What Are The Different Styles of Barbecue?

What Are The Different Styles of Barbecue?

Is There Any Cuisine More Uniquely American Than Barbecue?

Enjoyed at family and community gatherings in all 50 states, barbecue brings people together no matter which of its many styles is being prepared.

Smoking meat is an ancient practice that’s taken different forms on every continent, but barbecue is a style that Americans can truly call their own. Our guide to different styles of American barbecue gives you a region by region guide on what makes each style unique.

Brief History of Barbecue

Thirty years ago, very little was available on the history of barbecue. More recently, food historians have worked hard to uncover the history of barbecue. Our American love for barbecue has roots in the Caribbean.

The word barbecue is a derivative of barbacoa, a term used by the Caribbean Taino Indians describing the method of cooking sliced meats over an open flame.

Barbecue in America began during the Colonial era in Virginia. Colonists observed Native Americans smoking and drying meats over an open flame. Then the British put their own spin on it by basting the meat, using mostly vinegar or butter to keep their meat moist while cooking over an open flame. Years later, as slaves from the Caribbean were brought to the U.S., they brought their own flavors and spices. They also refined the process in as much as they were allotted lower quality meats that required a long working time to be tasty.

North and South Carolina, Georgia, the Appalachians, and into Tennessee and Kentucky. From there Barbecue moved westward as Americans began to settle the West. By the early 19th century, barbecue hit Texas (where it obviously made a big impression) then moved all through the Southwest before reaching the Pacific coastline. Today, barbecue is popular nationwide, but remains most culturally significant in the South and West.

The practice has been influenced by many regional cultures from Mexican cuisine to German Barbecue sauces. With differing styles across the country, barbecue reflects the country’s iconic diversity.

These differences can get barbecue lovers up in arms defending their local style as the only “real” barbecue. However, we feel that there are so many variations on barbecue that it’s impossible to define which one is best. We love them all!

Barbecue in America began during the Colonial era in Virginia

All barbecue employs similar meat smoking strategies, but it utilizes different wood, animals, cuts, barbecue sauces, and accompaniments. Many Southerners relied on pigs for meat, since pig farming was cheap and relatively easy, so pork remains the most commonly barbecued meat.

In Texas, cattle farming reigned supreme, and beef barbecue remains dominant there to this day. Five of these barbecue traditions include Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, the Carolinas, and Alabama. These regions make up what is known as the “barbecue belt,” the area of the U.S. where barbecue has a prominent and rich history. Let’s take a look at each of these styles.

Texas Style

Texas barbecue is unique among the barbecue belts for featuring beef instead of pulled pork. Though this might spark a spirited debate among barbecue enthusiasts, Texas barbecue comes from a long tradition of cattle farming by German immigrants. They used beef brisket for smoking because this cut features a high fat content that doesn’t dry out during long cooking periods. Beef sausage and short ribs are also popular. However, this is a huge state that contains many different cultures, and its barbecue reflects that.

The most iconic Texas barbecue, the one that people are most likely to imagine when they think of smoked meat in this state, comes from central Texas, where the meat is smoked for 6 to 12 hours and served plainly, without barbecue sauces. This style comes from Czech and German immigrants. 

The other regions of the state have their own famous traditions. West Texas is known for “Cowboy style” barbecue which involves direct heat. It may also involve other animals like goats or mutton. 

South Texas features plenty of Mexican influenced dishes. In South Texas, they often take the head of the cow and wrap it in agave leaves, then cook it in a pit. The end result is added to various types of tacos.

East Texas, on the other hand, is influenced more by the Southern states. Barbecue is often served as chopped meats on buns with hot sauce rather than by itself. You’ll also find pork on the menu here.

Texas barbecue centers on simplicity, using mostly salt and pepper, while frowning upon barbecue sauce.

They used beef brisket for smoking

Memphis Style

While your first thought of barbecue may lead you to Texas or the Carolinas, Memphis, Tennessee, is home to one of the country’s richest smoked meat traditions. Like other barbecue capitals of the Southeast, Memphis barbecue is all about pork, specifically pork ribs and pork shoulder with pulled pork being the most popular iteration.

The meat is heavily and slowly smoked using a dry rub, which usually consists of salt, black pepper, garlic, onion, cayenne, paprika, oregano, and celery seed. It may then be served wet or dry, and as pulled pork or as a rack of ribs. Dry ribs are considered a unique Memphis specialty, rubbed with a spice mixture with sauce on the side, though wet ribs are also enjoyed.

These ribs are basted during smoking and again right before serving. They feature a sweet tomato- and vinegar-based barbecue sauce. Memphis barbecue is considered to be definitive of the whole state of Tennessee, and it’s a destination for many barbecue lovers.

Eastern parts of Tennessee, however, are more heavily influenced by Carolina style barbecue. In Memphis you’ll find pulled pork barbecue all over the place, even on foods like pizza and pasta.

Not just the place where your Amazon packages ship from, Memphis is one of the barbecue capitals of America.

Memphis barbecue is all about pork

Kansas City Style

In the northern part of the barbecue belt, Kansas City Barbecue reigns supreme. Barbecue masters serve all manners of delicious meats, including pulled pork, beef, sausage, and chicken.

