The history of barbecue is the history of America. The tradition of cooking proteins slow and low over burning wood is one of the few techniques indigenous to the United States. Throughout the Southeast and toward the West, most states and smaller subregions have regional barbecue variations with a diverse range of proteins, cuts and sauces. As all things go, much is changing these days, with pitmasters and chefs moving around, elevating the basics, morphing their own personal styles and experimenting with different kinds of meat. And while regional styles of barbecue across the United States can vary even from chef to chef, certain overarching traditions still hold. Today we present to you our ultimate guide to regional American BBQ:
Image: Franklin Barbecue
Central Texas barbecue is the most recognized style in the state and has its roots in a meat-market ritual: a butcher seasons a piece of meat, specifically brisket, with black pepper, salt and cayenne, smokes it indirectly, slices it on a big cutting block within the customer's sight, weighs it by the pound and — ta-da! — serves the beaut right on the butcher paper. Although there's a widespread belief that Central Texas barbecue doesn't take sauce, that’s false, says Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, and author of Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. “One in the entire state — a place in Lockhart — doesn't serve sauce,” he explains. Most (though not all) restaurants will serve sauce on the side, not on the meat. Sausage — mostly beef mixed with some pork in a natural hog casing — is a big part of that custom too.
Sauce is more prevalent in East Texas, where you’re more likely to get sauce-smothered chopped beef or pork than sliced brisket, and where ribs are cooked to fall-off-the-bone consistency thanks to slow, indirect smoking, generally with hickory wood. Like sauces found throughout the state, the variety you’ll find near the Louisiana border is thick and tomato-based, with a bit of sweetness. Vaughn knows real-deal East Texas sauce when he tastes it, citing quick hacks like liquid smoke — or "the instant coffee of barbecue," as he puts it — as a common downfall that plagues certain sauces in the region.
Far Southeast Texas
Smoked beef links are the specialty in the region known as the Far Southeast, where East Texas meets South Texas. These juicy, fatty sausages are seasoned assertively with garlic, chile powder, paprika and (sometimes) cumin. Most barbecue joints in the region serve a bit of everything, but links, ribs and chicken are regional standouts.
South Texas Barbacoa
The term barbacoa is misused throughout the state as a way to describe “anything from whole heads to beef cheeks, steamed in an oven,” says Vaughn, who believes that there’s only one place in the entire state, if not the country, that still serves the real deal: whole cattle heads buried with hot coals in pits in the ground. That's Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville.
West Texas or Hill Country
West Texas (or Cowboy Style) barbecue is a slight misnomer, as it's predominantly found in the Hill Country, a large region spread throughout the center and southern part of the state. Then again, Vaughn says succinctly, “None of these styles have real strict boundaries." When meats are cooked over open pits using mesquite wood for direct heat, West Texas barbecue can almost resemble humble backyard grilling, with thin cuts like pork ribs, pork chops, sausage and pork steaks firing up quickly. Although this direct heat–style is waning in popularity, it can be found throughout the Hill Country and scattered around Central Texas. By contrast, in far west Texas (the geographic region, not barbecue region) around El Paso, you’ll almost always find beef, a mainstay, as well as half-chickens, pork steaks, sausage and goat (cabrito), cooked over indirect heat, the dominant cooking technique throughout most of the state.
When Vaughn talks about “City Barbecue,” he's referring to the new style that has emerged as restaurants around the country have melded the butcher-paper-lined-tray aesthetic of Central Texas with high-quality proteins such as brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs and sausage. The results draw influences from a variety of Southern food traditions; fried chicken, for example, is often on City Barbecue menus, even though the bird is rarely found in staunchly old-school joints. And, of course, they draw throngs of iPhone-wielding foodies willing to wait — often for hours — for a taste.
Photo: Skylight Inn
Eastern North Carolina
North Carolina is divided into two major regions. In the eastern part of the state, it’s all about smoking the whole hog over a pit, chopping it and mixing the white and dark meat together with a white vinegar–based sauce that's been seasoned with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. “My favorite is Ed Mitchell,” says North Carolina–native Elizabeth Karmel, founder of the online barbecue site Carolina Cue To Go and a regular at Big Apple BBQ. “He doesn’t have a restaurant, so you have to sweet talk him into making it for you.”
