The Best Kinds Of Barbecue In The US

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One thing is certain; Americans love barbecue! The tradition of barbecue runs deep in our culture with a history that dates back to Colonial times. In fact, George Washington mentions attending a barbecue in Alexandria, Virginia during the year 1769.

Don’t confuse grilling with barbecue. Non-foodies (and some Yankees) may think that meat slathered in barbecue sauce is barbecue. But, genuine barbecue is cooked “low and slow” over indirect heat, and usually over a wood fire. The result is a layered and complex flavor of smoke, meat juices, fat, and the spices or rub that has been added to the meat.

The History Of Barbecue

Pork was the primary ingredient in our barbecue tradition. Spanish explorers brought pigs with them as an easy to raise and captive source of meat. The pigs however had other ideas and quickly escaped, bred, and turned feral in the wild.

Barbecue was well established in the American South by the 19th century, where pigs were prevalent throughout the region. This outdoor cooking technique allowed large quantities of food to be prepared easily and was perfect for large gatherings in the South such as church gatherings, fairs, and neighborhood picnics.


Memphis Barbecue

Memphis barbecue is famous for two different dishes: ribs, which come either wet or dry, and pulled pork barbecue sandwiches. Wet ribs are brushed with sweet tomato sauce during and after cooking. Dry ribs are seasoned with a mixture paprika, black pepper, garlic, cumin, oregano, sage, and parsley before cooking. Barbecue sandwiches in Memphis are traditionally chopped pork served on a bun and topped with coleslaw. Memphis aficionados will consider the sauce optional but not the dry rub.

North Carolina Barbecue

Two styles of barbecue dominate North Carolina. In Eastern North Carolina you’ll find barbecue is made from an entire pig. It’s barbecued, then meat from the entire pig is chopped, and mixed together. Eastern North Carolina barbecue uses a thin sauce made of vinegar and spices, usually cayenne pepper. Throughout the western parts of North Carolina barbecue is made from pork shoulder. A vinegar-based sauce is added that includes varying amounts of tomato. Western North Carolina barbecue is also called Lexington barbecue, which gets its name from the city of Lexington.

Kansas City Barbecue

Kansas City offers a wider variety of meat. But the signature ingredient is their sauce. Most Kansas City barbecue is smoked with a dry rub, then sauce served at the table. Kansas City style sauce is thick and sweet with tomatoes and molasses as their base. There are a few exceptions such as Gates less sweet sauce and Arthur Bryant’s sauces, which are notably spicier than others. K.C. Masterpiece remains a favorite throughout the city.

Texas Barbecue

Texas is cattle country and Texans are passionate about their beef. Eastern Texas' relative proximity to Kansas and Tennessee puts it in the Southern style pulled-pork camp, but in the western region of the Lone Star State, you're likely to find mesquite-grilled "cowboy-style" brisket. West Texas “cowboy-style” barbecue is distinguished by cooking directly over mesquite and frequently includes goat and mutton as well as beef.

California Barbecue

As the west was settled, many groups of people brought their style of barbecue along. California style barbecue gets its cues from the Spanish and Mexican fiesta traditions, and California Indian tribes. The emphasis on outdoor living and healthy eating is probably the most significant influence on California barbecue.

The styles of California barbecue are as varied as its influences. Chicken, beef, ribs, sausages, seafood, and pork are all smoked or barbecued with anything from a tomato based sauce, or a Mediterranean influenced olive oil, to a wine or herb based sauce. Really, the sky is the limit for southern California chefs and pit masters. Locally grown fresh ingredients continue to play a major role in the evolving California style of barbecue, which can include influences of French, Italian, and Mediterranean cuisine.

Of special note is the Santa Maria style of barbecue originating on the central coast of California. It is typically tri-tip beef rump, sometimes cut into steaks, and combined with chicken, sausage, and pork. Santa Maria barbecue is cooked on bed of native red oak, delivered on a portable towed trailer and found at farmers markets, county fairs and outdoor events throughout California.

Pick your favorite style of barbecue based on a love of sweet and savory sauces or spicy rubs and vinegars. Combine sauces with dry rubs to create a huge variety of barbecue styles on any number of meats.

Last Updated: August 1, 2012
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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