Asking where to find “real BBQ” may be the best way to start a good-natured food fight in America. People have strong feelings whether they are on team Kansas City, Texas, Memphis or North Carolina. Those four styles of BBQ aren’t the only barbecue methods, but they’re the majority in the U.S. Here’s what you need to know about each.
Kansas City: They Have Their Own Barbecue Society
Kansas City lays claim to one of the top four styles of BBQ like Chicago with pizza and Boston with baked beans. The culinary tradition has resulted in a bucket-list-worthy collection of barbecue restaurants throughout the city, which embraces barbecue as part of its tourist trade. There’s also a Kansas City Barbecue Society that holds judging classes and barbecue competitions nationally and worldwide, all in the pursuit of smoky goodness.
The events are a place for barbecue enthusiasts to meet and mingle. Some of the competitions pay substantial cash prizes and draw contestants from around the country. A fellow named Henry Perry brought barbecue to KC in the 1920s. He smoked and served meats from an outdoor pit next door to his streetcar barn. But he didn’t establish any particular style for BBQ.
In fact, the main distinction of Kansas City BBQ is that a vast selection of meat makes it onto the menu. That includes beef, pork turkey, mutton and sometimes fish. There’s always going to be KC-style sauce, whether the method is slow-cooking, grilling, smoking or a combination. The local sauce is tomato-based and sweet, with spicy and tangy aspects, depending on the establishment or cook.
North Carolina BBQ: Vinegar’s the Saucy Secret
It’s not so much a North-South argument since Kansas City is in the Midwest. But tempers can flare when people pit North Carolina barbecue against its sweet-sauce relative from KC. North Carolina favors pork for barbecue and serves it in chunks, shredded, chopped into smaller pieces, or thin-sliced. The Carolina style allows for a dry rub if desired, but all the meat is smoked.
But what really gives Carolina BBQ its distinction is what the Southerners call a “mop.” Basically, the technique calls for “mopping” the meat with a combination of spices and vinegar while it smokes on the hardwood. Within Carolina barbecue are two distinct styles. In addition to the mop, the Eastern North Carolina camp also serves a thin sauce made with vinegar and simple spices.
North Carolina BBQ purists use just vinegar with a smidgen of cayenne, just enough to give it some zip. Western North Carolina barbecue uses only pork shoulder, so it’s mostly dark meat. And while it would be heresy on the other side of the state, Western North Carolina isn’t above noodling with the barbecue sauce recipe by adding a bit of tomato via sauce, paste, or even ketchup.
Memphis Style BBQ: Ranks High with Ribs and Rubs
Memphis, Tennessee is not just home to the blues and the birthplace of Elvis. Memphis also makes a mean barbecue, with patience as one of the main ingredients. Memphis BBQ beef or chicken are part of the menu at the city’s restaurants, diners, and, in more recent years, its fleet of food trucks. But the more typical and revered Memphis meat is pork, meaning pork ribs and pork shoulders.
Another Memphis signature is slow cooking the meat in a pit. “Wet” refers to the sauce cooks apply as a marinade, a baste, and as a final brush after the meat comes off the heat. Diners just eat them like that, without adding more sauce. That would mess with the complex, wonderful balance of meat-to-sauce the cooks established.
As for dry rub ribs and shoulders, Memphis is renowned for them. A rub is just a mix of salt and other spices. Some of them are a proprietary mix people guard and hand down from generation to generation. The rub draws out the meat’s juices, and in Memphis, it takes away any need for eating sauce on the barbecue.
Texas: So Big It Has Four Styles of BBQ
The “Don’t mess with Texas” motto extends to the colossal state’s barbecue offerings. They get touchy if you confuse their slow-cooked meat or the big shebangs they throw to eat it with those dinky gas grill hamburger cookouts. But even with all the beef BBQ heritage, Texas can’t settle on one type of BBQ. Instead, there are four styles within the state including:
- South Texas BBQ: This method has a slow-as-molasses sauce that makes the meat super moist. The pitmaster bastes the South BBQ with the stuff as it cooks.
- Western Texas BBQ: They method is cowboy-style, with the meat meeting direct heat from a mesquite wood fire.
- Central Texas BBQ: Aficionados employ a stylized spicy dry rub and love their indirect heat cooking methods.
- East Texas BBQ: It may not have inspired the first claim of “fall off the bone” tenderness in BBQ lore, but it’s kept up that reputation. The secret? They don’t just slather barbecue sauce on the finished product, they start East Texas BBQ with a marinade in the sweet, tomatoey stuff.
These are the four styles of BBQ every foodie needs to know. It helps to know the food style of the place you visit. Even if you don’t go there, knowing how they BBQ certain foods can help you order at restaurants, too. So, if you’re a barbecue lover, you’ll know exactly what to order from the menu.