A Brief Tour of American Barbecue

By pete, Aug 6, 2014 | | |
  1. Barbecue, barbeque, BBQ, or Bar-B-Que, no matter how you spell it America has developed an insatiable appetite for the stuff.  Restaurants specialize in it, competitions abound, and backyard grill jockeys brag about their deftness at creating perfectly tender, spicy, smoked meats.  But with all this hullaballoo, I would bet that, if you asked the average person to describe barbecue the first thing they would mention is baby back ribs slathered with a sweet and spicy tomato based sauce.  While that certainly is barbecue, it is but one type of barbecue, and one that isn’t necessarily all that popular in all the major regions where barbecue reigns supreme.  But, before we get too far into the various regional styles of barbecue, I should mention what barbecue is not.  In this day and age people often use the terms barbecuing and grilling interchangeably, but, as any good grill jockey will quickly point out, they are very different beasts.  Sure they both involve cooking over live fire, but grilling is done over high heat to quickly sear and cook the meat.  Meats that take well to grilling are usually tender cuts such as steaks, burgers, chicken, fish, and certain parts of the pig.  Grilling often takes 20 minutes or less, not counting the time it takes to fire up your coals, while barbecuing, on the other hand, is a slow and low process in which tougher cuts of meat can spend hours upon hours slowly cooking in a smoked filled chamber.  During grilling temperatures, at the grate, can reach 500-600°F or more, in barbecue temperatures rarely exceed 275°F in the cooking chamber, and often hover at around the 225 °F mark.  This slow and low cooking process breaks down the tough connective tissue and fat yielding a product that is fork tender in the end.  Nor does barbecue automatically mean that the meat is doused in a pool of thick, sweet, spicy sauce.

    Now comes the controversial part; barbecue is often divided into 4 major regional styles.  Yes, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, a few of which I will cover at the end of this article, but generally most the barbecuing done in this country can be divided into one of these styles, or a slight variation of them.  While there are thousands of different recipes for barbecue sauces and rubs, most of them fall somewhere within these major regional styles.  That is not to say that there aren’t other styles out there, but as I stated most of these other styles are variations on the four main regional styles, and to get into every local variation would fill volumes or entire websites and is well beyond the scope of a web based article.  So we will focus on the 4 major styles with mention of a few of the other styles that are unique and fall well beyond these categories.

    The Carolinas

    Carolina barbecue is almost exclusively pork, usually in the form of the whole hog or whole shoulders.  The meat is sometimes rubbed down with a simple rub, usually made of just salt, pepper, and cayenne with maybe just a few more spices added depending on the area and/or the pit master.  During cooking the meat is usually mopped with either vinegar (most usually cider vinegar) or a mixture of vinegar and apple juice, sometimes with a bit of seasoning added.  Once done the pork is then either pulled or chopped and drizzled with a Carolina style sauce.  In North Carolina this sauce usually takes the form of cider vinegar kicked up with a heavy dose of chili pepper, usually in the form of ground cayenne or red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, and sometimes just a dash of sugar or apple juice to mellow the vinegar bite, but in no way should it be sweet.  In Eastern North Carolina they prefer to use whole hogs and a very simple “sauce” usually without any sugar, while in the Western part of the state they prefer pork shoulders and often add both ketchup and sugar to the vinegar sauce although it remains very thin, and less than sweet.  I have to admit that this is my personal favorite among the major styles.  Without a thick, heavy sauce the pork really shines and the addition of the vinegar sauce, just to moisten the meat, helps to counteract the rich fattiness of pork that has been cooking in its own fat and juices for hours on end.
    Down in South Carolina they also prefer pork, but they are known for their mustard sauce which is similar to Eastern North Carolina sauce but with the addition of yellow mustard and sugar giving it a mildly sweet and sour flavor.
     ​


    Memphis

    Besides being home to, arguably the most important barbecue competition in the country, “Memphis in May” World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Memphis is also known for its ribs and chopped pork sandwiches.  In Memphis ribs can be served either wet, with sauce, or dry, just rubbed although the preference here, historically, has been for “dry.”  Because of this, the dry rubs of this style of barbecue can be complex affairs with ingredient lists sometimes running to 15-20, or more, different spices and flavorings.  Most rubs will contain sugar (usually brown sugar) salt, pepper, and cayenne garlic powder and/or onion powder.  From there the sky’s the limit with each pit master creating their own special rub, often with numerous “secret” ingredients.  Barbecue sandwiches, on the other hand are almost exclusively served with the meat slathered in sauce.  While similar to the standard store-bought sauce, it tends to be a little thinner and not quite as sweet.
     ​


    Kansas City

    While pork, usually in the form of ribs or shoulder, is still king here beef is also an important meat showing up both as ribs and as brisket.  Kansas City style is “ground zero” as the inspiration for what most Americans consider to be barbecue; ribs, lightly rubbed, smoked until tender then slathered in a thick, sweet and spicy tomato based sauce.  Because sauce plays such an important role in this style, and the fact that a good sauce can somewhat mask the deficiencies in a novice pit master’s skills this is the most popular style for people to turn to most often especially if they aren’t confident in the barbecuing skills or don’t want to invest a whole day to cooking since ribs can often be done in 2-3 hours vs. pork shoulders or pork butts that can take 6-8 hour, or more, or whole hogs which require special equipment and often, at least 12-24 hours to cook.
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    Texas

    Leave it to Texas to have to do things differently.  Here beef reigns supreme, most in the form of brisket and it’s by this brisket that the reputation of a restaurant or pit master depends.  Sausage is another important item in Texas barbecue with ribs completing the triad.  Here, the smoke and the meat are the key elements that pit masters want to emphasize which means that rubs are simple, often just salt and pepper with maybe a hint of cayenne, garlic powder, and/or onion powder although the last two items are used in moderation.  Sauce, if served at all, is often served on the side and although tomato based tends to be thin and on the spicy side.  Pit masters, in Texas, often rely on oak or mesquite for their smoke although hickory and pecan are also popular.


