Just like there are different ways people refer to barbecue throughout the United States, there are a number of different styles of barbecuing in the country. Most barbecuers and pitmasters recognize 4 major regions and styles of barbecue, using various types of grills and ingredients. But there are a number of lesser recognized styles that should also be considered.
“While debates rage over which state makes the best barbecue, let's face it, most smoked meat is pretty tasty. How that meat is smoked, however, does vary from place to place. Each barbecue element — wood, meat, cut, rub, sauce — adds up to entirely different traditions, from the smoked brisket of Texas to the whole hoggs of the Carolinas,” the Tasting Table notes.
The 4 Major Regional BBQ Styles
- Carolinas - like the states there are actually two styles here, though when looking at the broad strokes of this style they generally are combined.
- Texas - (like everything in this state) the Texan style of barbecue actually covers 4 in-state regions and uses different cuts and kinds of meat - brisket, pork ribs, sausage, and chopped pork and beef.
- Kansas City - this makes use of a very diverse variety of meats, from beef brisket to pork ribs to chicken to sausage. Burnt ends are a very popular choice in KC, as well as the use of a sweet sauce.
- Memphis - Memphis-style barbecue is famous for its pulled pork and the use of dry rubs and smokers.
Despite these dominant regional styles of barbecue, the country has a number of others that are well known in their areas.
Other Regional Styles
- California - the Santa Maria style has been around for a long time and involves a salt, pepper, and dry garlic rub mainly for steak and, in particular, tri tip.
- Alabama - known for its white sauce used on mainly chicken and turkey, and a red tomato-based sauce for pork shoulder and pork ribs.
- Kentucky - given there are more sheep than cattle in this state, it is not surprising (though lesser known) that mutton is big in Kentucky barbecue.
- The Pacific Northwest - since fishing is a big source of income for this area, smoked salmon has been a staple long before the “settlers” arrived. Native Americans smoked salmon on open fires using cedar - hence the popularity of cooking salmon now on cedar planks.
Smokehouses and Personal Smokers
Smoking meat has been done since the time we were living in caves. Back then, the process was discovered to allow the cooked food to last longer - a natural preservative. As we progressed as a civilization, the methods of smoking became more elaborate. Smokehouses became a communal area where people could cook all varieties of food. The use of these buildings were brought with the settlers of the United States, though the Native Americans also used the method of cooking.
"It's well documented that the first Europeans who settled in the New World could not have made it through the first few winters without the assistance and knowledge of American Indians," Dick Ropp, of Edinboro, chairman of the French Creek Living History Association, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The Wampanoag who lived in the area taught the Pilgrims how to smoke and dry indigenous meat and fish and how to plant the 3 sisters - corn, beans, and squash - in mounds fertilized by fish and blessed by powdered tobacco, which is also a natural insect repellent."
Personal smokers were eventually built and their use, as well as what and how food items were cooked, became regionalized. While the big wood stoked smokers are still used for competitions and restaurant cooking, the development of wood pellet smokers has changed the industry and allowed individuals the ability to add smoking to their cooking abilities.
These appliances now allow home chefs to grill and smoke on the same unit. Pit Boss Grills offer 8-in-1 cooking versatility, so you can smoke, bake, braise, roast, grill, barbecue, char-grill and sear - all in one machine. Smoking food has now become a very popular cooking method and has been raised to a gourmet level. Pit Boss Grills smokers have electrical controls, like most modern units and user-friendly features to make food smoking effortless and flavorful. Even the fuels are flavored to further enhance the taste of the food.
Possibly the oldest of the well-known styles, North Carolina BBQ has Lexington-style and Eastern style. One smokes just the shoulder (Lexington), while the other smokes the whole hog. The use of vinegar is big throughout the Carolinas, as is their pulled pork.
While known throughout the area for its tangy vinegar sauce, that is clear and peppery in the east of North Carolina, and has a reddish color in the west of the state by the inclusion of ketchup. Meanwhile, in South Carolina the sauce is mustard based (and a well-known yellow) and their rubs include a blend of mustard, garlic, vinegar, butter, and hickory.
Carolinians recognized that the spicy tang of their vinegar sauce complements smoky barbecue. As Wikipedia notes: “Although mustard is commonly associated with South Carolina barbecue, its application in barbecue cooking can be seen throughout the United States wherever German immigrants settled. Use of mustard or tomato varies drastically throughout the Carolinas, although mustard based is more common in South Carolina and eastern North Carolina, and vinegar and ketchup based (Lexington style) is more common in central and western North Carolina.”
Located on the Missouri River, Kansas City became the launching point for many migrating to the West. The Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails had Kansas City as a bustling stopping point that offered the last taste of civilization at the doorstep of the Wild West.
Kansas City has been called the barbecue capital of the world. It also is ranked top BBQ city in the United States based on “3 sets of criteria, including access to barbecue, the quality of local barbecue, and the prevalence of barbecue-based events and festivals.”
“If it moves, we can barbecue it” is a well known phrase in KC. You can find any type of meat being barbecued there. Though most people know Kansas City for its barbecue sauce, more than a particular cooking style or meat. The tomato-based sauce is thick and sweet, and when done well is memorable.
“Kansas City’s barbecue craze can be traced back to Henry Perry, who in the early 1920s started barbecuing in an outdoor pit adjacent to his streetcar barn, serving slabs of food wrapped in newspaper. Perry’s ‘cue became so popular that fans began imitating his technique and style to create their own unique recipes,” as the city’s official visitor site reports.
