In terms of meat, there’s pork, tri-tip, sausages, chicken — the list of possibilities is endless. There’s one dish every barbeque enthusiast should know: Smoked Carolina Pulled Pork.
Smoked pulled pork recipes are a staple of Southern cooking, particularly in the Carolinas, where pitmasters have perfected the art of BBQ. This tender, fatty, and flavorful meat is usually made with pork shoulder, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to Southern side dishes like potato salads and coleslaw.
Pulled pork is also perfect for beginners. It’s much more forgiving than something like brisket, so if it ends up a little over or underdone, you can still enjoy it. Additionally, it’s a cheaper cut of meat. Even if your pork doesn’t turn out as planned on your first go, you’re getting valuable practice without spending lots of money on expensive meat like brisket or ribs.
We’ll teach you to make the best smoked Carolina pulled pork, so you can enjoy a pulled pork sandwich, smoked pork shoulder, or even pulled pork straight on the plate.
The Mastermind Behind Lillie’s Q
A 2X World BBQ Champion, Chef Charlie McKenna is an award-winning chef trained at New York’s Culinary Institute of America.
Born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina, his talents in the kitchen brought him to the Chicago fine dining scene (by way of New York and Miami). Still, his first and true love was Southern food.
There were a lot of family meals at his grandmother Lillie’s house growing up, and his father — an Air Force colonel — would cater BBQ on base. However, it wasn’t until Charlie visited a competition that his passion for BBQ ignited, leading him on a journey to be the best pit-master of all time.
After honing his BBQ skills, Charlie landed in Chicago, where he became a sous chef at two of Chicago’s four-star fine-dining landmarks: Tru and Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel. During that time, he racked up awards on the competition BBQ circuit, including two first-place wins at Memphis, widely regarded as the world championship of BBQ.
In 2010, Charlie opened Lillie’s Q, allowing him to follow his passion for BBQ. Named for his grandmother Lillie and his father Quito, Lillie’s Q now has four restaurants. You can find its artisan BBQ sauce, rubs, and chips on the shelves of more than 6,000 retailers internationally.
More on Lillie’s Q
When Chef Charlie opened his first restaurant, the goal was simple: Create a Southern-inspired barbeque experience true to regional traditions and reimagined into one-of-a-kind flavors.
Located in the heart of Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, the Lillie’s Q flagship offers elevated Southern favorites crafted to perfection, from award-winning smoked pork to classic sides like mac n’ cheese.
Shortly after opening, Lillie’s Q was named “Best New BBQ” by Food and Wine Magazine. It didn’t take long before we needed to expand to fill our hungry BBQ-loving fans’ bellies. We opened Lillie’s Q Restaurants in Wrigley Field, the United Center, and Destin, Florida, to spread the joy of great barbeque.
Chef Charlie’s Smoked Carolina Pulled Pork
From slow cooker delicacies to your favorite spice rub, there's no shortage of ways to make traditional BBQ at home. That's why Chef Charlie is sharing a few of his best recipes — like Smoked Carolina Pulled Pork. Here’s what you need to know.
It’s All About the Cut
The best meat for pulled pork is pork butt or pork shoulder. Despite the name, pork butt comes from the hog’s upper shoulder. While you can use the leg or other parts of the pig, those cuts don’t have enough intramuscular fat. The higher levels of fat present in pork butt and shoulder give you the soft texture sought after with pulled pork.
You can find pork butt boneless or bone-in. Boneless meat will cut down the cooking time, but bone-in will enhance the flavor. We’re all about flavor, so we use bone-in for the recipe below.
This cut of meat will also usually feature a relatively large fat cap. While fat is crucial to the process, good quality meat will have enough intramuscular fat that you don’t need quite that much on top. Trimming your fat cap will prevent your pulled pork from becoming too greasy.
Another reason for trimming the fat cap is that Carolina pulled pork is known for its delicious, crisp bark. If your meat has a massive fat cap, you won't get that because the rub won’t adhere to the meat.
What Makes Carolina Pulled Pork Different?
There are many ways to make pulled pork, and even Carolina pulled pork varies regionally.
The traditional method for any Carolina-style BBQ is to smoke the pork low and slow to impart a deep smoky flavor and tenderness.
The difference between Carolina’s pulled pork and other regions involves the sauce. The Carolinas are famous for using vinegar in their sauces, especially apple cider vinegar. Western North Carolina also incorporates elements of tomato, which is what we’re emulating.
The signature outer bark is the prize, and the goal of any great pitmaster is to ensure each bite includes some of that smoky flavor. Some people get nervous that the pork looks burnt, but it won’t taste that way.
To maintain that crisp, dark bark, be extra careful when you introduce your foil to the smoking process. As the pork cooks, moisture is released in the form of steam. If the foil is touching the pork, that steam will be too close for a crisp bark to form. Leaving a bit of space ensures you get the bark you’re looking for.
Let’s Get Saucy
Before diving into the recipe, you need the right ingredients — including Lillie Q’s Carolina BBQ Sauce. Equally balanced and tangy, this sauce honors Western Carolina BBQ traditions and pairs beautifully with pulled pork or beans. The notes of tomato, vinegar, sugar, and spices will ensure you savor every bite, while a hint of onion powder adds depth.
Plus, it’s gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, and made with clean ingredients — no high fructose corn syrup or preservatives. You’ll also hit your pork with our Carolina Dirt and Q rub, which includes garlic powder and pepper for extra complexity.
The recipe listed combines the tastes of the Carolinas that led Chef Charlie to victory as a 2X World BBQ Champ.
- bone-in pork shoulder/butt, usually 4-5 lbs
- apple cider vinegar
- apple juice
- Lillie’s Q Gold
- Lillie's Q Q-Rub
- Lillie's Q Carolina Dirt
- Lillie's Q Carolina Barbeque Sauce (or your favorite Lillie's Q Sauce)
Trim all fat, including fat cap, from pork shoulder.
Season entire pork shoulder with Q-Rub (somewhat heavily) and let sit 5 minutes. Brush pork with a thin layer of Lillie’s Q Gold sauce.
Season all sides with Carolina Dirt (you don’t want it caked on, but enough so you don’t see the gold sauce). Smoke at 250 degrees for 3 to 4 hours, spraying apple cider vinegar every 30 minutes.
When the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees, remove it from the smoker and place on a baking rack in an aluminum pan. Pour a thin roughly 1/4 inch layer of apple juice into the pan.
Wrap the pan with a double layer of aluminum foil. Make sure foil is slightly tented, so there’s no contact between the foil and shoulder. Place pork shoulder back in smoker at 250 degrees. Continue to smoke until pork reaches an internal temperature of 197 degrees, roughly 3 hours.
With the smoker at 250, unwrap pork, remove from pan, and place on the smoker rack. Preserve juices from the aluminum pan. Glaze with Lillie’s Q Carolina every 15 minutes for the last hour. Pull pork from smoker and allow to rest for 30 to 45 minutes.
Place pork shoulder in a serving pan and pull the pork. Pour reserved juices over pulled pork and gently mix to distribute. Serve and enjoy!