Understanding Regional Flavors, Techniques and History
BBQ is so much more than just a rack of ribs and that bottled sauce you buy at the store. Barbecue has a rich and vibrant history, full of different flavors and techniques that vary by region! We're diving into the top four regions known for their 'que and breaking down what makes each regions's sauces, meats and barbecuing styles unique!
North Carolina offers two distinct regional barbecue styles of great-tasting flavor.
In Eastern North Carolina, you’ll find that whole hog smoking over hickory wood is the preferred method. The meat is then mopped with a spicy vinegar-based sauce made from vinegar, salt, and red pepper before being chopped.
In Western North Carolina is where the style often referred to as “Lexington style” comes from. This barbecue style revolves around pork shoulder that is smoked to let the skin caramelize and form a crispy layer, then sliced or chopped. The preferred sauce is the vinegar-based sauce from Eastern Carolina but with tomato and brown sugar added.
South Carolina barbecue is another style that revolves around cooking a whole hog, but extra slow and over low temperatures. There are several distinct barbecue sauce flavor profiles you’ll find throughout the state.
One of the most popular being a sauce referred to as “Carolina Gold”. South Carolina makes up the first of the states within the “Mustard Belt” of barbecue sauce. Carolina Gold sauce came from German Immigrant influences and is a pungent mustard-based sauce with brown sugar and vinegar.
In contrast to that sauce, in the Pee Dee region of the state, you’ll find a vinegar-based sauce very similar to Eastern North Carolina. Then, in the Midlands and Low Country areas of South Carolina, you’ll find a mustard-tinged bright red sauce that is sweeter and tangier.
Texas BBQ traces its origins to German and Czech immigrants who settled in the state in the mid-nineteenth century. German and Czech communities took hold in central Texas in the region between Austin and San Antonio. In fact, some Texas towns like Fredericksburg maintain a heavy German influence to this day.
The central European traditions of these immigrants placed a heavy emphasis on meats and sausages. These were sold fresh in markets, but the merchants were aware that meat could be preserved far longer if it was smoked. They began smoking and slow cooking meats that did not promptly sell, and the rich, smoky flavor of these meats became desirable in and of itself.
Over time, the popularity of barbecued meat spread throughout the state, and while central Texas remains its epicenter, you can easily find BBQ joints from east to west and everywhere in between.
There are four generally recognized regional styles of barbecue in Texas:
Central Texas or "Meat Market Style"
Central Texas style originated in the butcher shops of German and Czech immigrants to the region. This is where Texas barbecue began. Central Texas BBQ generally has a very simple dry rub—usually just salt and pepper—but some pitmasters may have their own special rubs with additional spices like cayenne pepper or granulated garlic. The meat is smoked for many hours at low temperatures, typically over mesquite, pecan, or oak wood. The meat rarely comes on sandwiches—it's usually presented on a plate or on a piece of butcher paper—although white bread may be served as a side dish.
East Texas Style
Like Central Texas BBQ, East Texas BBQ involves slow smoking via indirect heat. However, East Texas BBQ is known for its "fall-off-the-bone" quality, which means very long cooking times, almost always over hickory wood, which is readily grown in the state. East Texas BBQ tends to come marinated in a sweet tomato-based sauce. Beef and pork are equally popular in East Texas—including pulled pork, which is not a Texas original but has taken hold in the state. Both pulled pork and beef brisket are typically served on a bun with pickles and hot sauce.
West Texas or "Cowboy Style"
West Texas style involves using goat and mutton as well as beef. Unlike other varieties of Texas barbecue, the West Texas style is traditionally cooked over the direct heat of an open flame. This makes it most like traditional grilling as opposed to smoking. West Texas barbecue is specifically associated with mesquite wood, as mesquite is one of the few tree species that thrive in the arid West Texas climate.
