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
Pulled pork is one of the more forgiving recipes in the world of barbecue. Season it well, smoke it low and slow, and you're pretty much guaranteed to get incredible results, perfect for sandwiches or just eating with your fingers.
Far from being a delicacy that traces its roots to the antebellum South, barbecue ribs are a 20th century innovation that came about due to industrial meatpacking and mechanical refrigeration.
Trying to grill or barbecue with cheap, flimsy accessories is a recipe for disaster. If you're going to spend the time to fire up a grill or smoker, you should invest in tools you can rely on.
Here are some of the best technology-driven grills, smokers, thermometers, and more from our friends over at AmazingRibs.
McDonald's McRib is the rarely available pork-and-barbecue-sauce sandwich with a cultlike following. My goal? Take everything we love about the McRib and turn it up to 11, by starting from scratch with a few high-quality ingredients and a lot of good technique. It's a project, but it is oh-so-worth it.
If you barbecue or grill with any frequency, you'll want to make big batches of this all-purpose barbecue spice rub and sauce combo—they store well in the pantry and fridge (respectively), and they're great on a wide variety of barbecued and grilled foods, like ribs, chicken, or burgers.
For several weeks, my fridge was packed to the gills with leftover smoked meat, and there were only so many neighbors I could pawn it off onto. Luckily, that smoked meat is not just great as the star of the show; it's also great as a supporting actor, adding its characteristic flavor to this pot of barbecue beans.
In Texas, barbecue beef brisket is the name of the game. But the truth is, it's a difficult cut to get right, especially when you're working with the more common lean portion of the brisket. Want more reliably juicy results? Try beef chuck instead. Its flavor is different from brisket, but no less delicious.
Good brisket is often called the Holy Grail of barbecue—an apt description, given how rarely you find good smoked beef brisket in the wild. Sous vide cooking changes all that by allowing even a novice to produce brisket that's as moist and tender as the very best stuff you'll find in Austin or Lockhart, with all the savory brisket rub and smoky flavor you could want.
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.