Tried & True ’Cue: Vivian Howard’s Caramelized Onion Oven-Cooked BBQ Recipe

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I come from Eastern North Carolina, the world’s epicenter for pork BBQ (not up for debate ’cause this is my column). Still, I’ve never cooked a whole hog at home, and I frown at the prospect of fiddling with the temperature of a grill for long periods of time just to achieve the perfect piece of smoked butt. That kind of thing is really for BBQ enthusiasts and I consider myself more of a connoisseur. So when I want the flavor of smoke, vinegar and pig, I turn to the oven and my bag of tricks.

Smoked paprika, cayenne, time, vinegar and a coating of caramelized onions lend this roast a lot of the qualities you’ll find in legit ENC-style BBQ. The onions themselves go from sweet and deep to charred and earthy and set this apart from just another slow-roasted pork butt. As with true BBQ, the sum is far greater than its parts.

Photo credit: Nathan Lambrecht

Caramelized Onion Oven-Cooked BBQ

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 3 ½ hours

Makes: 4-6 servings


  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 ¾ tablespoons salt, divided
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
  • 3-4 pounds bone-in pork picnic or Boston butt
  • 1 ½ tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 3 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar


  1. In a Dutch oven large enough to hold the pork butt, cook the onions with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-low heat until caramelized, about 30 minutes.
  2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse and dry the pork butt with paper towels. Season all sides with paprika, cayenne, black pepper and remaining salt. Then, as if the pork is your face and the onions are a mud mask, slather all sides of the pork roast with an even layer of the onions. Carefully place the pork butt, fat cap facing up, in a Dutch oven just large enough to hold it. Pour the cider vinegar around it, taking care not to wash off the onions. Cover with a tight-fitting lid or a double layer of foil. Slide the pot onto the middle rack of your oven and bake.
  3. After 3 hours, remove the lid and roast another 30 minutes uncovered. The onions on top will crisp up, even char a bit, and that’s what you want. The bitterness that comes with the char will balance the sweetness of the onions and give the impression of burnt ends in proper BBQ.
  4. Allow the BBQ to rest about 15 minutes, then skim some of the rendered fat off the vinegary juice that has pooled at the bottom of the pan. Roughly chop, pull or slice the falling-apart-tender roast and toss it around with the vinegar sauce.
  5. Serve warm in tacos, on a sandwich, or with something crunchy and bright in the spirit of slaw.

– Vivian Howard

1 Comment

  1. Lynn Stateham

    August 8, 2020 at 9:31 am

    I made this recipe and it is Fabulous! I used a 6 qt Dutch oven and the 7.5 lb pork piece I had barely fit. I adjusted the spices for a larger cut and added a little chopped garlic. This is definitely a recipe I will make again. Thank you, Vivian!

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