To enthusiasts, true American barbecue is made by slow-cooking meat over low heat from a wood fire. The meat can vary, with pork, beef, chicken and lamb being most common, and when done right, the result is succulent, juicy and tender with a nuanced and robust flavour.
Of course barbecuing is not
exclusively a US tradition. In India, meats are barbecued in a tandoor,
or clay oven, fired by wood or charcoal. In Argentina, asado is made by
barbecuing meat over an open fire or a wood-fired parrilla, or grill. In
Mongolia, mutton is barbecued in a pot with heated stones and then cooked over
an open fire for the dish khorkhog, while whole marmot or goat is
stuffed with heated stones and cooked over a fire for boodog.
In the US, barbecuing was
originally a common technique in Native American cooking. Sixteenth-century British
colonists learned the method, and it eventually spread to the south, the part
of the country most associated with barbecue today, around the 19th Century.
Regional approaches to barbecue, predicated on local tastes and resources, then
emerged in the early 20th Century, according to Robert F Moss’s Barbecue: the History of an American Institution.
Today, America’s obsession
with barbecue is known throughout the world. While the four “capitals” of US
barbecue are considered to be the Carolinas, Memphis, Texas and Kansas City, the nation has given birth
to a myriad of regional styles, all of which have been honed to perfection over
the years. Let this roadmap be your guide to the American states and cities that
have elevated the act of slow-cooking meat to an art form.
Carolina ‘cue changes a lot
depending on where you are. North Carolina’s main styles are often referred to
as “Eastern Carolina barbecue” and “Western Carolina barbecue” (or “Lexington barbecue”,
since Lexington is the go-to barbecue town in the west), while South Carolina’s regional variations are less strictly delineated.
In all three varieties – Eastern
Carolina, Western Carolina and South Carolina – pork is slow-cooked over a
wood-fired pit or grill. The meat is pulled, chopped and served in a sandwich
with homemade coleslaw. But while Eastern Carolina uses the whole pig, and
dresses its pulled pork with vinegar and sometimes a touch of hot pepper,
Western Carolina uses the shoulder of the pig and adds a thick tomato-based or
ketchup-based sauce to its pulled pork, which it serves with red coleslaw.
South Carolina barbecue uses the whole pig, shoulder, butt (the upper shoulder)
or ham (the hind quarter), and the sauce varies throughout the state. A
tomato-based or ketchup-based sauce can be found upstate; a vinegar and hot
pepper sauce can be found in the northeast; and a mustard-based sauce can be
found in the middle.
While pulled pork sandwiches (using
pork shoulder and served with coleslaw) can be found in most Memphis barbecue
joints, ribs are the city’s specialty. Dry rub ribs, seasoned with salt and
spices, are the shinning star of Memphis barbecue, though wet rub ribs, covered
in a tomato-based sauce, are also ubiquitous. In all cases, the pork is slow-cooked
over a wood-fired pit or grill.
In Texas, beef reigns supreme
but pork barbecue is not hard to find. The state is especially known for its
beef brisket, often served with no sauce. As with the Carolinas, barbecue
styles shift through the state.
In central Texas, where many German
and Czech immigrants settled in the 1800s, beef (brisket and sausage) and pork (ribs
and sausage) are dry-rubbed and slow-cooked over a pecan or oak wood-fired
grill. Ribs are often served with a thin tomato-vinegar sauce. In east Texas,
pork shoulder, ribs and sausage are slow-cooked over a hickory-fired grill,
sometimes with a tomato-based sauce. In southern Texas, certain places serve a
style of Mexican barbecue, or barbacoa,
in which the head of a cow is slow-roasted over a mesquite-fired pit and served
with tortillas and salsa.
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City is known for its
sauce-heavy barbecue and its “burnt ends”, or brisket tips, which come from a
slow-smoked batch of beef brisket. Ribs are slathered in a
tomato-and-molasses-based sauce and slow-cooked over a fire or grill, while
burnt ends are smoked until crisp and charred and then served with the same
sauce, which is usually very sweet and can be slightly sour and spicy as well.
St Louis, Missouri
In St Louis, pork steaks rule.
Steaks are cut from the shoulder or butt, cooked on a grill and then covered in
a sweet, tomato-based sauce. Unique to St Louis is its crunchy “snoot”, which
is meat from the jaw/cheek and nose area of the pig’s face, accessed by cutting
off the nostrils of its snout. Snoot is grilled until crispy and served in a
Chicago ribs, slow-cooked over
a wood- or charcoal-fired pit or grill, are all about the finger-licking sweet,
tangy and smoky tomato-based sauce that they’re drenched in. In addition to pork
rib platters, Chicago barbecue joints serve up rib tips, the juicy cartilage
ends of the ribs that sometimes get cut off and thrown away.
The wool industry in Kentucky
gave way to mutton as the popular meat for local barbecue -- especially in the
west of the state -- since aging sheep are of more use for their meat than
their fleece. The sheep meat is slow-smoked, either in a smoker or over a
hickory wood fire, and brushed with a sour, tangy sauce. It is pulled, chopped
and served in a sandwich, often with “Mutton Dip”, a local blend of water,
Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, brown sugar, salt, pepper and
spices and sometimes even Kentucky
Alabama barbecue is known for
its distinctive white sauce – a mayonnaise-based accompaniment made with
vinegar, salt and pepper, and devoid of tomato flavours. In Alabama, either chicken
or pork (shoulder, butt, ham or ribs) is slow-cooked over a pecan wood fire or
grill, then pulled, chopped and served in a sandwich, covered in sauce.
Sometimes the chicken is cooked in the sauce as well.
Santa Maria, California
Santa Maria is America’s
stronghold for tri-tip beef barbecue, often served with salsa on the side. The
tri-tip, the triangle-shaped bottom sirloin portion of the cow, is dry rubbed
and then slow-smoked over a red oak wood fire. Its tradition began with early
American cowboys who would slow-cook skewered meats over fires fuelled by red
One frequent star of the lu’au,
Hawaii’s lively celebratory feasts of traditional foods, is kalua pig – pork cooked all day long in
an imu, an underground oven made by simply digging out a hole in the
ground. The meat is dry rubbed with sea salt and spices, covered in banana
leaves and cooked over a fire at the bottom of the imu. Hawaiian barbecue is
not served with sauce.
barbeque in Alaska is no different from barbecue elsewhere in the US,
involving slow-cooked pork, beef or chicken. But as Michael Karl Witzel
mentions in his book Barbecue Road Trip, one popular Alaskan barbecue dish is
prepared using the state’s local, wild-caught specialty, salmon, which is placed
on cedar planks and then smoked over a fire or a grill. The sauce, which
typically uses the tomato-and-molasses base found in barbecue sauces throughout
the country, is usually used to baste the fish, and the remainder is poured on
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