By: Sara Ventiera
August 3, 2016
The history of barbecue is the history of America. The tradition of cooking proteins slow and low over burning wood is one of the few techniques indigenous to the United States. Throughout the Southeast and toward the West, most states and smaller subregions have regional barbecue variations with a diverse range of proteins, cuts and sauces. As all things go, much is changing these days, with pitmasters and chefs moving around, elevating the basics, morphing their own personal styles, and experimenting with different kinds of meat. And while regional styles of barbecue across the United States can vary even from chef to chef, certain overarching traditions still hold. Today we present to you our ultimate guide to regional American BBQ:
Central Texas barbecue is the most recognized style in the state and has its roots in a meat-market ritual: a butcher seasons a piece of meat, specifically brisket, with black pepper, salt and cayenne, smokes it indirectly, slices it on a big cutting block within the customer’s sight, weighs it by the pound, and—tada!—serves the beaut right on the butcher paper. Although there’s a widespread belief that Central Texas barbecue doesn’t take sauce, that’s false, says Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, and author of Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. “One in the entire state—a place in Lockhart—doesn’t serve sauce,” he explains. Most (though not all) restaurants will serve sauce on the side, not on the meat. Sausage—mostly beef mixed with some pork in a natural hog casing—is a big part of that custom, too.
Sauce is more prevalent in East Texas, where you’re more likely to get sauce-smothered chopped beef or pork than sliced brisket, and where ribs are cooked to fall-off-the-bone consistency thanks to slow, indirect smoking, generally with hickory wood. Like sauces found throughout the state, the variety you’ll find near the Louisiana border is thick and tomato-based, with a bit of sweetness. Vaughn knows real-deal East Texas sauce when he tastes it, citing quick hacks like liquid smoke—or “the instant coffee of barbecue,” as he puts it—as a common downfall that plagues certain sauces in the region.
Far Southeast Texas
Smoked beef links are the specialty in the region known as the Far Southeast, where East Texas meets South Texas. These juicy, fatty sausages are seasoned assertively with garlic, chili powder, paprika and (sometimes) cumin. Most barbecue joints in the region serve a bit of everything, but links, ribs and chicken are regional standouts.
South Texas Barbacoa
The term barbacoa is misused throughout the state as a way to describe “anything from whole heads to beef cheeks, steamed in an oven,” says Vaughn, who believes that there’s only one place in the entire state, if not the country, that still serves the real deal: whole cattle heads buried with hot coals in pits in the ground. That’s Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville.
West Texas or Hill Country
West Texas (or Cowboy Style) barbecue is a slight misnomer, as it’s predominantly found in the Hill Country, a large region spread throughout the center and southern part of the state. Then again, Vaughn says succinctly, “None of these styles have real strict boundaries.” When meats are cooked over open pits using mesquite wood for direct heat, West Texas barbecue can almost resemble humble backyard grilling, with thin cuts like pork ribs, pork chops, sausage, and pork steaks firing up quickly. Although this direct heat-style is waning in popularity, it can be found throughout the Hill Country and scattered around Central Texas. By contrast, in far west Texas (the geographic region, not barbecue region) around El Paso, you’ll almost always find beef, a mainstay, as well as half-chickens, pork steaks, sausage and goat (cabrito), cooked over indirect heat, the dominant cooking technique throughout most of the state.
When Vaughn talks about “City Barbecue,” he’s referring to the new style that has emerged as restaurants around the country have melded the butcher-paper-lined-tray-aesthetic of Central Texas with high-quality proteins such as brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, sausage. The results draw influences from a variety of Southern food traditions; fried chicken, for example, is often on City Barbecue menus, even though the bird is rarely found in staunchly old-school joints. And, of course, they draw throngs of iPhone-wielding foodies willing to wait—often for hours—for a taste.
Photo: Skylight Inn
Eastern North Carolina
North Carolina is divided into two major regions. In the eastern part of the state, it’s all about smoking the whole hog over a pit, chopping it, and mixing the white and dark meat together with a white vinegar–based sauce that’s been seasoned with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. “My favorite is Ed Mitchell,” says North Carolina native Elizabeth Karmel, founder of the online barbecue site Carolina Cue To Go and a regular at Big Apple BBQ. “He doesn’t have a restaurant, so you have to sweet talk him into making it for you.”