Western North Carolina
Raleigh is the dividing line between North Carolina barbecue, and Lexington is the seat of the Western style, whose "sauce has a little more depth and nuance,” says Karmel, referring to the ketchup (or another variant of tomato and brown sugar) that's added to the vinegar base. Pork shoulder, as opposed to whole hogs, is the protein of choice in this region. North Carolina's barbecue traditions don't fully extend to the Western border; Asheville, for instance, hasn't been in the game long. But there are plenty of joints around the state that offer nuanced versions of City Barbecue, along with interesting sauces, sides and desserts.
Photo: Bessingers Barbeque
South Carolina packs a larger array of regional barbecue styles than its neighbor to the north. What most Americans consider "South Carolina barbecue" hails from the Midlands, which spans from Columbia down to Charleston. That’s where you’ll find the Carolina Gold mustard sauce tradition.
The reality about the Carolina Gold backstory is somewhat different than the rumor, says Robert Moss, contributing barbecue editor at Southern Living and author of Barbecue Lover’s the Carolinas: Restaurants, Markets, Recipes & Traditions. Common folklore holds that the origins of the yellow condiment date back to the 18th century, when German immigrants first introduced it to the States. However, Moss clarifies that the mustard sauce didn't actually come around until the 1930s, long after the wave of German immigration to the Carolinas had ceased. Had it been introduced any earlier, it would have spread much wider than it did, and would be far more prevalent today — particularly in areas like Texas, where many German immigrants settled.
Still, there's likely an ancestral link. “People point to a large number of German names — like the Bessinger family — who may well have invented the mustard-style sauce and are descended from German immigrants." In the 1940s, Joe Bessinger opened a restaurant in Orangeburg County. His four sons took the style (and sauce) they learned from their father, opening multiple restaurants around Charleston and Columbia. Today, whole hogs and pork shoulders are smoked with hardwood and flavored with the sauce, a mix of mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, pepper and spices. Midland-style barbecue is traditionally served with hash — thick, gravylike pork that's been simmered with potatoes and onion – and rice.
Much like Eastern North Carolina ‘cue, the Pee Dee region, in the northeastern tip of the state, favors cooking whole hogs over wood coals in huge pits. The sauce is a vinegar-based spicy pepper mix.
Mountains or everywhere else
According to the state-sponsored South Carolina Barbecue Trail, the official third type of South Carolina barbecue is found in the mountains around Greenville. Moss doesn't really agree. He refers to the style found in the mountain region, and the heavy tomato sauces found in the south, as “everywhere else,” because there’s been so much blurring and blending over the decades. Around Greenville, light-red, tomato- and vinegar-based sauces are all the rage. Down south, around the Savannah River, you’ll find a much heavier tomato sauce.
Photo: Vandy's Bar-B-Que
It’s been said that Georgia has no barbecue style that's truly its own, but many Southerners scoff at that accusation. To Moss, Georgia barbecue means chopped pork on a plate or sandwich with a side of Brunswick stew, a thick, gravylike brew made with pork, corn, potatoes and (sometimes) lima beans. Grant Goggans, the barbecue expert behind the Southern food blog Marie, Let’s Eat, has traced at least six different regions of the state serving a wide range of their own takes on pork shoulder, ribs and chicken.
In the Savannah/Statesboro area, there’s “More of a Midland influence,” says Goggans, where pork shoulder is topped with tangy Carolina-style mustard sauce.
Around Macon, in Middle Georgia, restaurants use a mustard base that’s quite acidic, thanks to the heavy pour of vinegar and bit of ketchup. After the meat is pulled from the heat, it’s marinated in the sauce until it’s served. “I think Fincher’s might have developed original mustard sauce for that region,” says Goggans, referencing the legendary Georgia barbecue joint that's been open since 1935.
The thinner, lighter and more orange mustard sauce that was developed by The Gunther family, owners of the Smokey Pig in Columbus, is so unique that it has spread around this region, and even across the nearby state border into Alabama. Here, smoked pork is served chipped (finely chopped, marinated in sauce) or chopped (a larger cut, served dry with sauce on the side). Each plate at the restaurant comes with a side of thick, dark Brunswick stew.
