If you’re an avid American barbecue eater, you’ve definitely noticed the varying styles of BBQ across different regions of the country. In some regions you find sweet sauces, in others, vinegar-based, and in some you even find white barbecue sauce. Different animals and cuts of meat are used as well, from pulled pork, to ribs, to sausage, to mutton.
With so many choices, how do you know which BBQ style is for you?
Tennessee barbecue is the traditionalist of BBQ types. A sweet-tangy sauce is typically used along with dry rubs and heavy smoking. Pork is the meat of choice for Tennessee BBQ lovers, usually as a rack of flavorful ribs. These are either served wet, with sauce, or dry, with just a dry rub.
The Memphis specialty dry rub is made up of salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic, onion powder, oregano, and celery seed. If you like your BBQ saucy, Tennessee barbecues apply a thin tomato-vinegar based sauce to their meats that will most likely end up dripping down your chin mid-rack.
Eastern North Carolina
North Carolina is a state divided in their stance on BBQ styles. Eastern North Carolina is known for their vinegar-based barbecue sauce, a flavor opposite of the sweet tomato-based sauce of Tennessee.
Pork is however the popular meat of choice in both regions, typically served chopped after being smoked whole over a pit. The meat is typically drier than that of the Western part, because they combine both the white and dark parts of it. Instead of noshing on this meat in a sandwich, most Eastern North Carolinians enjoy it with coleslaw, stew, boiled potatoes, and hush puppies.
Western North Carolina
In the western part of North Carolina, BBQ is done a bit differently. Instead of your average sauce, they serve their hand-chopped pork with a “dip” that adds tomato puree and brown sugar to the vinegar-based sauce of the east. This dip is then served on the side for dunking barbecue sandwiches in, or mixed into coleslaw. So if you’re a dunker, Western North Carolina barbecue is the one for you.
The other Carolina is best known for its distinctive mustard-based barbecue sauce, made up of yellow mustard, vinegar, honey, sugar, and spices. The root of this sauce comes from the generations of German immigrants who settled in South Carolina during the mid-1700s, in a stretch of land known as “the Mustard Belt.” Like in North Carolina, pork is the favorite meat here, which is pulled and served with baked beans, coleslaw, mac and cheese, and green beans.
Alabama’s signature white barbecue sauce stands out among the average reddish brown barbecue sauces most of us are accustomed to. It’s made from a base of mayonnaise, apple-cider vinegar, lemon juice, horseradish, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and salt, and is typically served on chicken, but tastes equally great with pork and other meats. Their meats are smoked over hickory, oak, or pecan wood, and are then either chopped, pulled, or sliced in a sandwich and served with coleslaw and dill pickles.
Down on the coasts of Florida, fish—especially mullet—is the meat of choice at barbecue joints. It’s typically butterflied and then smoked, creating a moist and flaky flesh. Although smoked mullet is now harder to find because of a fishing ban in 1995, it can still be found at popular restaurants like Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish, alongside German potato salad and coleslaw.
Everything’s bigger in Texas, as they say, so of course the meat of choice here is cattle. Barbecue restaurants practice slowly smoking beef brisket for hours at a time in a low pit commonly made from brick. Because of brisket’s high fat content, you don’t need to worry about it drying out during cooking.
The brisket is served a variety of ways across different parts of Texas. In the east it’s chopped and placed on a bun with hot sauce, whereas in Central Texas its served plain on its own. In West Texas brisket is made “cowboy-style,” meaning it’s cooked over mesquite wood. Down in the south barbecue embraces Mexican flavors, with one regional favorite being a cow’s head wrapped in maguey leaves and buried in a pit with hot coal. I’m partial to Central Texas style.
As the world’s barbecue capital, you know Kansas City is one of the best places to get your BBQ fix. Their signature style comes from a man named Henry Perry, who in 1908 opened a smoked-meat stand in the city, serving beef, ribs, possum, raccoon, and woodchuck, topped with a sauce loaded with black pepper. Today, his restaurant is run by Arthur Bryant and is regarded by food writer Calvin Trillin as “the single best restaurant in the world.”
This joint, along with most Kansas City barbecue restaurants, serve up a variety of meats, including pork, beef, sausage, and chicken, smoked and then slathered with a sweet and thick tomato-based sauce. Another signature of KC barbecue are burnt ends, typically on smoked beef or pork brisket, which are cut off and served as appetizers. Burnt food never tasted so good.
In St. Louis, ribs are the predominant meat choice at most barbecue restaurants, and they’re prepared in a very special way. They remove the breast bone from the rib rack, allowing for a shape that’s easier to cook, then are sauced repeatedly to ensure utmost caramelization.
Another popular dish in St. Louis are “crispy snoots,” which are barbecued pig snouts and cheeks. Um. Okay. The sauce of St. Louis BBQ is tomato-based and thinned with vinegar, sometimes also made with horseradish.
Mutton, aka sheep, is the most popular meat for barbecue in this region, thanks to the abundance of sheep farmers in Western Kentucky. However, if you’re not into sheep you can also find ribs, pulled pork, and beef brisket. These meats are served with one of three sauces typically found in Kentucky, either a tomato-based sauce, a black pepper hot sauce, or a “black dip,” made with Worcestershire.
Kentucky is also home to the International Bar-B-Q Festival, so if you truly love barbecue, mark your calendar for a BBQ experience you will never forget.
In Maryland, bull roasts are a tradition at social gatherings and have become a staple at popular barbecue restaurants. While some may not think it’s technically barbecue because the meat is grilled over high heat instead of smoked, it still produces a glorious slab of meat. Barbecue restaurants in Maryland serve the meat up a variety of ways, including on Italian sausage, pulled in a BBQ sandwich, or in a roll with cheese and grilled vegetables.
Home to one of the world’s most famous meatpacking districts, you can find a wide range of meats in Chicago barbecue restaurants. The favorites, however, are hot links, ribs, and rib tips, which are cooked over hardwood in aquarium-style smokers made from sliding glass doors attached to a six to eight foot long draft vent. The meat is served with a sweet and spicy sauce usually on white bread. If you can’t handle spiciness, you may want to go somewhere else.
Say aloha to kalua pork, Hawaii’s standard version of barbecue. “Kalua” is a Hawaiian word which describes their way of cooking the pork in a underground oven, called an imu. In order to make this oven, a large pit is dug in the ground and filled with hot lava rocks, then lined with banana leaves. The whole pig is seasoned with Hawaiian sea salt, then wrapped in wire and covered with vegetation. After the meat cooks for about eight hours the pork is shredded or chopped and served with white rice and mashed taro root. Ah, nothing says Hawaii like some good ‘ole kalua.
Louisiana is home to a large Cajun community, and so cochon de lait (whole suckling pig) is the traditional dish here. The meat is seasoned with a Cajun spice mix, then typically injected with a Louisiana hot sauce marinade. This is then cooked in a shed, with the whole pig suspended in a wire cage over a fire, for six to twelve hours. Along with pork, beef, chicken, and sausage are other popular choices. Smoked chaurice, a heavily seasoned pork sausage with red pepper, is another favorite suited for only the most dare devilish eaters.
Santa Maria, California
Santa Maria BBQ is the traditional style of barbecue of Santa Barbara County. It typically involves top-block sirloin or tri tip rubbed in salt, pepper, and garlic salt, then strung onto skewers and cooked over coals. The meat is then sliced and served with salsa, grilled French bread dipped in sweet melted butter, and pink kidney beans. Pinquinto beans are another essential accompaniment to Santa Maria-style barbecue, which are a mix between a pink and white bean.