Western North Carolina
Raleigh is the dividing line between North Carolina barbecue, and Lexington is the seat of the Western style, whose “sauce a has little more depth and nuance,” says Karmel, referring to the ketchup (or another variant of tomato and brown sugar) that’s added to the vinegar base. Pork shoulder, as opposed to whole hogs, is the protein of choice in this region. North Carolina’s barbecue traditions don’t fully extend to the Western border; Asheville, for instance, hasn’t been in the game long. But there are plenty of joints around the state that offer nuanced versions of City Barbecue, along with interesting sauces, sides and desserts.
Photo: Bessingers Barbeque
South Carolina packs a larger array of regional barbecue styles than its neighbor to the north. What most Americans consider “South Carolina barbecue” hails from the Midlands, which spans from Columbia down to Charleston. That’s where you’ll find the Carolina Gold mustard sauce tradition.
The reality about the Carolina Gold backstory is somewhat different than the rumor, says Robert Moss, contributing barbecue editor at Southern Living and author of Barbecue Lover’s the Carolinas: Restaurants, Markets, Recipes & Traditions. Common folklore holds that the origins of the yellow condiment date back to the 18th century, when Germans immigrants first introduced it to the States. However, Moss clarifies that the mustard sauce didn’t actually come around until the 1930s, long after the wave of German immigration to the Carolinas had ceased. Had it been introduced any earlier than that, it would have spread much wider than it did, and would be far more prevalent today—particularly in areas like Texas, where many German immigrants settled.
Still, there’s likely an ancestral link. “People point to a large number of German names—like the Bessinger family—who may well have invented the mustard-style sauce and are descended from German immigrants.” In the 1940s, Joe Bessinger opened a restaurant in Orangeburg County. His four sons took the style (and sauce) they learned from their father, opening multiple restaurants around Charleston and Columbia. Today, whole hogs are pork shoulders are smoked with hardwood and flavored with the sauce, a mix of mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, pepper and spices. Midland-style barbecue is traditionally served with hash—thick, gravy-like pork that’s been simmered with potatoes and onion—and rice.
Much like Eastern North Carolina ‘cue, the Pee Dee region, in the northeastern tip of the state, favors cooking whole hogs over wood coals in huge pits. The sauce is a vinegar-based spicy pepper mix.
Mountains or Everywhere Else
According to the state-sponsored South Carolina Barbecue Trail, the official third type of South Carolina barbecue is found in the mountains around Greenville. Moss doesn’t really agree. He refers to the style found in the mountain region, and the heavy tomato sauces found in the south, as “everywhere else,” because there’s been so much blurring and blending over the decades. Around Greenville, light-red, tomato- and vinegar-based sauces are all the rage. Down South, around the Savannah River, you’ll find a much heavier tomato sauce.
Photo: Vandy’s Bar-B-Que
It’s been said that Georgia has no barbecue style that’s truly its own, but many Southerners scoff at that accusation. To Moss, Georgia barbecue means chopped pork on a plate or sandwich with a side of Brunswick stew, a thick, gravy-like brew made with pork, corn, potatoes and (sometimes) lima beans. Grant Goggans, the barbecue expert behind the Southern food blog Marie, Let’s Eat, has traced at least six different regions of the state serving a wide range of their own takes on pork shoulder, ribs and chicken.
In the Savannah/Statesboro area, there’s “More of a Midland influence,” says Goggans, where pork shoulder is topped with tangy Carolina-style mustard sauce.
Around Macon, in Middle Georgia, restaurants use a mustard base that’s quite acidic, thanks to the heavy pour of vinegar and bit of ketchup. After the meat is pulled from the heat, it’s marinated in the sauce until it’s served. “I think Fincher’s might have developed original mustard sauce for that region,” says Goggans, referencing the legendary Georgia barbecue joint that’s been open since 1935.
The thinner, lighter, and more orange mustard sauce that was developed by The Gunther family, owners of the Smokey Pig in Columbus, is so unique that it has spread around this region in far-West Georgia, and even across the nearby state border into Alabama. Here, smoked pork is served chipped (finely chopped, marinated in sauce) or chopped (a larger cut, served dry with sauce on the side). Each plate at the restaurant comes with a side of thick, dark Brunswick stew.