Photo: Grant Goggans/Wallace Barbecue
Columbus is also the birthplace of Chicken Corner, another mustard-based sauce that was named for the restaurant where it was invented. With a healthy dose of cayenne, the "crazy-hot lava death mustard,” as Goggans jokingly calls it, is an intensely spicy condiment for stew and pulled pork. The style can be found around Columbus, and has also become a favorite in Atlanta's western suburbs, where cooked pork is often soaked in another sauce made famous at Wallace Barbecue in Austell — vinegar, Worcestershire, ketchup and pepper — and served with hand-cut fries on the side. There's some confusion about where that vinegary sauce, which is common around the region, was developed. Although it's often referred to as "Hudson sauce" after Hudson's Hickory House, Goggans maintains that "Wallace is more accurate."
Many Athens joints serve chopped pork shoulder with a vinegar-and-pepper sauce, a bit like the version in eastern North Carolina. “I don’t know why it jumped the way it did,” says Goggans. Many of these places also serve chicken mull, a creamy stew made with milk.
You can still find old-school barbecue in northwest Georgia: heavily smoked chopped pork served dry, with a sweet, vinegary, tomato-based sauce either on the side or ladled on top. “This is what Atlanta used to be like in the '70s and '80s,” says Goggans. “It’s now fading.” Now, the city features what Goggans calls “chef-ier barbecue restaurants,” with high-quality meat prepared in a wide range of styles. Brisket and fusion barbecue have become increasingly popular.
Photo: Kelly Dobkin/Big Bob Gibson's
“Alabama is another state that’s a mutt when it comes to barbecue,” says Moss. Smoked pork (including excellent ribs and shoulder) and chicken are favorite proteins, both of which are often cooked over open pits of live-fire hickory.
In the northern part of the state there’s North Carolina–style vinegar sauce used on pork. However, the region is the birthplace of the state’s iconic white sauce. The mayo-vinegar-black pepper sauce developed for hickory-smoked chicken at Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur has become the state’s most famous barbecue export — now featured on menus across the country — and its footprint in the Cotton State has expanded well beyond its Morgan County origins. “Obviously, over the years that circle has gotten bigger,” says Nick Pihakis of Birmingham-based Jim N’ Nick’s Barbecue, reaching across the state
The southeastern border shares some variations with Georgia: the Columbus-style mustard sauce, the heavy smoking. Chipped or chopped pork shoulder plates and sandwiches as well as ribs are served with a variety of sides like beans, slaw, mac 'n' cheese and collard greens. Homemade cream pies are usually offered for dessert.
While all variations of Alabama ‘cue are available in Birmingham — white sauce included — the city is traditionally known for its sweet and slightly spicy tomato- and vinegar-based sauce used for pork shoulder, butt and ribs as well as chicken and beef, most of which are pre-seasoned with a rub. Sauces in Magic City are thick and heavily spiced with flavors like black pepper, cayenne, brown sugar and dry mustard, evidence of the city’s large Greek influence. Sliced pork was the most popular variation back in the day, but that has given way to finely chopped and coarser pulled pork. Pork plates are popular, but the city’s pork sandwich is distinct: chopped or pulled pork, red sauce and sliced pickles on a toasted bun. “All those flavors come together and make the barbecue sandwich in Alabama very unique,” says Pihakis.
“Alabama identity of barbecue is kind of weird, because there are so many barbecue restaurants and different pockets and styles in the state,” says Pihakis. Like most of the regions mentioned, Tuscaloosa doesn’t have a strictly defined style of ‘cue, but the area is home to nationally acclaimed rib joints that are worth mentioning. Slabs are often served with spicy, mustard-scented vinegar sauce.
Photo: Grant Goggans/Moonlight Bar-B-Que Inn
“Kentucky got tagged as the mutton state,” says Moss, adding that the mature sheep meat can be found in northwestern counties around Owensboro. Yet that label is inaccurate, says Dr. Wes Berry, an English professor at Western Kentucky University and author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book. “When I published the book, I ate at 160 barbecue places in the state, only 18 served mutton regularly,” he says. That number has decreased since then, meaning that fewer than 10% of barbecue joints offer the rare meat.
Whole sheep are broken down, then slow-smoked in old hickory-fired pits and served sliced or chopped with a dark black Worcestershire-infused sauce, or "dip," as it's known, as well as mutton burgoo, a stew that often accompanies barbecue.
In neighboring Henderson and Union counties, mutton (or pork) is often chipped, meaning the drier, smokier exterior bark is chopped into tiny shreds, and coated with a Worcestershire or allspice-scented sauce. It’s served in a sandwich with raw onions and sliced dill pickles on rye or white bread at Peak Bros. BBQ in Waverly and Thomason’s Barbecue in Henderson. The latter combines bark from the Boston butts into the mix as well.
