A Hamburger Today
The Complete Serious Eats Barbecue & Sauce Style Guide
Note: A few years back, When Pigs Fly columnist James Boo published two separate but equally comprehensive guides—one to American regional barbecue styles, the other to American regional barbecue sauces. Now, to celebrate Barbecue Week, we've combined both posts into one glorious super guide, designed to provide you with the most encyclopedic barbecue coverage possible. Enjoy. —The Editors
If you're a barbecue hound, you're probably not shy about expressing your loyalties to certain regional barbecue styles. That's a polite way of saying that people have been fighting over what barbecue reigns supreme since pitmasters first developed these regional styles.
Serious Eats doesn't really have a dog in this fight: we love Kansas City burnt ends as much as we love a perfect chopped whole hog from Eastern Carolina. That said, we decided it'd be useful to define the distinct regional styles across America.
Now, on to the 'cue!
Over the years the Carolinas have developed two of the country's most distinct barbecue cultures. There have been entire books written about both states' 'cue. On both sides, the hog reigns supreme. The disagreements focus on the parts of the animal cooked, the use of wood smoke, and the type of sauce.
Eastern Carolina barbecue just might be the most literal interpretation of the phrase "pig out." It typically consists of whole hog, chopped and mixed with bits of cracklin' (the crunchy, smoky skin of the hog).
Many barbecue restaurants in eastern North Carolina have switched to cooking with gas, but places like the Skylight Inn and Wilber's— supported by grandfather clauses and other exceptions in local ordinance, not to mention a tenacious sense of duty—continue to smoke their pigs over hardwood coals. Eastern Carolina 'cue is often served with a light, mayo-based slaw and dressed with a minimalist sauce.
The sauce: Vinegar sauce, the first evolution from barbecue basting liquid, remains barbecue's most basic condiment and the sauce of choice at many Carolina joints. At a minimum, it is limited to white or cider vinegar and dried red pepper flakes, producing a tangy, spicy baste meant to cut through the smoke and fat of traditional barbecue.
Vinegar sauce is best served with whole hog and pork shoulder. The sweetness and smokiness of pork barbecue is complemented perfectly by vinegar's acidic tang, and the subtleties of the meat won't be buried by this sauce's thin consistency.
The Lexington style, also referred to as Piedmont barbecue and Western Carolina barbecue, is centered in Lexington, North Carolina, a town of about 20,000 people and nearly 100 barbecue joints.
This style is dominated by wood-smoked pork shoulder, ranging from sliced to very finely chopped, and served with finely minced cabbage.
The sauce: Lexington-style barbecue sauce, mixed with the cabbage to create barbecue slaw, is tangy and sweet, incorporating a bit of ketchup or tomato into the stripped-down vinegar sauce of its eastern counterparts.
South Carolina barbecue is best represented by wood-smoked whole hog.
The "Mustard Belt" of central South Carolina, where pit-smoked, chopped whole hog is still the meat of choice, boasts the country's most pronounced use of an intense mustard-based barbecue sauce. Barbecue restaurants in the midland region are also partial to all-you-can-eat buffets with large steam trays of pre-sauced pork and small mountains of fried chicken.
The sauce: See above. At its best, a rich, tangy mustard sauce, laced with vinegar and seasonings, complements sweet, smoky pulled pork or whole hog in a way that's much edgier than its tomato-based cousin. And like heavy tomato sauce, mustard sauce is best served on the side. Too much "Carolina gold" can turn the best barbecue into an acrid, sour glop.
Eastern and Western South Carolina barbecue, similar to their neighbors in North Carolina and Georgia, feature vinegar-based and tomato-based sauces over South Carolina pork and hash.
Mutton is no oddity in many barbecue regions, but no town has a better reputation for smoked mutton than Owensboro, Kentucky. The combination of wood smoke and sheeps' meat is among the more complex flavors in barbecue.
Pork ribs are the most iconic Memphis specialty, and though the most famous ribs here are served dry, "wet ribs" doused with red barbecue sauce are always an option. Certain Memphian cooks (I'm looking at you, Bar-B-Q Shop!) aren't afraid to crank up the spice factor.
The sauce: Memphis sauce tends to be tomato-and-vinegar based, with a sweet flavor and slightly runny consistency. Tomato-based barbecue sauce became the new standard of American barbecue in the mid-20th century, but this sauce tempers sweeter tones with the bite of vinegar. It's especially great with barbecue that's developed a smoky, substantial bark, since the more subtle flavors of pulled pork or whole hog can be obscured by the lingering sweetness of tomato-based sauces.
