At its most basic level barbecue is a process of slowing cooking meats using the indirect heat of smoke produced by special hardwood “Smoking Woods.” Throughout the 19th and 20th Century barbecue has continued to spread throughout the world. In the United States various regional and local cultures have influenced the smoking method, the most popular cut of meat, the type of wood used to smoke the meat, as well as the spices and sauces that go with it.
This isn’t to say that you have to be from or live in one of these traditional barbecue regions to make their specialty. Today butchers, grocery stores, online vendors, and grill manufacturers are all too happy to provide you with everything you need to make the barbecue you want.
In this article, we’ll explore different barbecue styles and regional traditions, to help you dial in the style, and type of meat you want to try your hand at.
Within North and South Carolina there are various subcultures, each with their own way of cooking. Most of the time when you are talking about “Carolina Barbecue” you are talking about pork. In areas of the Carolinas that were settled by German immigrants, mustard sauce is added, often in copious amounts. Yet there are other areas without a German influence where you are just as likely to find a vinegar-based sauce paired with the pork.
As the name implies this tradition uses an entire porcine animal. Sometimes it is a pig that has a live weight of 249-pounds or less. Sometimes it is indeed a hog that tipped the scales at over 250-pounds. The larger the animal the more fat and meat it will have. Unless you have access to a farmer who is willing to sell direct, chances are your backyard Carolina whole hog will actually be a modest size pig around 70-pounds.
Lexington style barbecue tends to only use the bone-in pork shoulder or pork ribs. They also tend to use a looser type of vinegar-based sauce often with a little ketchup and other seasonings blended in. Though it is usually placed in the smoker with a dry rub.
As the name implies, Memphis-style barbecue traces its roots back to Western Tennessee. This too is a pork-centric style of barbecue that leans heavily on pork shoulder, and pork ribs. One of the things that really sets Memphis barbecue pork shoulder apart is the fact that it uses a dry rub without any hint of a traditional sauce. While a lot of Memphis-style pit masters have their own signature dry rubs, most use a base of salt, paprika, garlic, black pepper, sugar, and cayenne pepper.
Outside of eastern Tennessee Memphis-style barbecue is more commonly associated with Memphis Ribs. Traditionally Memphis ribs use only the dry rub and slow smoking method. Though there are a few hotly debated pit masters who make lightly mop the ribs with a loose vinegar and tomato-based barbecue sauce during the smoking process.
Texas is a state that worships beef. Though the state is so large that it hosts different barbecue traditions. This can influence the type of wood and the cut of beef that’s most commonly used.
Central Texas Barbecue
This is arguably the type of barbecue most people think of when they hear the word “Texas Barbecue.” It focuses almost exclusively on brisket, which is essentially the pectoral muscle of a steer. It’s then given a dry rub and smoked with oak or hickory.
There are some barbecue joints serving Central Texas Style barbecue that just give you a few slices of white bread and perhaps a pickle, with the idea being that you are there to exclusively enjoy the flavor of the brisket.
Within Central Texas Barbecue there is also a traditional “Hot Gut Sausage.” This is a natural casing sausage that uses beef trim heavy on the salt and black pepper as well as a potent blast of cayenne pepper. The sausage is stuffed fresh and smoked. Then grilled to crisp the skin right before serving.
East Texas Barbecue
This is founded in the more forested part of the state and has just as much pork as it does beef. While ribs are popular, most East Texas Barbecue has some type of chopped meat made into a sandwich. You also see the influence of tomato-based sauces.
West Texas Barbecue
Sometimes referred to as “Cowboy Barbecue” it is arguably the second most popular type Texas Barbecue. It focuses heavily on dry-rubbed beef brisket as well as giant beef ribs, all of which is smoked with pungent mesquite, which grows in this dry part of the state.
South Texas Barbecue
Has a lot of Mexican influence. It often employs lesser-used cuts of beef, wrapped in agave cactus leaves, and then smoked in a pit of coals. The meat is then shredded and used in tacos.
Kansas City Barbecue
Kansas City is located in the center of the United States as an important meatpacking hub. This also opens the door to a wide variety of meats including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and an array of sausages. This much variety has helped make Kansas City one of the most popular types of barbecue.
With Kansas City Barbecue the meat is typically given a vigorous dry rub, then it is slowly smoked until tender. Most Kansas City Barbecue dishes also use some type of sticky sauce, made from ketchup, molasses, or brown sugar. The sauce is then applied at the end of the smoking process to glaze it on the meat, or it is served on the side.
Just like the available cuts of meat, there is a lot of variety in the side dishes you will find in Kansas City-style barbecue. French fries, baked beans, and mashed potatoes are very common.
Alabama Style Barbecue
This is another smaller barbecue culture. It tends to feature sandwiches made from pulled pork or smoked chicken with a special type of mayonnaise-based white sauce.
St. Louis Style Barbecue
Is Pork-centric, but rather than feud with Memphis ribs it tends to feature barbecued pork steak, from thinly sliced pork shoulder.