The Serious Eats Guide to Barbecue Styles

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

Texas

Hugh Mangum of Mighty Quinn's and Dan Delaney of Delaney Barbecue discuss the long, slow-smoked brisket they typifies Texas barbecue.

States

Photo: James Boo

South Carolina

Whole-hog with mustard sauce, for starters

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.

Photo: James Boo

North Carolina

Pork shoulder in the West, whole hog in the East

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.

Photo: James Boo

Kansas City, Missouri

Sauce is boss

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.

Photo: James Boo

Memphis, Tennessee

Dry rub ribs are just the beginning

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, Illinois

Rib tips fresh out of the aquarium smoker

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.

Photo: James Boo

Kentucky

Lamb, anyone?

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.

Photo: James Boo

Texas

Where brisket is king

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

More

Barbecue reviews, news and recipes from Serious Eats

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Grilled Orange-Glazed Baby Back Ribs With Chile-Peanut Dust From 'The Big-Flavor Grill'

Asian flavors seem to bring out the best in pork. So if you're working with a gorgeous rack of grilled baby back ribs, dousing them in gingery, orangey, soy sauce is a pretty great way to go, like in this recipe from The Big-Flavor Grill, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.

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Grilled Skirt Steak With Barbecued Bread Salad From 'The Big-Flavor Grill'

So, tell me, how do you feel about steak, prepped and grilled in less than 20 minutes, with a deeply flavored, seared crust and juicy, pink middle? Pretty good? Hmm, coincidence, me too. That's why I'm so darn happy to have found this fairly foolproof recipe from Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby's The Big-Flavor Grill.

How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: Decorating With Flamethrowers

I don't have an eye for design and I don't have much money to beautify my restaurant space. But decor goes a long way towards turning a restaurant into a neighborhood hang out. And once I learned I could build a bar by setting wood on fire, I gained a whole new interest in interior design.

Grilling

Forget Competition-Level BBQ Tricks, These Apricot-Glazed Ribs are Easier and Better

After years of learning convoluted tricks for making competition-worthy pork ribs, I've realized the ribs I like best are made more simply and have bolder flavors, like the earthy, spicy rub and fruity, smoky apricot sauce in this killer recipe.

How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: On Writing a Menu

Building a restaurant around Carolina-style whole hog is just bad business sense: the high food cost means slim profits. So here's how I'm making my restaurant a financially viable one.

How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: The Trouble With Contractors

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How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: Finding a Space is Just the Beginning

It took months to find a retail space for my barbecue restaurant in New York City, but when it comes to real estate, there's a big difference between finding something and being able to call it yours.

Cook the Book

Chinese Barbecue Pork From 'The Meat Hook Meat Book'

Pork belly has been enjoying its 15 minutes of fame for the last, what, 7 years or so? And no wonder: pork fat tastes good, and as every bacon-lover knows, pork belly is wonderfully fatty. This recipe, from Tom Mylan's The Meat Hook Meat Book, couldn't be easier, and lands you with luscious, wobbly, sweet-and-savory hunks of pork that are as good as any in Chinatown.

How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: My Lease Safari

The Arrogant Swine, my barbecue restaurant to be, needed a home. But New York's real estate market was less than cooperative.

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