Memphis doesn't stop at ribs. From chopped pork sandwiches to smoked bologna to barbecue spaghetti (you heard me), Memphis barbecue excels at all forms of pork. Beef is much less popular, except for once a year when brisket and beef ribs hit the grill at the World Kosher Barbeque Championship.
Rural Tennessee barbecue has earned a reputation in the barbecue community as the purest form of wood-smoked, whole hog 'cue outside of the Carolinas. These joints tend to be weekend-only operations, smoking as few as one whole hog per day for as long as 20 hours before pulling, chopping and slicing it up with a thin, vinegar-based sauce. Barbecue scholar John T. Edge has testified that further to the north and extending into Kentucky, Tennessee barbecue also includes pork shoulder served over skillet-cooked hoe cakes.
Calvin Trillin, who infamously declared in The New Yorker in 1974 that "Bryant's is the best damn restaurant in the world," put Kansas City on the map as a serious eating destination. Almost 40 years later, the original Arthur Bryant's still serves lard-fried potatoes and barbecue to a packed dining room at lunchtime, while relative newcomers like Oklahoma Joe's keep the city's legacy alive for a new generation of barbecue fans.
The Kansas City Barbecue Society has set the most dominant standards for slow-cooked barbecue in the country at the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, TN.
Kansas City is known as the melting pot of barbecue. Walk up to a counter and you can find just about anything. Pulled pork, pork ribs, pork steak, beef brisket, smoked mutton, smoked chicken, and sliced turkey—you name it, they smoke it.
The sauce: A thick, sweet, tomato-and-molasses based concoction that has become an American standard thanks to Heinz, K.C. Masterpiece and the other bottled sauce brands. Those nationally distributed, factory-made sauces have taken on a (not exactly recommendable) life of their own, but they don't faithfully represent the sauces actually served in Kansas City smoke joints.
Whereas vinegar-based sauces are essentially refined basting liquids, heavy tomato sauce can be just as much an attraction as the barbecue it coats. The impact is mostly in flavor; these tend to be prepared with sweeteners like molasses or brown sugar, with inflections of vinegar, pepper, and other ingredients as the cook sees fit.
This town's gourmet choice, however, is a good plate of burnt ends. Taken from the tips of a fully cooked brisket and sometimes thrown back into the smoker to crisp, these are nuggets of pure barbecue gold.
On the other side of Missouri, St. Louis has made its own seminal contribution to barbecue: the neatly trimmed St. Louis style rib (the ends are trimmed before cooking). St. Louis also offers a unique dish in the thick-cut barbecue pork steak: it's seared, smoked, and basted with a tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce as it finishes cooking.
East St. Louis is home to the snoot, a pig's snout and its attached facial skin cooked over hot coals (these days, snoots are often boiled and fried, rather than grilled) until the copious fat is rendered and the skin gets thoroughly crisp. Pulled pork, sausages and other standards are cooked alongside the St. Louis specialties, but when it comes to local favorites, sauced snoot sandwiches win by a nose.
According to Lolis Eric Elie, author of the essential Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in Barbecue Country: "Chicago is an animal unto itself," particularly Chicago's South side, where the reputation for ribs began to grow during the 1950s. Pitmasters here, adapting rural Southern tradition to urban business, tend to smoke with charcoal or wood coals and cook for a relatively short period of time, yielding simple, "backyard-style ribs" that are firmer than their cousins down south.
While by no means exclusive to Chicago, rib tips are the city's most glowing contribution to the barbecue map. They are the byproduct of St. Louis-style ribs, literally cut from the ends of spare ribs and transformed into a pile of chewy, cartilage-rich chunks. When served by Lem's Bar-B-Q in the early 1950s, they were simply a good way for the Lemon brothers to make money from wasted meat. They've since become a Chicago staple.
Chicago has carved out a notch in barbecue technique with its aquarium smokers. Honey 1, Uncle John's, and any other smoke joint dedicated enough to cook with these formidable, wood-fired fish tanks, have come up with some of the best barbecue in the country. The relatively high cost and effort required to operate these beauts has led to their increasing use as a display case for gas-cooked meat, making the genuine article even more of a Chicago treasure.
