Many parts of America have strong indigenous barbecue cultures. They all cook and smoke their meat low and slow and, at least originally, used wood as their principal fuel — but the similarities end there.
Some cook pig (either shoulders or the whole hog), some different cuts of beef, some lamb, and some chicken. Sauces are similarly varied: some are vinegar and pepper-based; others utilize brown sugar and molasses; in some, mustard is the predominant flavor; and tomato is the primary flavor in still others. How do we make sense of all these different traditions?
We chatted with some of New York's best pitmasters and barbecue experts about these styles.
Ed and the Serious Eats Team
South Carolina is best known for the whole-hog barbecue with mustard sauce, but South Carolina has three other sauce traditions, each in a different part of the state: tomato, ketchup, and vinegar-pepper. Sweatman's in Holly Hill serves mustard sauce; Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway serves a vinegar-pepper sauce. Whole-hog barbecue in the state is often served in a cafeteria-style line, where you can ask for the various cuts: inside and outside meat, skin, or ribs, in whatever combination. At both Sweatman's and Scott's, and many other places, it's only served on weekends.
There are two major traditions in North Caroline barbecue, separated by Route 1, extending north and south from Raleigh. East of that Barbecue Divide, you’ll find the Down East style, which is characterized by a vinegar-pepper sauce and cooking the whole hog. The pig is cooked low and slow over hickory before the meat is roughly chopped and served as a sandwich or on a plate or cardboard trays. In western North Carolina, it’s generally the Lexington style you’re eating—-just the pork shoulder (or its smaller first cousin, a Boston butt), pulled and then chopped up, with sauce based on tomato as well as vinegar. It’s often topped with slaw and served on a bun.
Kansas City is one of the capitals of American barbecue, and ribs, brisket, and burnt ends are its currency. Barbecue sauce really matters here—-it’s not just a way to add flavor to less delicious meat, it’s integral to the experience of barbecue itself. Sides of choice? Beans with shards of meat and killer skin-on fries. Sides figure heavily in Kansas City barbecue culture. St. Louis has a regional barbecue style all its own, with St. Louis pork ribs and barbecued pig snouts. Yep, the snouts. 'Crispy snoots' are barbecued cartilaginous nostrils, which are usually cooked over an open grill until crisp and then smothered in sauce.
In Memphis you'll find everything from two styles of ribs (dry and wet) to sliced or chopped pork sandwiches, to anomalies like barbecue spaghetti and barbecue bologna. Dry ribs are coated with a spice rub before they’re cooked; wet ribs have been sauced before smoking. Ribs can either be whole spare ribs, St. Louis-cut ribs (the spare ribs minus the rib tips), or even baby backs, which some barbecue purists scoff at (as they're leaner, with less delicious fat). We certainly don’t scoff, not after having Mike Mills's transcendent baby backs at Memphis Championship Barbecue. Dry rub involves a spice mixture crust that invariably includes paprika, salt, cayenne pepper, cumin, and garlic powder; wet ribs are all about the sauce. You’ll also find sliced pork shoulder sandwiches in Tennessee, among other subspecialties. In central and western Tennessee, it's the whole hog plate or the pork sandwich. And just like in South Carolina, you'll find many weekend-only establishments.
Chicago, particularly the South Side, has its own tradition of urban barbecue. Here, spicy sausages called hot links, ribs, and the fattier shortrib pieces called rib tips are cooked in what's known as an aquarium-style smoker. Meats are cooked over wood with long, rectangular boxes, with glass doors that open. That’s how barbecue joints can create a smoky environment to cook the meat while smack in the middle of a major city. Rib tips are 2-inch square strips of chewy pork that have been cut from the lower end of the spareribs when St. Louis ribs are being cut. The Serious Eaters love Honey 1 BBQ, Uncle John's, and Lem's.
Mutton, or lamb that is more than a year old, is Kentucky’s contribution to our barbecue conversation. It’s generally served with burgoo, a spicy stew made with a form of pork or mutton and some combination of lima beans, corn, okra, and potatoes. The epicenter of Kentucky barbecue is Owensboro, Kentucky, and the first family of Kentucky mutton barbecue is the Bosley family, who opened the Moonlite Inn in Owensboro in 1963. Happy 50th Birthday, Moonlite Inn and the Bosleys.
