Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce

Being raised in southern Virginia, then later actually living in eastern North Carolina for a few years, you can safely say I grew up knowing what good barbeque was all about.  One of my favorite places to satisfy my longing for this richly wonderful purely southern dish was “Bill’s Barbeque,” in Richmond, Virginia. BILLS VIRGINIA BARBECUEThey were famous for their great barbeque, notably their “minced BBQ sandwiches,” and were really “hopping” places in the ’50’s and ’60’s.  First opened in 1930, at one time Bill’s operated 13 restaurants around the Richmond area. Sad to say, they closed their doors in 2012, but barbeque in it’s various forms continues as king of the pork world in that region.

Bullock's Bar-B-Que Photo Courtesy TripAdvisor

When my family spent a couple of years in Durham, NC, in the mid-’50’s, I discovered what I consider the “Holy Grail” of BBQ, Bullock’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant.

Bullock's Bar-B-Que Photo Courtesy TripAdvisor

Glen Bullock first offered his delicious BBQ in the 1940’s, and opened the restaurant my family frequented in 1952.  It was there I discovered some of the very best Eastern Carolina BBQ and another dish that was an instant love affair, Brunswick Stew! (I call it Carolina Brunswick Stew!).  The Bullock family still runs the restaurant, but in a different location since 1970, and it is the longest continuous running restaurant in Durham; and for good reason I might add.

Yeas later, When I worked in the Raleigh area, I discovered Clyde Cooper’s BBQ in downtown Raleigh, in business since 1938, and still going strong today.  When I worked in that area in the early ’70’s, one of us would often make a lunch run down to Cooper’s, and I don’t think anyone ever failed to get their name on the list.  Although their downtown location was a bit inconvenient if you lived out in the suburbs, believe me,  it was always worth the trip.  A visitor who reviewed this legendary restaurant had this to say:

Photo ©Kevin Reeves – Used by Permission

“…Since 1938, this old-timer has been the place in Raleigh for barbecue. Even if you think you prefer the Texas stuff, Cooper’s will convert you. Prices are reasonable, and portions are generous. The chef slow cooks only top-grade pork shoulders until they’re so tender they practically melt. They’re then mixed with a zesty barbecue sauce good enough to be bottled…”

Yep, that’s Coopers! 

pigpullinThen there is the famous whole hog BBQ method known to many Carolinians as a “pig-pullin’.”  (Also known as pig pickin’, rolling a pig, pig pull, or pig roast.) Either on a huge BBQ grill, or even in some cases buried all day underground on a bed of hot charcoal, it gets it’s name from the purely wonderful doneness of the pork, so that you can easily “pull” the meat off the bone; hence, “pig-pullin’.” (When cooked BBQ’d pork is shredded, it is also referred to as “pulled pork,” as opposed to “sliced.”) Of all the places in the world to consume good BBQ, I do believe the Eastern-North Carolina region does it best. Although tarheels also refer to their sandwiches as “pulled pork,” in Virginia it’s more likely to be called “minced.”

smithfieldSome other great places in North Carolina to get great BBQ is Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q.  They have more than 30 locations around North Carolina.  Also check out Gardner’s, at one of their 3 locations in Rocky Mount, NC.  gardnersAlthough there are literally tons of BBQ restaurants in North Carolina, I’ve eaten at all of these I’ve mentioned, and I do believe they are some of the best.

As I grew up, spent time in the military, traveled around the world and our beloved United States, I discovered that there are many versions of BBQ and the sauce that accompanies it, but the Virginia/Carolina vinegar-based flavor that I grew up with is essentially my gold standard for BBQ Sauce in general.  All over the south – Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, especially, you can find a lot of the thick red ketchup-y sugary sauces, which in my humble opinion, are merely poor imitations of the genuine stuff.  In most versions of the red stuff, it is almost an afterthought, often applied to the meat externally.  Not that far removed from taking a plate of great scrambled eggs,  and smothering them in ketchup.  Yuk.  Which is why I prefer the Carolina-style sauce — It has about the same consistency of water, and does seem to be very thin sauce when compared to the thick reds.  But the big difference is, the Carolina-style sauce, because of it’s very thin consistency, actually saturates and permeates the meat, and is pulled into it so that the BBQ flavor essentially becomes one with the meat.  The result is perfect and succulent, finger-lickin’ lip-smackin’ BBQ goodness!