South Texas or "Barbacoa Style"
South Texas style features a sweet sauce, but unlike the tomato-based sauce of East Texas, it favors a molasses-based barbecue sauce that locks in moisture from the meat. South Texas barbecue is heavily intertwined with Mexican cuisine, and it is regionally known as barbacoa. It often features cuts of meat such as tongue and cow's head that were originally cooked underground.
You’d think Tennessee would take a break after bringing us Jack Daniels. But, according to Graceland BBQ, they had pigs as a cheap meat source and with hardwood and molasses flowing through the region on the mighty Mississippi, it created a perfect storm to evolve the distinctive flavors of Memphis barbecue. By the turn of the century, barbecue as we know it today, was thriving in Memphis..
It wasn't really until post World War II when barbecue’s commercial viability exploded, with little restaurants and joints popping up all over. Ingredients ran on the less expensive end of the spectrum, and a great deal of this growth was in the lower income areas. Like any great movement this resulted in even better techniques and even some guiding rules for the style.
The star of Memphis style barbecue is unquestionably the rub. Paprika fights for first place on most rub recipes. The competition is sugar. Since it is hard to argue that any meat is more receptive to being sweetened up than pork, it makes sense that sugar vies for the top spot. Mild chili powder and cayenne appear in some rubs as, as does ground black pepper and even ground white pepper. Two other ingredients in most every rub are garlic powder and onion powder.. From there the floodgates open on herbs and spices used in rubbing pork for the barbecue. Dry mustard and powdered ginger add an exotic spiciness. Cumin, thyme and ground celery seeds bring mellower distinctive flavor components to fill out the taste.
With rubs that carry so many flavors, it is very common to have Memphis style ribs served dry, sauce on the side, so that you can choose how to combine the tastes. Pulled pork will often have the slightly thick sweet and tangy Memphis-style sauce mixed with the meat, or poured on top, when served. There’s also a style of sauce called a ‘mop’ sauce that is used in the cooking process called ‘swabbing’. These sauces are typically thinner and vinegar based. The acids in the vinegar will help to tenderize the meat in conjunction with the slow cooking process.
The most prevalent wood moving on the Mississippi back in the day was Hickory, and as a result this became the basis for barbecuing. Hickory is a natural for cooking pork because it imparts a distinctively strong and sweet flavor. It is still the wood of choice for smoking bacon and ham, and it does the same great work for ribs and shoulder cuts.
Often referred to as the “world’s barbecue capital”, it’s clear that Kansas City knows how to cook barbecue and does so with a large array of meats. Barbecue has been prevalent in the area since the early 1900s thanks to a man named Henry Perry, who was coincidentally from Memphis. Perry, who today is regarded as Kansas City's first barbecuer, began serving up barbecue in 1908 out of an inner-city trolly barn near the Garment District. Know for his secret dry rub and for smoking meats for hours on a bed of oak and hickory wood, Perry served slow-cooked ribs on pages of newsprint for 25 cents a slab. Perry's method of slow-cooking and smoking gave the meat more flavor and made it fall off the bone. His method has stood the test of time as it is still being used by pitmasters today.
Perry's dry rub tradition also lives on in Kansas City. Meats including beef and pork ribs, chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and sausage are all cooked over hickory wood and dry-rubbed. You’ll also find a large variety of sauces available on the side. But, most sauce recipes in the area include tomato and molasses to create a thick, tangy and sweet sauce.
One barbecue item Kansas City has become known for is burnt ends. These charred tips of beef brisket are a popular staple on barbecue restaurant menus throughout the city. But what are burnt ends? According to Serious Eats, Burnt Ends, like much of American barbecue, aren't a labor of design as much as a brilliant form of adaptation. Burnt ends are essentially melted-down fat that is twice-cooked and transformed into smoky, crunchy bark, producing an all-around incredible bite! As beef barbecue became more common, pitmasters would set aside the tougher, drier, oddly-shaped end pieces of their briskets as they sliced them. Many cooks declined to serve the fattiest parts of the brisket, so many burnt ends were drawn from this portion and ultimately served as appetizers, thrown into stews or handed to customers as scrap.