American barbecue is one of the cornerstones of cuisine in the USA. But with four main regional styles, as well as substyles and a growing number of other states growing in popularity, where do you start? From Texas to the Carolinas, our BBQ style guide is here to help.
The ethos of American barbecue has spread far and wide since the turn of the 19th century, including to some places you might not ordinarily associate it with. Let’s take a look at the four undisputed kings of barbecue, as well as a handful of other areas known for their strong pit game.
Barbecue is a big deal in the Carolinas, and it’s easy to understand why—many food scholars pinpoint North Carolina as the likely birthplace of barbecue in the U.S.
If you happen to be passing through the Carolinas and you get a hankering for barbecue, your precise location will provide a major clue about what you’re likely to get at a given stop.
When someone from North Carolina hears the word “barbecue,” they picture pork that’s been smoked for hours over a bed of hardwood chips. They’re then pulled or chopped and basted liberally with a thin vinegar-based sauce. Whether you eat it with a fork or on a bun, its smoky, savory, tangy flavor is nothing short of legendary.
Traditionally, pitmasters in the eastern part of the state prepare “whole hog” barbecue, where all the meat from the pig is broken down together into one heaping, delicious pile.
In western North Carolina and many other parts of the south, they’re partial to the leaner shoulder cut, which lends itself equally well to pulling and slicing.
Like its northern neighbor, South Carolina relies predominantly on pig to keep their smokers filled. Though you’ll find no shortage of smoked chicken and brisket, as well.
Here, regional styles are distinguished mainly by their sauces.
A typical western South Carolina barbecue sauce is heavy on the tomato and sugar, with just a hint of spice. As you move eastward into the midlands, the condiment of choice is “Carolina Gold,” a zesty concoction of mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, and assorted spices.
By the time you get to the “Pee Dee” region near the coast, the sauce starts to resemble the thin, vinegary kind used all over North Carolina.
They say everything is bigger in Texas. That’s definitely the case where barbecue is concerned.
In fact, Texas barbecue is such an institution that there are at least four distinct styles that enjoy widespread popularity. Each of these styles saw its origins and evolution in a different section of the Lone Star State, but one thing they all have in common that makes them Texan through-and-through is their preference for hearty cuts of beef.
East Texas barbecue starts with a sugary tomato sauce marinade and ends with an hours-long smoking session over rich hickory wood. The resulting meat (most often beef or pork) is incredibly tender and succulent. East Texans use a wide range of flavors, including smokey, sweet, savory, and salty notes.
Along with that of central Texas, east Texas ‘cue is considered emblematic of the state’s barbecue culture. The two styles are known and enjoyed throughout the central and southern United States.
In the central region of Texas, the preferred method of preparation is to coat the meat—again, typically beef brisket, pork butt or shoulder, or smoky sausage— with a thin crust of dry spices. They cook it low-and-slow over fresh-cut oak or pecan, not unlike the way barbecue is made in Memphis.
Central Texas barbecue is all about highlighting the taste and texture of the meat itself. For this reason, it’s often served sauceless. Instead, they pair with unobtrusive sides like white bread, dill pickle chips, and sliced onion or jalapeño peppers.
South of Austin, the sauce becomes an integral part of the barbecue. Before a cow or pig ever sees the inside of a pit, it’s steeped in a thick, sweet, molasses-based marinade. The marinade keeps it moist during the lengthy smoking process and enhances its flavor.
Being so close to the border, South Texas barbecue also has a lot of overlap with traditional Mexican barbacoa. As such, it’s not uncommon to find offerings like lingua (beef tongue) and cabeza (head) on the menu.
West Texas barbecue is unique in that it’s cooked directly on an open flame, similar to grilling, as opposed to the inside of a temperature-controlled smoker. This technique is a holdover from the days when cattlemen and other wayfarers would sear up their nightly grub over the campfire.
Another standout element of West Texas barbecue is the fact that it’s fired almost exclusively using mesquite, an intensely aromatic wood that lends the meat its unmistakable piquancy.