Photo: Grant Goggans/Wallace Barbecue
Columbus is also the birthplace of Chicken Corner, another mustard-based sauce that was named for the restaurant where it was invented. With a healthy dose of cayenne, the “crazy-hot lava death mustard,” as Goggans jokingly calls it, is an intensely spicy condiment for stew and pulled pork. The style can be found around Columbus, and has also become a favorite in Atlanta’s western suburbs, where cooked pork is often soaked in another sauce made famous at Wallace Barbecue in Austell—vinegar, Worcestershire, ketchup and pepper—and served with hand-cut fries on the side. There’s some confusion about where that vinegary sauce, which is common around the region, was developed. Although it’s often referred to as “Hudson sauce” after Hudson’s Hickory House, Goggans maintains that “Wallace is more accurate.”
Many Athens joints serve chopped pork shoulder with a vinegar-and-pepper sauce, a bit like the version in eastern North Carolina. “I don’t know why it jumped the way it did,” says Goggans. Many of these places also serve chicken mull, a creamy stew made with milk.
You can still find old-school barbecue in northwest Georgia: heavily smoked chopped pork served dry, with a sweet, vinegary, tomato-based sauce either on the side or ladled on top. “This is what Atlanta used to be like in ’70s and ’80s,” says Goggans. “It’s now fading.” Now, the city features what Goggans calls“chef-ier barbecue restaurants,” with high-quality meat prepared in a wide range of styles. Brisket and fusion barbecue have become increasingly popular.
Photo: Kelly Dobkin/Big Bob Gibson’s
“Alabama is another state that’s a mutt when it comes to barbecue,” says Moss. Smoked pork (including excellent ribs and shoulder) and chicken are favorite proteins. The eastern border shares some variations with Georgia: the Columbus-style mustard sauce, the heavy smoking, the tomato sauce–smothered chopped pork. There’s also North Carolina-style vinegar sauce up north. However, the state is best known for its tangy white sauce that originated at Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur: a combination of mayo, vinegar and black pepper. It’s an especially good match for chicken and can now be found statewide.
Photo: Grant Goggans/Moonlight Bar-B-Que Inn
“Kentucky got tagged as the mutton state,” says Moss, adding that the mature sheep meat can be found in northwestern counties around Owensboro. The meat is slow-smoked in hickory-fired pits and served with a dark black Worcestershire-infused sauce, or “dip,” as it’s known, as well as mutton burgoo, a stew that often accompanies barbecue.
Western Kentucky has its own distinct style. Dry pork, usually shoulder, is cooked in old pits over hickory coals for an extended period of time, then topped with sauces that vary from county to county. Right across the border from Nashville, Monroe County (and a handful of surrounding counties) is famous for its unique take: steak-like slabs of frozen pork shoulder is are cooked in a pit for about 45 minutes, then slathered in a thin, sweet and peppery sauce (also referred to as dip).
Where most regions are best known for one, maybe two, different cuts or proteins, Kansas City offers a bit of everything: pork, beef, chicken, lamb, mutton, and yes, even fish. It’s best known, however, for two things: burnt ends and sauce. The former is made from the point of the brisket, which is full of fatty marbling and juicier than the rest of the cut, that’s slowly smoked over wood. “It’s something you don’t get when you go to other places,” says Rob Magee, a barbecue competition champion many times over and the chef/owner of Q39 in Kansas City. The city’s famous sauces are thick and perfectly sweet, with a strong tomato base and some vinegar that result in a fruity, spicy flavor.
St. Louis is also a big sauce city: per capita, the city consumes more barbecue sauce than any other in the country. Like Kansas City, St. Louis favors sweet tomato-based varieties in varying degrees of viscosity. Where it differs, however, is that the latter is a pork city, hailed far and wide for its namesake rib cut, but also home to babyback ribs, rib tips, pork steaks and pig snoots. Meats in Kansas City tend to be grilled, then sauced, rather than dry-rubbed and slowly smoked.
Photo: Caroline Allison/Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
As the proud host of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held annually at the citywide Memphis in May festival, Blues City is also Tennessee’s most famous barbecue town, with a lot of flavor deriving from charcoal. Pork ribs are the most widespread protein, which are heavy on the smoke and rub and served “dry” as-is or “wet” in a tomato-based sauce. Smoked pork shoulder is another local specialty.
Meanwhile, in West Tennessee, smoked whole hog (comparable to that in eastern North Carolina) dominates the barbecue scene. It’s smoked with wood over an open pit, basted with a vinegar mop and is often served on sandwiches with slaw.
Toward the Appalachians, smoked pork shoulders and hams are served with thick, sweet tomato-based sauce.
Where to try it: Ridgewood Barbecue, Bluff City