The city’s stockyards and meat packing plants drew many pitmasters whose distinctive tastes, talents, and flair created an unprecedented, eclectic barbecue culture recognized on a global scale.
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The state has a preference for brisket, pork ribs, and hot gut sausages - what is called in Texas the trinity of barbecue. Different parts of the state use different wood to cook and smoke their food. For example, Central Texas uses oak, while South Texas prefers mesquite smoked barbecue.
German and Czech settlers brought their European smoking techniques to Texas, which apart from the great flavor, allowed the meats to last longer. Preserving food has now given way to a preference for the smoky flavor imparted to the food. Considered a delicacy, smoked meat, fish, and vegetables are appreciated for their tenderness and enhanced flavor. And throughout the length and breadth of this large state, BBQ is part of a Texan’s DNA.
Central Texas, which many claim as the origination of Texas barbecue, historically started out preferring beef (given it was a major cattle ranch area) and brisket particularly, but now “include whole racks of pork chops, pork ribs, jalapeno-cheddar sausage, hams, chicken, and turkey,” according to a Taste of Home. It was also a “no sauce” cook, preferring a simple kosher salt, black pepper, and enough cayenne to turn the spice rub a pale pink.
South Texas, known for its use of mesquite which gives a distinct sharp flavor, leans towards dark meats that can stand up to the wood’s strong flavor. It can overpower mild poultry, pork shoulder, ribs, and fish.
East Texas likes putting their smoked meats into sandwiches - pork and beef are the go-to. When not on sandwiches, the meats are typically sliced to order and sold by the pound.
Known as the barbecue pork capital of the country, Memphis is synonymous with smoked pulled pork and wet and dry pork ribs. The city also has a signature sauce - which is a tangy, thin, sweet sauce made with tomatoes, vinegar, and spices. What spices are used varies and is largely kept as family secrets.
Hickory is the most popular wood choice for the area, and pork is the main meat used in the annual “Memphis in May” competition - one of the country’s biggest. While there are other meats judged during the competition - they are considered ancillary events.
Sitting on the Mississippi River, Memphis initially was able to spread their meats through the steamboat kitchens that bought Memphis barbecue to serve to their passengers.
The Pacific Northwest
While smoking salmon has been globally known for centuries, eastern Europeans brought it to western European and eventually to the New World. Meanwhile, the native Americans had been using smoking as a way to preserve fish and meat for centuries. Salt had been the go-to way to preserve in most countries, but the native Americans did not always have access to salt.
Their smoking methods involve exposing salmon filets directly to smoke from smoldering wood for several hours to 2 to 3 days. Nordic tribes started smoking fish in medieval times and the Vikings took it with them on their travels.
So, the European settlers to reach the Pacific Northwest had knowledge and learned more from the local natives. Apart from the smoked fish, the Northwest does not have a unique style of BBQ, but rather has developed versions of the more popular styles above. Though their geographical location may have led to the area first introducing Asian barbecue styles to the country.
The state has a little-known barbecue style named Santa Maria started around the central California coast in the Santa Maria Valley.
“Santa Maria BBQ is a style of wood-fire grilling that dates back to the mid-1800s when the vaqueros (cowboys of Mexican origin) ran the local cattle ranches and would throw mega fiestas,” according to Salt and Wind.
The woods used - red oak and willow - impart their flavor but also burn hot and quick. So low and slow is not part of this method. Tri tip is the most popular meat used, but the style and the sauce can be used on most cuts. The rub is simple: salt, ground pepper and garlic powder - the percentages of each of the ingredients is what differs between pitmasters.
Alabama barbecue has a number of similarities with Memphis ‘que, but the biggest difference is the sauce. They smoke and grill and cook the same styles as Memphis, but it is the Alabama white sauce that is the big differentiator.
The sauce is made from mayonnaise, vinegar, and black pepper among other seasonings (the differing seasonings allow for signature sauces from the various local joints).
“Barbecue is the age-old art and science of slow-cooking meat. It is worshiped in the state of Alabama, from pecan-infused pork shoulder in Mobile near the coast to white sauce-soaked chicken on the banks of the Tennessee River,” the Encyclopedia of Alabama notes.
Hickory, pecan, and oak are popular wood types used in the state. Pork is most commonly barbecued in Alabama in the form of ribs, shoulder or butt, though chicken and other meats are also on the menu.
“In Alabama, barbecue is ecumenical. It is both urban and rural, black and white, tomato-sweet and vinegar-sour, pulled and chopped,” the Encyclopedia adds.
Kentucky has the unique position of being known for barbecuing mutton. The region has had a large number of sheep farms since its early days.
“The mutton is served with a thin sauce or ‘dip’ flavored with Worcestershire sauce instead of tomato, and allspice in addition to traditional barbecue sauce ingredients of vinegar, brown sugar, onion, and garlic,” the Taste of Home explains. The dip plays cleverly with sheep raising.
There are basting sauces as well as the dipping sauces (dips) used in Kentucky barbecue, whether smoked or grilled. Interestingly, mutton cooks quickly, so smoking or grilling times are less than pork or beef. This also applies to needed resting times.
Barbecuing is a longstanding tradition in America. The original “barbecue pit” was a dug-by-hand, ember-filled ditch over which sides of beef and young hogs were cooked on sapling crossbars. Communal smokehouses were prevalent in colonial times, reflecting the importance of smoking and barbeque to most early U.S. communities.
Interestingly, barbecue is a cooking method, but it is also an area where people gather while cooking occurs or the event of cooking itself. As a country we have taken BBQ and made it our own and embraced the regional variations, as they offer so many different flavors.