The Lone Star state is the only member of the Union that rivals the Carolinas' unyielding, outspoken pride in barbecue. All the better for serious eaters, because that pride has given us Texas-sized portions of regional flavor.
In central Texas, the brisket, handmade sausage, and pork ribs are seasoned with little more than salt and pepper. Smoked over oak coals, it's served market-style without a lick of barbecue sauce. But when there is sauce, it tends to be a thin tomato-and-vinegar mixture.
East Texas barbecue, stretching from the state's eastern border to as far as Houston, is a direct descendant of the South's barbecue, brought to the region by slaves who arrived to farm cotton in the 1800s. Pork shoulder, sausage, brisket, and pork ribs are commonly smoked and sometimes served with a sweet, tomato-based sauce.
Open Pit Barbecue, according to Texas food guru Robb Walsh, is largely a thing of the past. At one point all American barbecue was pit barbecue, cooked low and slow over wood coals in the ground, but West Texas held out longer than most, still holding open pit cookouts through the 1960s. These days Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que is the most prominent place to pick a rack of ribs, slices of brisket, and more straight-off-the-rack 'cue from an outdoor pit.
Near the state's southern border with Mexico you'll find beef barbacoa, or pit-smoked cow's head.
Regional Barbecue Beyond the Capitals
The states of the Deep South support a wide range of restaurants, community cookouts, competitions and local recipes.
In Decatur, Alabama, Big Bob Gibson's is known for its pulled pork shoulder, which our man Ed Levine has declared "the finest pork shoulder sandwich on the planet." This barbecue shrine is also famous for smoked chicken served with a unique white barbecue sauce invented by Bob Gibson during the 1920s, but you can find just about any kind of 'cue up and down the state.
The sauce: White sauce is Alabama's most peculiar barbecue innovation. Made from mayonnaise, vinegar, and lemon juice, and boosted by black pepper, the consistency ranges from a thick dressing to a thin drizzle. White barbecue sauce is an excellent match for pulled pork, or a great baste for smoked chicken.
The Santa Maria style, born in California's central coast, is part of the state's Spanish heritage. Prepared mainly in the forms of tri-tip and top sirloin steak, Santa Maria barbecue is seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and grilled over hot wood coals. Over the years this style has shifted from pit cooking to grilling.
New York, America's restaurant capital, is exhibit A in the "noveau 'cue" experience. Each in its own way, establishments like Mighty Quinn's, Blue Smoke, and Fatty 'Cue recreate and re-imagine barbecue country in the big city kitchen.
Anchored by the hands-on, democratic approach of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and the Memphis Barbecue Network, competition 'cue exists on a different plane from regional barbecue. While towns like Lexington, Lockhart and Owensboro are all about the preservation of local tradition, the net effect of national and state sanctioning bodies is the unification of barbecue under serious standards of technique. The flavors of top competition 'cue have changed over the years and will continue to change as top teams strive to outdo each other on the barbecue field.
It's not uncommon for competition teams to run their own businesses, contributing to the growth of restaurant barbecue. Their patron saints include Mike "The Legend" Mills and Paul "K.C. Baron of Barbecue" Kirk. Their years of cooking, competing, judging and restaurant building have not only produced some of the finest baby back ribs in the country, they've also set standards for the new wave of barbecue restaurateurs on a similar path.
Drawing from stylized ideas of West Coast living and backed by the invention of small-scale grills, backyard barbecue took the country by storm in the decades following World War II.
The form is dominated by burgers and dogs, but as more cooks have discovered the craft of smoking, backyard cookouts have taken on more ambitious dishes, including beer-can chicken and Thanksgiving turkey.
These last two forms are closest to the community-based traditions that dominated American barbecue from the early days of the English colonies to the development of regional styles. Die-hard regional partisans may snub backyard barbecues as nothing more than "grilling," but when you trace its roots, there's no denying that your dad's Weber has a special place in barbecue history.
According to Serious Eater bkhuna, central Florida is the "land of no barbecue." Having only ever associated the entire state with gators, Scarface, and Stick Stickly, I'll have to take this one on faith. If any other Florida 'cue heads are in the house, I'm sure we'd both love to hear your thoughts on the Florida style.
Get the Recipes!
- North Carolina Vinegar Sauce »
- South Carolina Mustard Sauce »
- Basic Barbecue Sauce »
- White Barbecue Sauce »
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The same offer goes for other states. If you've got something to add about the barbecue style of your region, let us know in the comments!
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and an amateur documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.