Barbecue Basics: Your Guide to Barbecue Styles Across the U.S.

Barbecue Basics: Your Guide to Barbecue Styles Across the U.S.

The U.S. does not have a national dish, but if there was one, barbecue is sure to be the foremost contender.

Barbecue has to be the oldest dish known to man. After man discovered fire, he must have cooked a deer over it. Ergo, barbecue became the first recipe.

What Is Barbecue?

It is simple – meat cooked slowly over a fire. The sauce is an optional alternative, but is almost always used. The meat must soften to the point where it drops off the bone.

Light a fire, throw over a brisket over it, keep turning it every few minutes, and after few hours, you have an extremely tasty dish.

The origins of the word “barbecue” are not known. Most likely, it came from Spanish barbacoa, slow-cooking meat over fire.

In technique, it is not very different from the tandoor cuisine of India and Pakistan. The taste, too, is somewhat similar: salty, and tangy.

What sets barbecue apart is that wood is used instead of charcoal (unless it is at home). The taste of wood smoke is an essential ingredient of barbecue dishes.

Hickory and oak wood are used for a strong, smoky flavor. Wood from maple, pecan, and apple tree are used for a milder, less obtrusive taste.

Usually, the meat is soaked overnight in vinegar to soften it. It may also be mixed with barbecue sauce when raw. There are a variety of marinades consisting of vinegar, honey, mustard, chili, tomato puree, and molasses. Each creates a different, heavenly flavor that is hard to put into words.

Besides beef briskets, pork ribs and large Cornish hens are preferred. A whole hog is not uncommon, though it is doubtful you would find it cooking in a backyard near you. It requires an experienced pit master to carry out such a weighty endeavor. 

Different Styles of Barbecue in the USA


The two Carolinas are the home of original American barbecue. Unlike Texas, where beef is more popular, Carolinians swear by pork. Pulled pork, to be exact, shredded or sometimes sliced.

In North Carolina, the most favored form of cooking is the whole hog. This is done in a slightly different way than briskets or ribs to manage the huge size.

Cooking is done in open pits. Since it is the whole animal cooking, the only marinating is a vigorous rubbing of vinegar, salt, and Cayenne pepper.

Oak and hickory wood are used for imparting an intense, pungent taste. This style of cooking is authentic and contains the least added flavors.

Even in North Carolina, there are two distinct styles – Eastern and Piedmont. Barbecue historians hold the opinion that the Eastern style is original among all barbecue styles. It uses lemon juice and apple cider vinegar, but no tomatoes. The Piedmont style applies tomato (as ketchup) and became more popular following World War I, as GIs returning from Europe wanted their food to taste slightly more refined.

South Carolina hotly disputes the thesis that barbecue can contain no sauce. They use a lot of mustard, and heavy and light tomato sauces while cooking and eating. This could be because of the German ancestry of many South Carolinians. The ketchup brings the meat closer to the salt-sugar taste of traditional German meat dishes.

Kansas City

Kansas City barbecue uses many different kinds of meat: beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and even fish and sausages.

It is served with a thick tomato sauce with an indulgent taste, and side dishes such as baked beans and coleslaw.

Though you can find a variety of barbecue dishes, the burnt ends are the most popular – briskets with a thick layer of fat, slow-cooked several hours, and crispy black.

Kansas City is also host to several barbecue contests, including the Lenexa BBQ Battle and American World Series barbecue. There are well over 100 barbecue restaurants, of which the best known are Fiorella’s Jack Stack, KC Masterpiece, and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que.


Trust the Lone Star State to have its own distinctive style of cooking. Texans are known to be freedom-loving, and refuse to be bound by rules invented elsewhere – from poker to roast meat.

The taste was heavily influenced by the Germanic and Czech roots of early Texans. You have to remember that in the era before automobiles and paved roads, traditions brought over from Europe stayed in place for a century.

Depending on the location, the Texan style varies widely.

In the eastern parts, the meat is cooked until it is soft and pliable. The taste is delicious since it is marinated with tomato puree.

If you are in West Texas, barbecue is done using mesquite wood and is very similar to grilling. What is the difference? Well, in grilling meat, the cooking takes an hour at most, since the flame is very intense. Barbecuing is a slower process, with much lower heat.

In Central Texas, the meat is cooked slow and long over pecan and oak wood. The only flavorings used are pepper and salt.

Contrastingly, South Texans like their barbecue to be marinated in thick molasses, which lends moistness.


Unlike other styles of barbecue, Memphis is all about pork; especially shoulders and ribs.

What makes it special? The pre-cook rub includes not only salt and pepper, but also brown sugar.

Caramel imparts a buttery taste and is quite unique. The cooking is done in a pit over hickory wood.

While cooking, it is slathered from time to time with a syrupy tomato-based sauce, and served with a side of cheese and cornbread.

Tennessee cooking is known for its versatile taste, and for being neither too sweet nor spicy. Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que serves the best barbecue in town.

Backyard Barbecue

Backyard cooking is an American pastime.

Most prefer to use charcoal in place of wood, as charcoal does not produce smoke, and is easy to handle. Some prefer to use propane, though purists would scoff at the idea.

The use of supermarket sauces such as Kraft Hickory Smoke Barbecue Sauce is used to add the smoky taste. Can you buy smoke in a bottle? Well, it’s not the real thing, but it usually suffices.

The roasted meat is served with coleslaw, potato salad, tortilla chips, and lots of beer, and is an essential part of the 4th of July celebrations, and summertime meals across the U.S.

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