“West of I-65 is a barbecue hotbed,” says Berry. Dry pork, usually whole shoulder or Boston butt, is cooked in closed masonry pits elevated high over hickory coals for an extended period of time (20–24 hours), pulled or chopped much like they do in western North Carolina, usually served with some kind of thin vinegar sauce.
Sauces, seasoning and serving method vary from county to county and restaurant to restaurant. Some places serve pulled pork on hoe cakes (Bar-B-Q Shack in Hopkinsville). A few counties serve barbecue on toast, essentially pulled pork between two slices of bread warmed on a panini press (Harned’s Drive In, Paducah). Quite a few places in the western part of the state smoke rolls of bologna, already cooked sugar-cured hams (“city hams,” says Berry) and turkey breast that pick up the “essence of the dips that they baste the meats with,” he adds.
In the south central part of the state, right across the border from Nashville, Monroe County (and a handful of surrounding counties) is famous for its unique pork steaks. Frozen Boston butts are sliced into thin ovals on a bandsaw, which are grilled above hickory coal-fueled open pits for about 30–45 minutes, then slathered in a thin, sweet and peppery sauce (also referred to as dip). “It soaks up a lot of smoke and flavor in a brief cooking time,” says Berry. Vinegar slaw is often served on the side.
Where most regions are best known for one, maybe two, different cuts or proteins, Kansas City offers a bit of everything: pork, beef, chicken, lamb, mutton and yes, even fish. It’s best known, however, for two things: burnt ends and sauce. The former is made from the point of the brisket, which is full of fatty marbling and juicier than the rest of the cut, that's slowly smoked over wood. “It’s something you don’t get when you go to other places,” says Rob Magee, a barbecue competition champion many times over and the chef-owner of Q39 in Kansas City. The city's famous sauces are thick and perfectly sweet, with a strong tomato base and some vinegar that result in a fruity, spicy flavor.
St. Louis is also a big sauce city: per capita, Gateway City residents consume more barbecue sauce than any other in the country. Yet while the city has its namesake ribs and a love of sweet sauce, until recently it didn’t have much in the way of traditional St. Louis barbecue restaurants like its neighbor across the state. “What there wasn’t was a distinctive St. Louis style of barbecue — with characteristic flavors, textures, meats and techniques found here and nowhere else,” says Steven Raichlen, award-winning author of The Barbecue! Bible and host of Steven Raichlen’s Project Smoke. Nowadays, meats in St. Louis tend to be grilled, then sauced, rather than dry-rubbed and slowly smoked. Like Kansas City, St. Louis favors sweet tomato-based varieties in varying degrees of viscosity. Another difference between the two Missouri cities is that the latter focuses on all things pork, hailed far and wide for its namesake rib cut, but also home to babyback ribs, rib tips, pig snoots, pork shoulder and pork steaks. The latter are “very unique to St. Louis,” says Raichlen. “There are only two areas in the country that do pork steaks.” (The other is Monroe County, Kentucky.) Shoulders are cut on a meat saw into finger thick steaks, usually grilled, then stewed in a foil pan with a sweet, tomatoey sauce, like locally created Maull’s Genuine Barbecue Sauce.
Photo: Caroline Allison/Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint
As the proud host of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held annually at the citywide Memphis in May festival, Blues City is also Tennessee's most famous barbecue town. Because Memphis has been a highly populated river city for centuries, its style of ‘cue has been adapted to the urban landscape. Unlike in rural West Tennessee, where whole hogs are slow-smoked with wood, charcoal briquettes are regularly used in Memphis ‘cue, sometimes with wood added to the mix. “You just don’t have that much space,” says Pat Martin, Memphis native and award-winning pitmaster of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint.
The tight density has also affected which cuts of meat (i.e. pork) dominate the city’s scene. Instead of whole animals, the city’s pitmasters favor smaller, primal cuts like Boston butts, but “Memphis is known as a rib town,” says Martin. Those ribs are best known for their now ubiquitous rubs, a blend of seasonings applied to the racks when they’re pulled off the heat. The famous rubs were influenced by the city’s large Greek population and made famous by Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, many of which combine a mix of salt, garlic powder, oregano, paprika and other spices. Ordered “dry” with a dusting of the pitmaster’s proprietary recipe, the ribs are almost tacky when it gets moistened from the fat. Rubs are a newer tradition in Memphis barbecue, “especially in the last two decades,” says Martin. “Memphis in May started around 1980, that’s when rubs started getting heavier in use.”