©AmazingRibs.com – Used by Permission

Self-proclaimed Barbeque Whisperer Meathead Goldwyn has drawn up a little graphic on his website Amazing Ribs — All About The Zen Of Barbecue, Grilling, And Outdoor Cooking, that shows exactly what I’ve been saying about what I consider the true vinegar-infused BBQ taste of the Eastern Carolina region.  From the graphic you can see pretty much the eastern 2/3 or so of North Carolina is surely vinegar-based BBQ sauce headquarters in the good ole’ U.S. of A.  Be sure and check out “Meathead’s” web site – you will find out some “amazing” things about the wide wide world of serious barbeque grillin’; and be sure to check out his recipe for Columbia Gold, A South Carolina Mustard Barbecue Sauce.  While I do truely love the vinegary stuff, a good mustardy-tasting sauce is right up there on my list of favorites too.

20120910_223537Although there are many different kinds of store-bought sauces, they might be okay if you need something quick and easy, but certainly not my first choice.  Many of them are heavy extremely heavy on the sugar and don’t measure up to my BBQ sauce desires. At heart I am a from-scratch cook, using locally grown and natural ingredients whenever possible.  Many of today’s bottled sauces have a list of ingredients that can be very scary.

For people like me who love vinegar and also a little heat, this uncomplicated recipe fills those requirements.  It is deceptively simple in it’s construction, but I think you will be surprised at the ability of this wonderful concoction to infuse your BBQ dish with pure Carolina succulence. My favorite application is some kind of pork in a slow cooker with this sauce, but it will work equally well for chicken.  Although this sauce calls for distilled white vinegar, some folks prefer to use red cider vinegar.  Your choice.  Also, this sauce is going to be fairly hot.  If you want to tame it down a bit, just use less red chile; but don’t reduce it too much, as this is a crucial element in the sauce.

In any case, this recipe is the closest I’ve found that matches that specific Eastern Carolina BBQ taste that I have come to know and love.  This one is adapted from the original recipe found inThe Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee.  In addition to saturating your pork or chicken dish with it as you cook, you might put some in a cruet for sprinkling on your BBQ as well.  You’ll find a cruet of this kind of sauce on just about any BBQ restaurant table in the south.

P11806501003855_206609_A_400 - CopyEastern Carolina BBQ Sauce

Makes about 2 cups
Time: About 5 minutes


2 cups distilled white vinegar
2 Tablespoons crushed red chiles
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon raw sugar


In a medium-sized bowl or large measuring bowl, combine the white vinegar, chiles, pepper, salt and sugar.  Whisk all the ingredients together until they are thoroughly combined.  It can be used immediately, or transferred to a jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerating for 1 to 2 days before using will cause the flavors to infuse even more.P1180651

Optional. Some folks like to add warm melted butter to this recipe for richness. You could probably add as much as a stick, but I wouldn’t recommend more than that, it will dilute the sauce too much. If you decide to add butter, make sure it’s warm and also heat the sauce before you add it, so it will all mix thoroughly.

Best of all, this sauce stores well in the refrigerator for up to 2 months, so you can make a lot of it if you want to.


NOTE: My favorite way to eat BBQ? — piled high on a bun, topped with some Tidewater Cole Slaw, and then a few sprinkles of this sauce on top.  Heck, you can even add a nice slice of tomato on top if you want.  Bon Appeit!

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  1. First, I’m so glad to see you posting stories to accompany your recipes now. I always love hearing about the adventures you’ve had, places you’ve seen. This post is almost a “must read” for anyone traveling through the Confederacy looking for a good BBQ.
    You have me curious now how BBQ sauce in the “south” would compete to BBQ in “texas” (famous for it’s chili and bbq contests). I’d love to compare the tastes, textures, style… you know as with any food, the culture has to have a big impact on the sauces.
    I’m w/ you Dad – the more natural the better!!

  2. Thanks Tara! I’m really having fun adding some of my personal adventures to the recipes, because how you grow up and what foods you’re exposed to along the way I think has a lot of influence on your taste buds in later life. As to comparing Carolina BBQ to the Texas stuff….I really think there are two major differences; The Carolina BBQ will appeal to those who like the vinegary flavor; and I think this style of sauce is more “infused” into the meat instead of being added on top after it’s cooked, which is what happens so often with the “red stuff.” Now, as to the world of chili….well, that’s a whole ‘nother story right there, and I do believe the Westerners excel at it, although some great chili recipes can be found in many parts of the country. I have some chili recipes I’ll be posting over the next few months that literally are the brain-child of firemen, who cook for their fellow firefighters. Stay tuned…:)

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