Barbecue is a beloved American tradition that originated from the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Left with the not so desirable cuts of meat by those who could afford to eat high on the hog (that’s where that phrase comes from – the rich get to eat the more tender cuts higher up on the animal), ancient pitmasters discovered that slow cooking meat with wood fire and smoke takes normally tough cuts of meat ands turns them into succulent, tender, and still juicy dishes. Those tough cast off cuts of meat are no longer dirt cheap in the meat case because of what those ancient pitmasters started and what current pitmasters perfected, albeit we do it a little different (sometimes vastly different) depending on the region of the country. Nowadays, there are four man types of barbecue in the U.S., each one specific to a particular region with its own seasoning, sauce, and signature dishes. So scroll down to get to know the 4 styles of American barbecue
Get to Know the 4 Styles of American Barbecue
Keep in mind that while these regions are in an order, they are not numbered because this is all personal preference. For me, I might be jonesing for Texas style brisket one day and a mustard based Carolina sauce another.
This style of barbecue hails from North Carolina and South Carolina, where they use slow smoked pork shoulder (or the whole hog). The Carolinas are made up of two states and are also known for two types of sauce. In North Carolina they prefer the vinegar-based sauces made out of cider vinegar and spices like black pepper, hot sauce, and cayenne pepper. South Carolinians prefer mustard based sauce (Carolina Gold as it is affectionately called). Popular dishes include pulled pork sandwiches, hickory-smoked ribs, chopped barbecue beef brisket sandwich, and smoked wings.
In Texas, barbecue revolves around beef—namely beef brisket. Post oak and mesquite are the dominant smoke woods in Texas. As far as sauces go, these pitmasters typically opt for a mixture of tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce for their particular flavor profile. This type of barbecue is also known for its thick cuts of ribeye steak grilled over mesquite hardwood to produce a distinct smoky taste unique to Texas BBQ . Other popular dishes here include chili con carne (chili with beef) and tacos al pastor (tacos with pork).
Kansas City-Style Barbecue
The Kansas City area celebrates all types of meats when it comes to its barbecue: poultry, beef (ribs or brisket), pork (ribs or pulled pork) along with fish such as salmon or catfish smoked low and slow (often with Hickory wood). Sauces used here vary greatly—but you can expect sweet tomato-based sauces with molasses or honey plus Worcestershire sauce—and other additions like mustard or garlic powder can vary depending on the cook’s preference. Popular dishes include beef brisket burnt ends (the point of the brisket smoked a second time until pillowy soft, and while brisket is the king of all BBQ, burnt ends are the crown) — as well as bologna sandwiches on white bread with lettuce & tomatoes accompanied by lots of spicy mustard sauce!
Memphis is known for its dry rubbed pork that is smoked until the outside develops an outer layer called “bark” while still staying juicy on the inside! Most commonly used Memphis style rubs contain brown sugar combined with spices like paprika, garlic salt and onion powder which are then applied generously onto the meats before smoking them low & slow in order to get maximum flavor (and bark) into every bite! Common accompanying sides in Memphis BBQ joints tend to be cole slaw served up alongside traditional Southern fare such as macaroni salad and/or potato salad. Don’t sleep on the deviled eggs if you see them on the menu.
What is Bark?
Bark is the combination of the seasoning on the meat, fat exuded from the meat while cooking, heat and smoke. It can look almost black and while it may appear off putting to the unfamiliar, it is the tastiest part of barbecue.
While those are the big four, there are other notable regions around the country including St. Louis, Alabama and Central/southern California. Don’t scoff at that last one, it’s legit.
St. Louis Style Barbecue
In the Gateway to the West, St. Louis, the barbecue scene is in it’s adolescence with a number of places emerging onto the landscape in the last dozen years that have all settled down into their various styles and specialties. These generally aren’t multigenerational family run businesses, but they very well could be over the next dozen years and beyond. St. Louis is somewhat of an amalgam of different styles. Some places feature the dry rubbed and beautiful bark of Memphis but also the KC style sauce is prevalent. What sets St. Louis apart is the cuts of meat. Pork steaks are hugely popular. The farther you are from St. Louis the less likely you have heard of these. They are steaks sliced from a pork shoulder and must be cooked low and slow for many hours to be tender and juicy. Crispy pig snoots are also a delicacy. Snoots is the nickname for pig snouts. That’s right, pig noses. Think of something halfway between bacon and pork rinds. St. Louis has a rich history in barbecue considering trimmed spare ribs are called St. Louis Style Ribs.
Alabama Style Barbecue
In Alabama we have another melting pot of different styles of great barbecue. What sets Alabama apart is the white sauce developed at Big Bob Gibson’s many decades ago and is positively addictive. It’s a mayonnaise sauce based sauce that the cooked meat is dunked in before being plated. Alabama White Sauce Chicken should be on your barbecue bucket list.
Santa Maria Barbecue
Another region that is gaining notoriety around the country is Santa Maria style barbecue. North of Los Angeles a couple of hours there are red oak trees for as far as the eye can see, smack dab in the middle of California farm and ranch country. This type of barbecue put tri tip on the map. The triangular bottom section of the primal sirloin was discarded by meat cutters to be used in hamburger but the pitmasters in the Santa Maria region took that roast, seasoned it simply with salt, garlic, paprika and maybe pepper, and roasted over open fire of that red oak. Santa Maria barbecue is not only a style of BBQ but a type of grill which is an open air grill with a grill grate that raises and lowers to moderate temperatures. The Santa Maria Cooker is as unique to the region as the tri tip, and both are now prevalent all over the country.