The people of Kansas City are true-blue barbecue aficionados.
This is evident from the sheer variety of meats they’re eager to give the slow-smoked treatment to: staples like pork, beef, and chicken, of course, but also sausage, turkey, lamb, and even fish. And don’t forget the burnt ends—any Kansas Citian will tell you they’re the best part of the whole brisket.
Another thing that makes Kansas City barbecue special is its signature sauce. The thick tomato-based mixture provides a harmonious balance of sweetness and spice and is best applied in copious quantities.
Kansas City-style sauce is practically synonymous with “barbecue sauce.” It’s so universally beloved that the city’s initials proudly grace the name of one of the best-selling bottled barbecue sauces of all time, KC Masterpiece.
Memphis is a veritable barbecue mecca situated right in the heart of the American southeast. While most of the fundamentals of Memphis barbecue were adopted from surrounding hotspots, it’s since taken on a character wholly its own.
As with the Carolinas and other parts of the south, pork is king in Memphis. Beef and chicken are also in high demand, and various cuts are sure to appear on any restaurant menu.
If there’s one dish that epitomizes Memphis barbecue, however, it’s ribs.
Slow-cooked in mammoth slabs and seasoned to mouth-watering perfection. Diners have the option of savoring them either “wet,” brushed with a thick coating of sweet and spicy tomato-based sauce; or “dry,” rubbed with a mixture of tantalizing spices that are so tasty they make sauce unnecessary.
It should come as no surprise that barbecue is a hot commodity in a state with such a large population of enthusiastic backyard chefs.
For the most part, Alabama barbecue is not too dissimilar from its Memphis and Carolina cousins. It relies heavily on pork, particularly the butt, shoulder, and ribs, and thinnish tomato-and-vinegar sauces that don’t lean too heavily in any one direction flavor-wise.
But back in the 1920s, Alabama cemented its place in barbecue history with one important and audacious innovation: white barbecue sauce.
This mayonnaise-based flavoring agent, which also contains mustard, brown sugar, and spices, is good for both basting and dipping. Rarely seen outside state lines, you’ll have to make a trip out to the Heart of Dixie if you want to experience it for yourself.
Kentucky does things a bit differently when it comes to barbecue.
The state’s biggest claim to fame is mutton (sheep) that’s been slow-cooked and pulled or chopped the way pork is in the Carolinas. This somewhat unusual penchant probably took hold when the herd animals began to be used as a much-needed source of food after their prime wool-producing years had ended.
In Western Kentucky, where mutton barbecue has its most fervent following, the meat is served with a side of watery Worcestershire-based sauce that many locals simply refer to as “dip.”
California might not be the first locality that springs to mind when you think barbecue. However, the Golden State has a long and respectable track record of meat mastery that stretches back to the Mexicans and native peoples that once inhabited the dusty deserts of the southwest.
California-style barbecue can be summed up in two words: Santa Maria. These words memorialize the coastal area that spawned it. If barbecue styles can be said to have souls, California’s would be the Santa Maria Valley without question.
During an old-school Santa Maria get-down, great pits would be dug and filled with glowing coals cultivated from red oak and fallen willow wood. Nowadays it’s easier to use a grill (although you can make your own DIY Santa Maria grill) but the fuel and the trademark cut, tri-tip, remain the same.
Whether or not you believe that Kansas City is really the “Barbecue Capital of the World,” that it’s near the top of the list isn’t up for debate. Something else you can’t argue is that St. Louis isn’t far behind.
While the Kansas City barbecue scene is celebrated for its diversity, St. Louis’ one true love is spare ribs. Local custom dictates that these are dunked in a vat of sweet tomato-based sauce, as seen in our St. Louis ribs recipe.
St. Louis barbecue eaters love their sauce. By some estimates, the city goes through more barbecue sauce per capita than anywhere else in the country. It’s probably safe to speculate that this impressive statistic applies to other countries as well, seeing as how America is the undisputed barbecue capital of the world.