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The Ultimate Guide to Regional American Barbecue

The ultimate guide to regional American barbecue

by Great British Chefs 13 July 2018

Barbecue isn’t just a delicious meal in the American south – it’s a way of life. We hit the road from North Carolina to Texas to discover what barbecue really means to the USA.


Barbecue is cooking at its most instinctive. Our cooking culture started with the roasting of meat over fire, and in that sense, barbecue tradition is the oldest and most primal there is. We’ve come a pretty long way since then, what with our water baths, foams, gels and probes, but in the American south you’ll still find barbecue pitmasters keeping things old-school with a simple combination of meat and smoke.

When we talk about barbecue in the UK, what we’re really referring to is the equipment – the use of a barbecue to cook anything from vegetables to fish to meat, even dessert if you’re feeling a bit Come Dine With Me. There are no rules or laws when it comes to British barbecue, other than Sod’s law, which dictates an increased chance of precipitation as soon as you organise one for the weekend.

If you take a trip to the American south in search of barbecue thinking it might be similar, well, prepare for a culture shock. Barbecue here is life. There are fierce rivalries between different states over who has the best barbecue, and competitions every year to find the best pitmasters in the country. People are zealously loyal to their preferred barbecue joints, and will stop at nothing to get a plate of their favourite barbecue. You can expect to queue for hours to eat at the best spots, and there is a ever-present possibility that all the food will be gone by the time you get through the door (many places will simply close once they run out of food for the day).

There are a few steadfast rules when it comes to barbecue in the USA. When we talk American barbecue, we’re talking about the roasting and smoking of meat over a fire, often – but not always – with a sauce. Sounds simple? It’s not. There are several distinct styles across the Deep South, all with their own nuances. Ready for a road trip? We’ve got a lot of barbecue to get through, starting with the self-proclaimed ‘birthplace of barbecue’ – South Carolina.

South Carolina

Pigs reign supreme in South Carolina. Pigs have always been prevalent in the south, but more than that, they’re also easier and quicker to rear than cattle. As a result they became a valuable source of food, and they have been central to American barbecue tradition ever since. South Carolinians will cook beef, chicken and more on their barbecues, but only pork is referred to as ‘barbecue’, and true South Carolina barbecue is a whole hog affair, where an entire pig will be roasted over fire, smoked low and slow over the course of a day or more, and then pulled or chopped up and served to hungry guests.

The hog is only one half of the South Carolina barbecue equation, though. The other half is ‘Carolina Gold’ – a mustard-based barbecue sauce, made with mustard, brown sugar, vinegar, pepper and other spices. Mustard is a unique inheritance from South Carolina’s eighteenth century German immigrants – indeed, many of South Carolina’s best known barbecue spots still have German names – and though there are other common sauces throughout the state, Carolina Gold is the true taste of South Carolina.

North Carolina

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Whole hog barbecue is the name of the game in North Carolina. Often whole rows of pigs are smoked slowly over the course of a day on huge trailer smokers
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Hush puppies – small, deep fried balls of corn dough – are also a big part of North Carolina barbecue

Barbecue in North Carolina is contentious, with loyalties split down the middle of the state. Eastern-style barbecue is the oldest in the country, with roots that stretch way back to the early days of US independence. Like in South Carolina, only whole hog barbecue will do in the east, but instead of mustard they use a minimalist sauce of vinegar and chilli flakes to cut through the fatty pork and crunchy crackling. Most other barbecue sauces across the USA use tomato in some form, but tomatoes weren’t readily available when barbecue started in eastern North Carolina, so they never made it as far as the sauce. There’s a simplistic beauty to eastern-style barbecue – the old ways reign supreme here, and you’ll have a hard time convincing any pitmaster otherwise.

Western NC (also known as ‘Lexington-style barbecue’) does things a bit differently – it’s almost an evolution of the original eastern-style North Carolina barbecue. Rather than smoking whole hogs, Lexington-style pitmasters cook shoulders of pork slathered with ‘red sauce’ – essentially a riff on eastern-style barbecue sauce but with tomato or tomato ketchup added. Red slaw is also a hallmark of western North Carolina – a simple cabbage coleslaw with red sauce mixed through instead of mayo. Oh and get a few ‘hush puppies’ – deep-fried cornbread balls – on the side too.

Kansas City, Missouri

Whilst other states are fiercely defensive of their barbecue traditions, Kansas City is special for its inclusivity – it’s a melting pot of barbecue traditions from all over the Deep South. Pitmasters in Kansas City cook everything from brisket to ribs, to chicken, turkey and fish. If you had to pick one item as typical of real Kansas City barbecue though, it would be the ‘burnt ends’. These are in essence chunks of caramelised, smoked beef brisket taken from the fattier ‘point’ end of the cut – they take longer to cook because of their higher fat content, so pitmasters will remove them once the brisket is cooked and return them to the smoker, hence the name ‘burnt ends’.

