The Ultimate, Delicious Guide to American Barbecue Styles

Got a pit, spit, or smoker?  How about wood, smoke, or heat? Any of these things can turn into a great time with family, food and fun. If you haven’t guessed, it’s barbecue time! It gets its roots from the word “barbacoa” from the Caribbean and means "framework of sticks set up on posts."

However, when looking at the United States, you are going to find widespread opinions on not only how a barbecue is done but what meat to cook.

Carolinas

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In eastern North Carolina, you’re going to find that barbecuing involves the whole hog. This is the time for the pit. To barbecue the hog, it needs to be slow-cooked for many hours. This is about infusing the smoky taste while also preserving the flavor of the meat. In Eastern North Carolina, they will add just the tiniest bits of flavoring. You can season to taste using vinegar, perhaps a hot sauce, or just some salt and pepper.

Western North Carolina chooses the pork shoulder and always the dark meat, and they incorporate vinegar and some tomato.

In South Carolina, there are three regional styles. The western section prefers a peppery tomato or ketchup-based sauce, while in Central South Carolina a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, and brown sugar (Carolina Gold) is the, ahem, gold standard. In the coastal region, it is the whole hog in combination with spicy, watery vinegar and pepper sauce.

Memphis

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Going westward, we will find the home of Elvis in Memphis, Tennessee. In Memphis, the barbecue is all about the ribs, shoulders, and pulled pork using the pit. They serve the ribs either “dry” or “wet.” Dry ribs have a dry rub that consists of spices, and it’s normally eaten without the sauce, or "dry." With "wet," the ribs have a sauce brushed over them before, during, and after cooking; therefore, they are wet.

The hot smokers are here in Tennessee. The true smokers won’t rely on the seasoning alone for the taste of a great barbecue; only the highest quality meat and wood for a slow-cooking process will do.

Kansas City

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Farther northwest, we hit Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City barbecue is characterized by its use of a wide variety of meat. You can choose from pork, beef, chicken, turkey and even fish. Slow smoking is the most common method of cooking. Kansas City also loves its brisket with burnt ends, which is distinctive to the city. These are the tips from a fully smoked beef brisket that are usually thrown back into the smoker to get a nice, charred exterior. Most people are aware of the Kansas City barbecue sauce. The sauce is made with a sweet tomato and molasses base with sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors.

Texas

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Heading south, we arrive at the Lone Star state of Texas, where a person is going to be in beef brisket and sausage heaven. Here, wood is the way masters do business. A meticulous hardwood fire is maintained overnight. It is essential to prepare the wood hot and fast, as the cook loosens the collagen from the renderings. The pitmasters want a “low and slow” cook. Each brisket can take up to 20 hours to make. The wood that most Texans use is the post oak, but they also like mesquite and hickory.

Texas barbecue is broken down into four regional varieties:

  • East Texas style: The beef is slowly cooked over hickory wood and marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce.
  • Central Texas style: The meat is rubbed with spices and cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood.
  • West Texas style: The meat is cooked over direct heat from mesquite wood.
  • South Texas style: The meat is kept very moist with thick, molasses-like sauces.

Santa Maria

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Going all the way west, we next land in California. Catching on is the Santa Maria-style barbecue, named after the city in the southern part of California. Santa Maria-style did not become popular until the 1930s.

Santa Maria cooks use the spit over red oak. It works well for wood-fire grilling because it burns hot, but it doesn’t burn too fast or create too much smoke. The local style uses quick-cooking cuts and grills them over a hot fire in a short amount of time. The rub is a simple mix of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. The “tri-tip” is the king in Santa Maria-style. A perfectly cooked tri-tip will cook anywhere between 20 to 45 minutes. California is also known to incorporate sausages, filets, rib eye and chicken.

The Best Barbecue in the World

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As you can see, there are different styles, tastes, and foods when it comes to barbecuing across the United States. Some are more popular, but for those who desire a great barbecue flavor, these are the places you want to visit.

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