    A Scattering of Other Styles

    While the 4 major styles, listed above account for much of the barbecue served in this country there are a few outliers worth mentioning.  First is Kentucky with 2 distinct styles.  In Western Kentucky lamb or mutton is often the choice of meat destined for the pit and the sauce, known locally as “dip” is a thin Worcestershire based sauce while in Southern Kentucky they prefer pork shoulder, but like to slice it relatively thinly so that it cooks in about 1 hour.  It is then served with a sauce similar to that served in Western North Carolina.

    In Southern Texas you can still find a few places doing traditional barbacoa, a Mexican version of barbecue in which a pit is dug, a bed of coals prepared and topped with large cuts of lamb.  The hole is then sealed up so that the meat smokes and steams for hours, resulting in tender, smoky lamb full of flavor.

    In Northern Alabama white barbecue sauce is becoming more popular.  A mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar, horseradish, pepper and other spices, this sauce is most commonly found on chicken although some people use it on ribs and others using it as a dipping sauce for just about everything.

    Although not often mentioned when talking about different styles of barbecue, I feel that Kalua pig deserves to be mentioned as the method of cooking is very similar to barbacoa.  A hole is dug and lined with rocks.  A large fire is built on top of the rocks and once the fire has died down and the rocks are hot, large pieces of pork, wrapped in banana and Ti leaves are placed on top and sealed in.  The resulting tender, smoky pork is often the center of a luau and is most definitely a style of barbecue.

    So there you have it, a relatively brief tour of the major barbecue styles in the US.  Please forgive me if I didn’t mention the area you live in and you feel that you have a distinct style of barbecue.  But, as I said above, and still stand by my statement, most barbecue falls into 1 of these categories or a variation on them.  While I could certainly explore all the nuanced variations that abound, it would end up being a full book, which while it would be fun to write, at this point in my life I don’t have the time to devote to such a large topic.

    If you are a novice to the world of barbecue I hope that I’ve shed some light on a few things for you and hope that I’ve inspired you to look beyond baby back ribs and store bought sauce.

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  1. wartface
    Grilling is hot and fast... That ain't BBQ.

    BBQ is low and slow...

    You grill burgers and thin steaks... You BBQ pork butts and other large cuts of meat.
  2. pete
    @tiemu I kind of agree with the gas thing but I have to admit, I have a gas grill, as well as my charcoal grill and my smoker.  I like the gas grill for convienence, but prefer the charcoal grill for serious grilling.
     
    @dreamshards8 The article was kept pretty simple by design and I had to edit quite often to keep myself reigned it.  There is so much that can be said about the various styles of barbecue that you could fill volumes and still not do it justice.  I wanted to create a quick "beginner's guide" to give novices a starting place and so that they understood that the standard "baby back ribs slathered in sweet and spicy sauce" was but just one small part of a much larger world.  Thanks for the comments!!!
  3. dreamshards8
    Simple but very informative. I enjoy many types of barbecue. It depends on what I am in the mood for, but I am definitely a true Texas. I absolutely love a perfectly smoked brisket with just a salt and pepper rub. Sauce is good but it doesn't need to be lathered on all over my beautiful beef. 
  4. tiemu
    "Aussies love a good barbie", Australians say. But after your article I can say that we know NOTHING compared to Americans on this topic. Paul Hogan made Australia famous by throwing a shrimp on a hot plate, and that's about as sophisticated as Australian barbeques get (beef patties for hamburgers as well as sausages complete the triad).
     
    I really have no idea why people cook with gas barbeques as it's really just an outdoor stovetop. They even spend enormous sums on the mamoth devices  (over a thousand dollars sometimes) from department stores. Like expensive electric stovetops, it's an excellent way to show others you don't know what you're missing. What non-stick skillets are to indoor cooking gas barbeques are to outdoor food.
     
    I wish I could travel around America for the barbeque alone!
  5. pete
    Thanks @flipflopgirl!  I have to admit, I am a huge fan of using both pecan wood and the shells, of the nuts for smoking.
     
    Thanks @Namaxy.  I love doing whole hogs but don't have the opportunity to do it too often.
  6. namaxy
    Love the article, and agree with most everything. Just did a whole pig for 12 hours last week. However, I don't agree that grilling is all about searing at 500 plus degrees. Many chefs today embrace low and slow for even tender cuts of meat. Gone are the days of 'sealing in the juices'.
  7. flipflopgirl
    Well done Pete.
    My fave form of 'Q is chicken, split in half and heavily smoked with pecan (the skin turns crispy with a gorgeous mahogany color) just until the juices run clear.
    The sauce is tomato based and kinda spicy (for dipping only) with a side of buttery toasty garlic bread.
    Heaven.