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
No survey of regional barbecue styles would be complete without a word about the other dishes traditionally served alongside slow-smoked and pit-cooked meats. And as with everything else, regional variations abound.
While nearly every Kansas City joint with a smoker will sell you the entire barnyard, each barbecue spot has its own specialty that should be the start and end of your order. And KC has more than just barbecue to offer. Consider this your guide to Kansas City's best meals, plus where to go for beer, cocktails, and more.
If there's any one thing that distinguishes the barbecue style of one region from another, it's the sauce that's used to finish the meat. It's also the single element that barbecue fans argue most passionately about—what ingredients should go in it, whether it should be poured over the meat while its being chopped or pulled or added later at the table, or even whether it should be used at all.
Smoky, juicy, tender, and flavored with a carefully calibrated homemade sauce, this pulled barbecue chicken is way better than just about any version we've ever had before.
Of all the elements of American barbecue, rubs and basting sauces are where pit masters differ the most from each other, even within the same regional style. Some use complex rubs; others don't. Some baste the meat while it cooks; others leave it completely alone.
This chicken won the Fourth of July. The recipe, from Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook by Tom Adams, Simon Anderson, Jaime Berger and Richard H. Turner, sounded delicious on the page: A whole bird, rested overnight in chipotle and garlic pastes, maple syrup, butter, and Pitt Cue's aromatic, spicy-sweet house rub, which is slow-smoked until perfectly burnished. Yes, please.
The four partners from the London BBQ restaurant Pitt Cue Co. are serious about their meat. In the new (to the U.S.) Pitt Cue Co.: The Cookbook, they strongly encourage homecooks to get serious, too. This recipe turned out smoky, unctuous, crazy flavorful ribs. It is one of the simpler preparations in the book, requiring only the ribs and the House Rub; sauce is optional and unnecessary.
There's more to a pit master's choice of meat than their regional specialty. Skilled barbecue takes think about other factors: breed, fat, and how an animal is raised.
When it comes choosing their wood, barbecue cooks take into account the way that it burns and the flavors that it gives to meat. But there are more practical factors at play, too.
Gas-powered and gas-wood hybrid smokers offer a lot of advantages to the barbecue cook: they're faster, don't require tons of wood, and are far less physically demanding to operate. But do they make good barbecue? In the right hands, yes.