Perhaps because of its strategic location, the area draws on several other barbecue traditions and isn’t particularly loyal to one meat or cut. It has seemingly always been this way, since the area has always had plenty of livestock available due to its status as an important railway hub next to two major rivers.

Whichever meat is used is cooked slow and long over hickory wood. It’s slathered in a rich tomato-based sauce that features molasses for extra sweetness. Unlike in some other regions, the sauce is absolutely vital to the dish.

Kansas City is also famous for its use of burnt ends which are exactly what they sound like, the charred bits from the ends of the basket. Ribs and brisket are also popular. You can find the meat served alongside Southern classics like coleslaw and baked beans with bits of meat.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming Kansas City Barbecue stands for all Missouri when it comes to barbecue. Over in St. Louis they have their own style, but Kansas City is considered one of the national capitals of barbecue.

The barbecue capital of Kansas City isn’t even in Kansas, but this deceit doesn’t stop them from having some of the best barbecue in the country.

It’s slathered in a rich tomato-based sauce

North Carolina

North Carolina consists of two main traditions: Eastern and Western. They’re separated by Route 1 which divides the state vertically from Raleigh. Both feature pork, but the preparation and serving style are quite different.

In the East, the whole pig is smoked and served chopped, with white and dark meat mixed in one meal. Since the skin is included alongside the meat, the resulting dish is savory and satisfying.

Food historians think this style of barbecue is most exemplary of the original styles of barbecue brought to the U.S. via the Carribean. Eastern style barbecue is served with classic side dishes like cornbread, coleslaw, and boiled potatoes. The meat is served with a vinegar-based sauce that features hot peppers.

In western North Carolina, barbecue usually features pork ribs or front leg shoulders. It’s often served on sandwiches. The sauce here is also vinegar-based, as in the East, but has some additional ingredients including tomato puree and brown sugar. The style is also known as “Lexington style.”

In both the East and the West, the sauce is rarely served on the meat or sandwich, but instead served as a dip on the side mixed with the coleslaw. Both varieties will have you coming back for seconds or thirds.

North Carolina barbecue is all about tradition and it shows.

the whole pig is smoked and served chopped

South Carolina Style

In the northern part of the barbecue belt, Kansas City reigns supreme. Barbecue masters serve all manners of delicious meats, including pork shoulder, beef, sausage, and chicken.

Perhaps because of its strategic location, the area draws on several other barbecue traditions and isn’t particularly loyal to one meat or cut. It has seemingly always been this way, since the area has always had plenty of livestock available due to its status as an important railway hub next to two major rivers.

Whichever meat is used is cooked slow and long over hickory wood. It’s slathered in a rich tomato-based sauce that features molasses for extra sweetness. Unlike in some other regions, the sauce is absolutely vital to the dish.

Kansas City is also famous for its use of burnt ends which are exactly what they sound like, the charred bits from the ends of the basket. Ribs and brisket are also popular. You can find the meat served alongside Southern classics like coleslaw and baked beans with bits of meat.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming Kansas City stands for all Missouri when it comes to barbecue. Over in St. Louis they have their own style, but Kansas City is considered one of the national capitals of barbecue.

The barbecue capital of Kansas City isn’t even in Kansas, but this deceit doesn’t stop them from having some of the best barbecue in the country.

If you are looking for some true South Carolina BBQ, you need to try chef Orchid’s Famous BBQ (the Chocolate BBQ Baby Back Ribs are an under-rated delight)

Alabama Style

In Alabama the focus is on pulled pork, ham, and chicken. This area usually uses the ribs, shoulder, or butt of the pig, all of which are slowly smoked over hickory wood. The meat is served chopped, pulled or sliced in a sandwich bun with coleslaw and, only in Alabama, with a dill pickle.

However, Alabama barbecue draws from several other types of regional traditions due to its diverse range of cultural influences. Depending on where you go in the state, you’ll find more of Eastern, Northern, Western, or coastal influences, and the style of barbecue will reflect that.

Scottsboro residents enjoy Carolina-style vinegar and coleslaw, while in Birmingham almost every style of barbecue including Texas beef is present.

Still, barbecue has its own unique take in this state. Sandwiches in Alabama often feature a whte sauce which is made with mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, horseradish, and cayenne.

This unique concoction is often featured on chicken and pork shoulder, and most prominently found in Decatur. It’s the brainchild of Big Bob Gibson, a barbecue chef who owned Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur and created the famous sauce in 1925. Barbecue was, in fact, Alabama’s first real convenience food.

Typical Alabama barbecue is smoked over hickory or pecan wood. Just don’t forget that it’s all about the pride down there, as everyone and their mother will tell you which barbecue is best.

enjoy Carolina-style vinegar and coleslaw

Some Final Thoughts

You may not normally be a history buff, but discovering local barbecue is a great way to explore the roots of each one of these states. Locals are passionate about their regional styles for a reason: this food is emblematic of what makes an area unique, and at this point, it’s even part of the local identity. The diversity of this cuisine is as American as it gets, and the best part is that anyone can dig in no matter where you come from.