Cooking meat slowly over a smoky wood fire is a technique we can trace back to our prehistoric ancestors, and is one that remains a central plank of countless cuisines in regions around the globe. In the United States, the country’s proud barbecue tradition is said to have its roots in the Caribbean, where the practice was known among the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola (the island that is today divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as barbacoa. Of course, barbecue traditions in America have evolved over centuries to incorporate plenty of different influences, as well as adapting to local tastes and ingredients. As a result, the United States is home to a variety of barbecue styles, each with their own distinct specialties, techniques, spice levels or sauces – as well as loyal followers that insist their regional version is the best. There are definitely plenty of commonalities across the board when it comes to barbecue styles in the US, and you can learn more about them in this useful and informative introduction, but here we’ll focus on the four main regional barbecue styles: the Carolinas, Kansas City, Memphis, and – of course – Texas.
Carolina barbecue focuses primarily on pulled or shredded pork, and is widely considered one of the oldest styles of barbecue in America. Not surprisingly, North Carolina and South Carolina each have their own barbecue traditions that, while similar in some respects, have a couple key differences. In North Carolina, cuts of pork are brushed with a vinegar-based sauce with plenty of spices including cracked black pepper and spicy cayenne. The meat is then pulled off the bone and chopped, served up with either a ketchup-based sauce, or more of the tangy vinegar marinade.
The main difference in South Carolina can be found in the sauce. Rather than being ketchup or vinegar-based, the golden-coloured sauces found across the state are mustard-based instead. This is likely a result of the state’s large German immigrant population, who over the years inserted their own penchant for mustard into South Carolina’s barbecue style. Yellow mustard is usually made a bit thinner with the addition of some vinegar, but is also sweetened slightly with brown sugar. Additional spices end up making the sauce taste not so different from a classic barbecue sauce, but the unmistakable mustard taste always shines through.
True barbecue aficionados may also divide up both North and South Carolina into smaller regions, with regional variations as to which cuts of meat are used, the level of spiciness, and whether tomato is added to sauces or not. Even so, it is safe to say that across the Carolinas, pork is king and the sauces are usually vinegary and tangy rather than sweet.
In contrast to the Carolinas, Kansas City barbecue is known for its great variety when it comes to the types of meat used. Alongside pork, a Kansas City barbecue joint might also serve up plates of beef, turkey, chicken, or even mutton. But what really sets apart Kansas City barbecue is its trademark sauce: a thick, sticky blend of molasses and tomato that is both sweet and spicy. In fact, the barbecue sauces that we usually come across in the supermarket or at restaurants are usually variations on Kansas City barbecue sauce. That said, many regions across the United States have their own signature barbecue sauce, so we won’t pick favourites and you can decide for yourself whose sauce tops the bunch.
Besides its trademark sauce, Kansas City is also known for burnt ends, the crispy, fatty tips of beef or pork brisket. Because the ends of these large cuts tend to get dry and crisp when slow-cooked for hours, barbecue pitmasters would cut them off and let customers snack on them as they waited for their orders. Over time, these burnt ends became hugely popular; these days, they are cut off and chopped into cubes, before being returned to the smoker and coated in a thick and sticky sauce. The result is a caramelised cube of beefy deliciousness.
A classic Memphis barbecue will often do away with thick and sweet sauces, and will stick with a dry rub including paprika, garlic, pepper, cayenne, and any number of other dried spices – some recipes call for dozens of them! Memphis style barbecue is heavy on pork, and ribs in particular. After being coated in the dry rub, ribs are placed in a pit and slow-cooked and served up with a thin sauce made of vinegar and perhaps a hint of tomato that you can mop up between bites. Some purists might argue that true Memphis barbecue shouldn’t feature a wet sauce at all, and considering how juicy and flavourful a rack of classic Memphis ribs can be, it might be tough to argue with them.
Without a doubt, Texas is America’s undisputed king of beef barbecue. Specifically, Texas does beef brisket like nowhere else, taking what is usually seen as a cheap and tough cut of meat, and smoking it for hours on end until it becomes perfectly tender, with just the right amount of fatty marbling that melts in your mouth. Texas-style brisket is usually seasoned with little more than a simple rub of salt and pepper. It is usually served up with white bread, beans, pickles, and even a potato salad or coleslaw if you’re hungry enough. Likely because Texas produces so much high-quality beef, it’s less common to find cuts of meat slathered in rich sauces, since this would obscure the meaty flavour. Besides the classic beef brisket, Texas is also known for its top-notch sausages, which can also trace their history back to Czech and German waves of immigration.
Being such a vast state, Texas of course has plenty of variation across different regions. In East Texas, you might come across styles of saucy barbecued pulled beef or pork that seem closer to what you might find in the Carolinas, while Southern Texas displays a more significant Mexican influence, with different parts of the cow – including the head – cooked in a covered pit and often served with tacos. But in the end, it’s the Central Texas dry-rub beef brisket that has won so many fans across America and around the world.