Ribs can also be served “wet” in the area’s vinegary, tomato- and mustard-based sauce or “muddy” with a light dusting of rub topped off with a layer of barbecue sauce. The other local specialty, slow-cooked Boston butt, is served pulled on plates or in sandwich form with coleslaw.
Meanwhile, in West Tennessee, about 100 miles away from Memphis, smoked whole hog dominates the barbecue scene. The style is comparable to what one would find in eastern North Carolina, but the hogs are heavier (190–200 pounds), smoked with wood over an open pit for about 24 hours, basted with a sweet vinegar and tomato mop and pulled. The juicy meat is often served on sandwiches with slaw.
Toward the Appalachians, whole hams are smoked, sliced, thrown on top of flat top griddles and coated with thick, sweet tomato-based sauce, then “tossed like a hibachi,” says Martin. The style is not as popular as it once was, but it’s still served at the most famous East Tennessee institution, Ridgewood Barbecue.
Where to try it: Ridgewood Barbecue, Bluff City
“In Nashville, traditionally, barbecue was always served on a hoe cake, like a cornbread pancake,” says Martin. It’s said that those savory rounds, made from just cornmeal and water, got its name from slave practice of cooking them for lunch on the back of a hoe over an open flame. (Rod Cofield, author of the paper How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got its Name claims the origin probably dates back to 17th century England, when the word hoe was a colloquial term for griddle.) Regardless of the word’s inception, in Music City, it’s a common base for smoked pork shoulder coated with a sweet vinegar-based sauce.
California Central Coast
Born from California’s Spanish heritage, Central Coast or Santa Maria–style barbecue is rooted in Mexican vaquero culture. “Santa Maria is a very different kind of barbecue,” says Raichlen. Beef, mainly whole tri-tip or sirloin seasoned with just salt, pepper and garlic salt, is grilled over open red oak embers on a grate that is lowered and raised by a flywheel, somewhat similar to South American asado. After a couple hours, when meat is done, it's thinly sliced. “I call it the steak that thinks it’s a brisket,” Raichlen adds. It’s usually accompanied by salsa, grilled garlic bread, local pinquito beans, green salad and macaroni salad.
Image: Flickr/Rick Engelbrecht
Of all the dishes Hawaii is known for — poke, Spam musubi, loco moco — kalua pig is the most iconic. The term kalua means “to cook in an underground oven,” a method of food preparation that has been in use since the islands’ pre-contact days (pre-European contact, that is). An underground pit, known as an imu, is layered with wood, which is lit on fire, then covered with weathered volcanic rock. Once the rocks are red hot, the remaining wood is removed, then banana stumps, banana leaves and ti leaves are placed atop the searing stones to protect and flavor the food. “The old timers that are really, really good with an imu, know just how much wood to put in,” says Mark Noguchi, chef-owner of the Pili Group. “By the time the rocks are ready to go, there’s almost nothing to take out.”
Whole pig is one of the most common food items to cook in an imu these days — in the past, dog was served to royalty — but pork shoulder, mutton, turkey and, even, corned beef are cooked underground with produce like breadfruit, taro or yams. The whole thing steams for somewhere between six to 12 hours. “You get a subtle flavor of smoke,” says Noguchi. "We don’t do the whole slow and low thing."
Pipikalua, Hawaiian-style beef jerky, another well-known fire-cooked dish, was developed post-contact, during the islands’ ranching era. When vaqueros from California were brought over to train native Hawaiians to manage cattle, those mainland cowboys taught local ranchers how to dry meat. “Hanging around a campfire you learn how to cook,” says Noguchi. “All those forms of preservation is post Western contact.”
Because the islands are so ethnically diverse, Hawaii’s barbecue culture now incorporates a lot of multicultural influences. Hot smoking from the continental U.S. has proliferated, especially near the military base. Yakitori and yakiniku is extremely popular. High-end restaurants, like Senia in Honolulu’s Chinatown, serve smoked meats and seafood. “Anything over a fire is huge,” Noguchi adds.