While taking its influences from either the indigenous people in the Caribbean and their barbacoa or from the Native Americans in Virginia, depending on the food historian you read, barbecue, and the art of smoking meat over low and slow indirect heat, is something that has become distinctly American. Like most things in this melting pot of a country, barbecue is something that changes based on the region of the country you are in. While there are a plethora of different styles ranging from the Carolinas all the way to Hawaii, most Americans know four main barbecue regions: Memphis, Kansas City, Carolina, and Texas. Each of these areas have very different tastes, styles, and even meat and woods that are used.
In Memphis, pork rules supreme. You will mainly find both ribs and pulled pork shoulder as the main features on most menus found in this corner of the barbecue world. Most known for their dry-rubbed ribs and pulled pork, there are some locations which serve their meat with a tangy, yet sweet, thin ketchup-based red sauce.
The Memphis style dry rub is a savory and sweet blend with salt, brown and white sugar, and paprika as its base. Beyond that, each pit master will have their own blend of spices they add to make the flavors their own. Memphis also hosts one of the biggest barbecue competitions, Memphis in May.
While Kansas City is known for smoking many different proteins, it is here you will find those savory pieces of meat candy known as burnt ends. These nuggets of barbecue gold come from the point end of the brisket. Separated from the flat, the point is then cubed, coated in the sweet and sticky Kansas City sauce, and then put back on the smoker to caramelize the sugars.
Just like the sauce, Kansas City’s rub, which is put on their pork and beef, is also of the sweeter variety. Usually made with a two-to-one ratio of brown sugar and paprika, things like garlic powder, onion powder, and basic salt and pepper are added to give it that extra depth.
Whereas you will get parts of the pig in other locations, and of course in the Carolinas as well, what this region is best known for is whole hog barbecue. Providing three difference areas for meat, the stomach, neck, and shoulder, cooking whole hog is a skill that requires a very deft hand since the stomach is much more tender and will cook at a quicker pace than the tougher shoulder and neck.
Along with the whole hog, the Carolinas have a unique take on barbecue sauce. While it changes a bit from Eastern, Western, and South Carolina, one thing remains the same: vinegar. No matter if it is the mustard based “Carolina Gold” found in South Carolina, or the very thin tangy East Carolina one, or even the thin ketchup based West Carolina variety, all are given their signature taste with some form of vinegar, usually apple cider.
Pork ribs may be found on some menus in Texas, but what the state is most known for is what they call the trinity of barbecue: brisket, beef ribs, and Texas hot links. With over 200,000 miles of land in the state, it is easy to understand that there are many different variations on the flavors found in Texas barbecue, but no matter where you go, beef seems to reign supreme.
With a rub of basic salt and pepper, and sometimes ground mustard and chili powder, Texas really lets the beef be the star of the meal. The only sauce you will find here is a very thin basting sauce of drippings, cumin, Worcestershire, and hot sauce. This just elevates the layers of flavors enough and perfectly compliments the beef.
We may have focused on the four main barbecue regions, but the truth is there are so many more regionalized barbecue cooking styles. From Alabama’s mayo-based white sauce to the tri-tip sirloin Santa Maria style of California, and everything in between, get your bib ready, and experience a true example of culinary Americana.