For many Americans, barbecue isn't just a cooking technique—it's a cherished hobby, even a way of life. This sentiment is particularly strong in the southern states, where the tradition first took root. But did you know that the definition of "barbecue" varies from region to region? Here's the rundown on the various types of barbecue that are popular in the US.
Let's start with North Carolina, one of the most complex regions—at least in terms of barbecue lore. The eastern half of this coastal state opts for a whole-hog barbecue, chopping the meat and mixing it with a vinegar-based sauce when it's ready to be served.
Conversely, in western North Carolina, the residents prefer smoked pork shoulder, smothered in a richer tomato-based sauce. The meat, referred to as "Lexington-style barbecue," is often served on a sandwich in this part of the state. Pork ribs may also be prepared in much the same fashion.
Like their neighbors to the northeast, South Carolina natives prefer to go the whole hog—literally, in this case. Their vinegar-based sauces lean heavily toward mustard flavorings, enough so that the southern half of the state is sometimes referred to as "The Mustard Belt."
While all of South Carolina generally agrees that the entire pig should be included in a barbecue, they're usually willing to branch out when it comes to the sauce. The mustard-heavy concoction is the most common, but it's not unusual to find lighter tomato-based sauces on the table as well, particularly in the northern regions.
If you're in Kansas City and you hear the term "burnt ends," it's not a drug reference. The speaker is likely referring to the city's signature dish: the end cuts of a beef brisket that's been smoked until the fat has turned a rich, deep brown. In a sense, burnt ends are beef's answer to bacon. No wonder everyone in the Midwest goes crazy for them.
Unlike some of the barbecue varieties listed here, Kansas City takes an inclusive approach when it comes to meat. Anything is fair game for the smoker—pork ribs, brisket, sausage, whole chickens. The method, however, remains constant: A long, slow cook over low heat, enhanced with hickory smoke and finished with a thick, tomato-based sauce tinged with molasses.
The Home of The Blues is also notorious for its smoked pulled pork, typically smothered in a light tomato-based sauce that allows the flavor of the meat to shine. The rest of the pig isn't neglected, either—pork ribs are another staple of Memphis barbecue. There are two different varieties of Memphis ribs: Wet ribs, which are covered in sauce before cooking; and dry ribs, which are coated in a garlic-spice rub before taking their turn in the smoker.
It should be noted that Memphians are willing to be experimental with their smoked meats. Barbecued pork can be found as a pizza topping, a salad ingredient, or the crowing touch on a plate of nachos. They also aren't exceptionally picky about the wood that's used in the process. As such, Memphis-style barbecue can easily be prepared on a gas grill, as long as the unit is large enough to accommodate the meat.
Like North Carolina, Texas is home to several distinct regions, each of which has its own ideas about what constitutes proper barbecue.
In the central portion of the state, you'll find sliced brisket that's been smoked over oak wood and served "naked," without a sauce. Sometimes the slices will be served on a sandwich, but not always. Pork ribs receive a similar treatment—the wood provides the only flavoring.
Southern Texas leans on mesquite for flavor in a technique that's sometimes referred to as "cowboy-style." Toward the Mexican border, the traditions take on a Latin vibe, with the slow-cooked meat often making its way into a tortilla as a taco filling.
Meanwhile, in East Texas, the residents don't discriminate between beef or pork. The meat is slow-cooked and then roughly chopped, mixed with a spicy sauce, and sandwiched between two thick buns.
As a footnote, you can find hot gut sausages in every Texas region. These links contain coarsely ground beef mixed with a ton of black pepper and other spices. Along with pork and brisket, hot gut sausages make up what's known as the "trinity" of Texas barbecue.
You'll know an Alabama barbecued meat sandwich when you see it. Why? Because of their "white" barbecue sauce—a combination of mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, and horseradish that would horrify many of their neighbors to the north. Either pork or chicken is permissible as the protein source, and the concoction is often topped with cole slaw, which makes the filling appear whiter still.
One of the lesser-known styles hails from Kentucky. In the western part of the state, barbecue enthusiasts use hickory to smoke mutton until it's tender, then smother the meat in a dark base spiked with Worcestershire sauce. Meanwhile, the rest of Kentucky relies on the more popular variations of pulled pork and pork shoulder.
The next time you find yourself craving good barbecue in the States, be sure to refer to this guide so you'll know exactly what you're getting. Remember, what seems commonplace in one area might be unheard of in the next state you visit. We hope you've enjoyed this virtual tour!