In East Texas, barbecue is derived from Southern African-American and soul-food traditions—ribs and pork are prominently featured, but they also serve brisket, often heavily sauced and simmered after being smoked, until it falls apart like pot roast. The central Texas traditions, on the other hand, are derived from Czech and German butchers and meat markets. Beef is king, here. You'll find brisket in all forms—both the leaner, dryer 'first cut,' or the top half of the brisket, and the whole brisket, which includes a layer of fat between the two layers of meat. You’ll also see clod (the shoulders of the cow), Flinstonian-size beef ribs, and sauce served with Saltines or white bread, plus pickles and raw onions. Sauce is irrelevant, unnecessary, and unbecoming of real central Texas barbecue. In fact, sauce is not even available at places like Kreuz Market or Smitty's Market
Don't get me wrong. I like a good slow-smoked, true barbecue pork shoulder just as much as the next guy. In fact, I probably like the process way more than the next guy. Still, there are times when we want things a little more streamlined, a little more hands-off, a little more reliable. Not only that, but using a sous vide cooker to cook pork shoulder can allow you to achieve textures you can't get with traditional cooking methods.
Want smoked ribs, but don't have a smoker? No problem. This recipe produces tender and juicy pork ribs in the oven, with real smoked flavor.
Do side dishes at potlucks and cookouts ever give you trouble? They're trouble for me. The ideal potluck or cookout dish is one that's easy to make in bulk and inexpensive, and doesn't degrade with extended heating or reheating. I nominate frijoles charros—Mexican cowboy beans cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes, salted pork, and chilies—as one superlative potluck dish.
Do you ever feel like there aren't enough meats on sticks (or just foods on sticks in general) in this world? I'm with you, and, rather than sit around and wait for things to stick themselves, I've recently decided to take action and do the sticking. Every skewerer needs a good set of skewers, but if you want consistency, ease of use, and longevity in your pointed sticks, which ones should you buy? Here are my recommendations.
Real cochinita pibil is not spicy, but it has a uniquely sweet, earthy aroma imparted by Seville oranges, achiote, charred garlic, and spices. That earthiness is backed with the aroma of the banana leaves it's cooked in, along with smokiness from hours of cooking. Maybe you can't make cochinita pibil without an actual pib, but you can fake it pretty darn well, and that's what we're going to do today.
"The Grand Rabbi of Joplin, Missouri, said that any farm animal with four hooves and no scales, if subjected to more than five hours of slow heat, is kosher. That's the barbecue easement," says writer, humorist, and food lover Calvin Trillin on this week's Special Sauce. And that's how a nice Jewish boy from Kansas City was permitted to eat pork ribs, cooked low and slow.
Just as there are great burgers and bad ones, not all indoor pulled pork is created equal. My goal with this recipe was to come up with a technique to produce pulled pork that shreds into large, tender chunks that are moist but not wet, with a flavor that balances sweet molasses, bright vinegar, heat, and just a hint of smoke. Oh, and I wanted it to be darn easy to boot.
I was a skeptic at first, but I'm going to say it now: When done properly, ribs cooked via sous vide are every bit as good as traditional barbecue, if not better. Not only that, but they're far more replicable, they take much less effort, they take less practice, and, to top it off, they can be cooked year-round, indoors.
While you can smoke well on a grill if you know the tricks, nothing beats a dedicated smoker for succulent low-and-slow smoked ribs, pork, and brisket. You don't have to spend $10,000 on a big black submarine as seen on TV. Whether you want to go with wood, charcoal, gas, pellet, or electric, you can choose from a wide variety of smokers that are easy to use and get great results for under $500. Here are our picks.
Sure, I could have bought my rib-master dad a generic smoker, which would have required minimal assembly but also sent a clear message: "Dad, you're worth exactly $199.99 and a sweaty afternoon." No, my dad deserved something homemade. The only problem: I had no idea what I was doing.