more in depth than I have.
Flattening your buns
I like most of my sandwich buns to be more of a disk shape than a ball shape.
You can flatten buns with one of those thigh masters, but I have another technique. Here’s a slideshow of what I do to keep my dough balls/potential burger buns from rising into a full sphere.
If you don’t know what I mean by round versus flat buns, the two photos below can help illustrate what I’m talking about. Once I started to flatten my buns a bit, I never turned back. You can see the round bun just has a much higher rise making it very spherical and taller with a somewhat pointed top, while the flatter bun looks more like what you’d buy at the store or at a restaurant.
If you don’t like vinegar, you might want to skip this part of the sandwich post, because as I’ve said, Eastern NC barbecue sauce is primarily vinegar. You can still enjoy these sandwiches without the Eastern NC sauce, like I did when I was younger.
This recipe makes a large amount of sauce. You probably will only use a little bit of it with one batch of chopped pork. But, since this sauce is 90%+ vinegar, it will store for a long time. You can use it on future pork sandwiches, or it’s great on cooked greens like collards. This sauce is also pretty good to use in your coleslaw recipe in place of any vinegar that recipe might contain.
Note: you could also halve the sauce recipe if you didn’t want extra.
Basically, if you have this sauce, you have a fancy vinegar with just a tiny bit of heat. That sort of thing is always welcome in my fridge.
Vinegary and spicy with a tiny bit of sweetness to accentuate the flavors in pork. Normally presented in a bottle on the side of an Eastern NC chopped pork sandwich, giving the eater the opportunity to use as much or as little as they would like.Get Recipe
Eastern North Carolina coleslaw is typically just shredded cabbage dressed with mayonnaise, sugar, a bit of vinegar and seasonings like celery seed and possibly a tiny bit of mustard. ENC slaw is on the sweeter side and typically has more sugar than slaw from other regions.
I love this sort of slaw, because it reminds me a lot of sandwiches of my youth, but I understand if it’s too sweet for your tastes. You can easily adjust the sugar level, taste it, and see what you think. Just remember you can always add more sugar, but you can’t remove any that you’ve added.
The cheater chopped pork
This recipe is so easy, you can make it for lunch while you’re working (from home). I did. I was up around 6 or 6:30 and I rubbed the pork with seasoning and stuck it in the oven. Three hours later, I took a work break and removed the lid from the pan the pork was in and put it back in for the last 30 minutes.
I removed it and another half hour later it was it was right around noon, and I had meat that I could pull and chop for a sandwich. I also had a bunch of extra meat that I could stick in the refrigerator and eat on sandwiches for the next five days or so. If you want to reheat just one sandwich, I recommend using the microwave. Place the meat in a microwave safe bowl for 45 to 60 seconds and the meat should be warm and ready for sandwiching. If you wanted to heat up more than one sandwich, you can use a pot on the stove and heat it over medium-low heat until the pork is warm enough for your preference.
Chopped pork like this also freezes very well and can be stored in freezer bags for six months or so. If you think you’ll have extra meat you can freeze some in small, portioned zip top bags and pull out just what you need for a few sandwiches when the mood strikes you.
The full sandwich recipe
Here’s the full recipe. For the pork, all you need is a few unattended hours of cooking and you’re set.
This is a cheater version of one of the sandwiches I most remember from my youth. It's not smoked, but if you're excited about trying an Eastern North Carolina style pork sandwich, this one will get you there with minimal effort for maximum gain.
Ingredients:Chopped pork and rub
- 3-to-4 pound bone-in pork shoulder or pork butt
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon smoked paprika (not regular paprika)
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F (175 C).
Wipe down and dry your pork shoulder or pork butt. And your regular butt if needed. Wash your hands.
In a small bowl add your salt, smoked paprika and black pepper. Mix well. This is your rub.
Cover and rub your pork fully with all your rub. Make sure no parts of the pork are unseasoned.
In a dutch oven or large oven safe pot, add your fully seasoned pork and place it in the middle.
Pour 1 cup of apple cider vinegar into the dutch oven or pot, around the pork.
Add a lid or cover to your oven safe pot and add it to the pre-heated oven.
Cook for 3 hours with the cover on the pot. If you don't have a cover, you can cover the pot with aluminum foil.
Once 3 hours are over, remove the cover/lid for the pot and cook for an additional 30 minutes.
Remove pork from the pot (don't discard any liquid left in the pot just yet), place it on a cutting board and allow meat to rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour and then pull meat from the bone and use two forks to separate it. If you really want the Eastern North Carolina experience, take your sharpest chef knife or cleaver, and finely chop the pulled pork.
After you pull the pork and/or chop it, add all of the meat to a container that you can store in your refrigerator (unless you plan to eat it all in one sitting). If there was any liquid left in the pot you cooked the pork in, you can pour that into the container with all of the meat.
For sandwich assembly: grab a bun for each sandwich, add some chopped pork, add desired amount of sauce to the pork and top it with slaw. Cover with the top bun and serve.
If you have leftover pulled/chopped pork, store it in the fridge for no more than 5 days or so. You can easily reheat one sandwich worth of meat in a small bowl in the microwave for 45 seconds or a minute. Or if you want to heat a large amount of meat, you can do that in a pot on the stove on medium heat until it's warm enough to serve.
This pork freezes really well too, so if you want to store some for the future, I suggest portioning it out into small freezer zip top bags and storing in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Some final sandwiches
I’ve taken a bunch of photos of Eastern North Carolina style chopped pork sandwiches that I’ve made over the past two or three years on homemade buns with coleslaw. Take a peek.
As you can see, I love this style of sandwich and I make it at home quite a bit. The combination of vinegary and savory, slightly spicy flavors of the pork with the sweet and creamy slaw pair very well. The bun is light and it’s fun to say tangzhong.
Check out these recipes and make chopped pork and slaw. And then you can tell all your friends that you’re enjoying homemade sandwiches that a guy on the internet said you should make! See you next week when we celebrate someone’s anniversary.