It is a tribute to human ingenuity and cussedness that something as simple as barbecue, cooking meat slowly with hot smoke over a long period of time, has become such an insanely complex business, with folks from coast to coast picking favorites and disparaging the choices of those who don’t agree with them.
To help you get in on all the arguing and just maybe get some good grub down your gullet, here’s a short guide to the four major barbecue regional styles.
Just writing this, I know I’m going to get plenty of mail, as even within the various regional styles there are schisms over cuts of meat, rubs, sauces, etc. But let’s begin, shall we?
To avoid the stink of favoritism, I’m going to work in geographic order from closest to my house to farthest. Since I live in North Carolina, that means our first stop will be a barbecue pit with either a pork butt (Boston butt to you out-of-staters) or a whole pork shoulder properly rubbed and smoking slowly. In Carolina, it’s all about pork, with pulled pork being the pinnacle of barbecue perfection.
Smoking a cheap cut of pork until the gristly connective tissue melts away and the end result is succulent, flavorful meat with a kiss of smoke that’s just waiting for some vinegary, sometimes hot and spicy sauce is an art. In Eastern N.C., you’ll find whole-hog and pork shoulder barbecue most prominent, while Western N.C. ‘cue is more likely to involve the pork butts.
Rubs are a critical part of the Carolina barbecue mojo, and you would be more likely to talk Coke out of their secret formula than you would to talk a grizzled barbecue veteran out of his rub recipe. Some recipes have been passed orally from generation to generation, never once written down.
I have to take a moment to mention the mustard sauce that’s very popular in South Carolina. You might be taken aback by a yellow barbecue sauce, but there are some fantastic flavors in some of the mustards.
Let’s head west a bit to Memphis, where the humid air off the Mississippi makes the smell of smoking ribs hang in the air. If your idea of a good meal involves tearing meat from bone, you’ll find a home here. Ribs are served wet, where they are basted with sauce before, during and after cooking, or dry, where a rib rub is applied liberally and often allowed to sit on the ribs for several hours before smoking.
Each school has its adherents, and you would do well to sample liberally from both schools. The classic Memphis barbecue sauce is tomato-based, with a spicy-sweet hit that will vary widely depending on the restaurant.
You’ll even find some places that don’t smoke their ribs at all, preferring to use a commercial oven and let the rub and/or sauce do the talking. ‘Cue purists by and large avoid such modern innovations.
That said, you can make some of the best ribs you have ever tasted at home using the same method. The folks at Williamson House make a Rib Kit that contains everything you need to make insanely good baby back ribs in your oven. I haven’t smoked a single rack of ribs since I started using their method. There’s even a video on the website that takes you step by step through the process.
Farther west we come to Kansas City, home of the American Royal Barbecue and home base of one of the largest barbecue judging federations in the country. Kansas City was once the king of the stockyards, and that heritage continues in the barbecue, which embraces pretty much every sort of beast slow and stupid enough to let humans catch and eat it. A great example is Jack Stack’s Barbecue, where you can find beef, pork, sausage, chicken, lamb and turkey in various preparations. While some from other regions argue that the proliferation of meats leads to a lack of focus and thus a lower overall quality, the continued popularity of KC ‘cue would seem to give the lie to that. Nowhere does the carnivore flag fly more proudly than in Kansas City’s hallowed barbecue halls.
While rub and smoke are both important to Kansas City barbecue, the real secret is the sauce. The classic KC sauce is fairly sweet, with a tomato/molasses base, and quite thick. You will need extra napkins, Wet-Naps and quite possibly a garden hose to clean yourself up after a proper KC barbecue feast.
And now, finally, we head south, to my adopted home state of Texas, where beef brisket is king and sauce is usually very much optional.
The most recognized and imitated form of Texas barbecue is the Central Texas style practiced in Austin as well as in the Texas ‘cue capitals of Luling, Taylor and Lockhart. In this style, a properly rubbed (and occasionally marinated) whole beef brisket is smoked with tremendous slowness using smoke from pecan or oak wood. Many people suffer from the erroneous belief that mesquite is used in the process, but mesquite imparts a distinctively bitter flavor that can just flat ruin a brisket when cooking “low and slow.”
If you want a spice blend that will get you well on your way to a spicy Texas rub, the folks at DeYoung's Fore Seasons have a new Chipotle Blend that has an amazing spicy, smoky but not overpoweringly hot kick. It's outstanding on beef and can really wake up roasted chicken if you get some up under the skin and let it work its magic on the meat. Their original recipe is good on ... well ... everything. My favorite ways to use it are on oven-roasted red potatoes and grilled salmon, and it's also an ingredient in my pork rub.
If you go into a barbecue restaurant in Luling, expect to be sold beef and probably sausage, with a stack of white bread slices and sides such as beans, pickles and jalapenos. You would do well not to ask for sauce, as it is a matter of pride among many barbecue chefs that their meat speaks for itself.
If you do find a sauce offered, it will almost always be on the side. Personally, I won’t eat at a Texas place that sauces the meat before it’s handed to me. They’re hiding something. The sauce itself is actually a fairly complex and tasty affair with tomato, brown sugar, vinegar and a whole host of herbs and spices along for the ride.
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