If that already seems like a lot of choices to make, well, the options don’t stop there. Sides like fries, slaw and baked beans are one of the most important parts of Kansas City barbecue, and pitmasters often smoke their sides, letting the meat juices drip into them. ‘If someone goes to a Kansas City barbecue joint and doesn’t order the beans, they haven’t really experienced Kansas City barbecue,’ says Ed Levine of Serious Eats. And that’s before we get to the sauce – a thick melange of molasses and tomato sauce that gives the sweet and sour tang we often associate with barbecue. Turns out, we have a lot to be thankful for in Kansas City.

Texas

Barbecue in Texas is all about the brisket. This is cattle country after all, and barbecue in central Texas is as stripped back and primal as you’ll find anywhere – beef brisket, smoked over oak wood and served without sauce. The brisket is seasoned and left to cure and marinate for a few days before heading into the smoker, where the curing process actually helps the meat to take on smoke and flavour. Good barbecue joints in Texas are some of the most famous restaurants in the entire United States – you can expect to queue for a good number of hours to get a lunchtime brisket fix at somewhere like Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

Texas is a big old place though, and barbecue isn’t limited to brisket alone. Pork and beef ribs are popular all over the state too, and you’ll see other regional influences depending where you are. Barbecue in the east arrived with slaves from the Deep South, and inherits their porcine preferences as a result, serving pulled pork with the sort of hot sauce that makes your eyelids sweat. West Texas meanwhile is cowboy country – barbecue here is more direct grilling than indirect smoking, and there are lots of Mexican influences, with barbacoa-style open-flame cooking also very popular.

Alabama

Alabama is another convert to the humble pig, and barbecue joints across the state will knock out a damn fine pulled pork sandwich, as well as pretty much anything else you might want. In truth though, Alabama barbecue isn’t about the meat, it’s about the sauce. Alabama white sauce is at its base level a mix of mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon juice and pepper, but different spots will add all sorts of different ingredients to their own sauces. It has become popular all over the US, but if you head to the source you’ll find it served largely with barbecue chicken, where pitmasters will dunk entire chickens in the stuff and then smoke them over coals.

Memphis, Tennessee

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Memphis is the place to go if you're on the hunt for good ribs...
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... but the city also specialises in pulled pork, smoking pork butts for hours before teasing them apart, topping with coleslaw and squishing into a bun

If Carolina is the home of whole hog and pulled pork shoulder barbecue, Memphis holds the crown when it comes to pork ribs. Authentic Memphis barbecue is a ‘dry rib’ – that is, pork ribs barbecued and smoked with a dry spice rub that includes salt, sugar and any combination of things like cumin, paprika, onion and garlic powders and dried herbs. ‘Wet ribs’ are becoming increasingly common now, where the ribs are brushed with a marinade during and after cooking, and lots of barbecue joints and smoke houses like to combine the two for a fuller flavour.

Memphis has its roots in dry rubs rather than sauces, so the only polarising factor here is whether you even need barbecue sauce – purists will say no, but most places will offer you the full gamut of options regardless. Pulled pork sandwiches are also a classic Tennessee barbecue staple, often served with a mustard and vinegar slaw that, like in South Carolina, has German immigrant roots.

Chicago

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Barbecue in Chicago is a relatively new scene compared to the old-school powerhouse pits of the Carolinas, but the Windy City has made a significant mark on barbecue in the last fifty years. Ribs are a firm favourite with Chicagoans. Racks of pork ribs are smoked hot and fast over charcoal in huge 'aquarium' smokers and served with all your usual sauces and condiments. Rib tips are also essential eating in Chicago – the cartilaginous tips are removed from the ribs and barbecued until chewy and gelatinous.

Kentucky

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Although Kentucky is well-known for barbecued mutton, you'll only find it in a handful of barbecue joints, centred around the city of Owensboro
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You'll find a whole range of barbecue across the rest of the state, from pulled pork and ribs, to sausages, to chicken

Like Kansas City, Kentucky barbecue is pretty inclusive, and the state is better known for fried chicken than it is for smoked meats. Although there isn’t quite the same long-standing barbecue tradition as exists further south, Kentucky is famous for one thing – barbecue mutton. Centred around Owensboro in the north-west, Kentucky mutton is usually smoked over hickory and served with a famous thin, peppery Worcestershire-based sauce.

Although Kentucky barbecue is famous for mutton, it’s very much limited to the Owensboro area. Pork is far more common across the state, particularly in east Kentucky where pitmasters have taken inspiration from North Carolina barbecue, serving up hefty pulled pork rolls with tangy barbecue sauce.

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