This article was created in collaboration with National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Barbecue holds a diverse meaning across different regions of the United States. From smoky Texas brisket to mouthwatering Memphis ribs, each area boasts its own unique culinary tradition. Let’s delve into the six iconic barbecue styles found across the country:
- Alabama – Home of the White Sauce
In the northern part of Alabama, barbecue aficionados revel in a distinct tradition known as white sauce. While the concept of hot mayonnaise might raise eyebrows, it astonishingly infuses the meat with a rich tanginess absent in typical tomato or vinegar-based sauces. The original recipe, credited to ‘Big Bob’ Gibson, a former railway worker turned pitmaster, consists of mayo, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and horseradish. Over time, other chefs have added their own twists, incorporating elements like mustard or pickle juice. Beyond chicken, this mayo-based delight finds its way atop turkey, salads, and fries.
- Memphis – Rib Haven
When it comes to Memphis-style barbecue, pork ribs take center stage. These succulent ribs come in two variations: “wet” and “dry.” Wet ribs are generously basted and smothered in a tomato-based barbecue sauce, while dry ribs are coated in a delectable seasoning rub enriched with garlic powder, paprika, oregano, and other aromatic spices.
- North Carolina – A Tale of Two Barbecues
North Carolina finds itself divided in a barbecue battle that spans its eastern and western regions. Along the Atlantic coast, whole hogs are cooked over coals, chopped, and mixed with a vinegar-based chili sauce. Meanwhile, in the west, Lexington-style barbecue features solely pork shoulder, slow-cooked over coals, chopped, and served with a sauce blending vinegar, ketchup, and chili.
- South Carolina – The Birthplace of Barbecue
South Carolina proudly claims the invention of American-style barbecue, with pork as its chosen meat. Typically, whole hogs are cooked over hardwood coals. In the central part of the state, pitmasters generously douse the meat with “Carolina gold,” a tangy condiment made of yellow mustard, apple cider vinegar, cayenne, and a hint of honey, molasses, or brown sugar for a touch of sweetness.
- Kansas City – The Barbecue Hub
Although primarily located in Missouri, Kansas City earns its title as the “World Capital of Barbecue,” hosting around 100 barbecue joints. Unlike other regions, Kansas City’s barbecue scene doesn’t focus on a particular protein or technique. Instead, it showcases a fusion of Southern barbecue styles under a thick, luscious tomato-and-molasses sauce. Don’t miss the opportunity to savor burnt ends—a delectable treat consisting of double-smoked, caramelized chunks of fatty, charred brisket.
- Kentucky – A Mutton Tradition
In western Kentucky during the 1800s, mutton took the spotlight due to the region’s wool industry. Farmers perfected a technique to tenderize the older sheep, smoking the meat over hickory and basting it with water, vinegar, salt, and hot peppers. Today, this traditional barbecue style remains popular, though the preferred cut is typically from the shoulder. Modern variations may incorporate Worcestershire sauce and garlic into the flavorful sauce.
This article was published in Issue 20 (summer 2023) of Food magazine by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, please click here (available in select countries only).
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about barbecue styles
What are the different regional barbecue styles in the United States?
The United States boasts several distinct regional barbecue styles. Here are the main ones:
- Alabama – Known for its tangy white sauce, often used on pit-roasted chicken.
- Memphis – Famous for its pork ribs, available in “wet” (with a tomato-based sauce) or “dry” (with a flavorful seasoning rub) variations.
- North Carolina – Split into two styles: the eastern coastal region favors whole hogs with a vinegar-based chili sauce, while the western part focuses on pork shoulder with a vinegar, ketchup, and chili sauce.
- South Carolina – The birthplace of American-style barbecue, with whole hogs cooked over hardwood coals and served with “Carolina gold,” a tangy mustard-based sauce.
- Kansas City – Known as the “World Capital of Barbecue,” Kansas City features a wide range of barbecue styles under a thick tomato-and-molasses sauce.
- Kentucky – Embraces a unique tradition of smoking and basting mutton with a flavorful sauce that includes vinegar, hot peppers, and other ingredients.
What is Alabama white sauce?
Alabama white sauce is a unique mayonnaise-based sauce that is a hallmark of barbecue in Alabama. It consists of mayo, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and horseradish. The sauce is primarily used to slather pit-roasted chicken, infusing it with a rich tangy flavor.
What makes Memphis-style barbecue ribs special?
Memphis-style barbecue ribs are renowned for their mouthwatering flavors. These ribs come in two variations: “wet” and “dry.” Wet ribs are generously basted and slathered in a tomato-based barbecue sauce, while dry ribs are coated in a flavorful seasoning rub that includes garlic powder, paprika, oregano, and other spices. Both styles offer a delicious and distinct taste experience.
How is barbecue different in North Carolina’s eastern and western regions?
North Carolina showcases two distinct barbecue styles. In the eastern coastal region, whole hogs are cooked over coals, chopped, and mixed with a vinegar-based chili sauce, resulting in a tangy and flavorful combination. In the western part of the state, Lexington-style barbecue focuses on pork shoulder, slow-cooked over coals, chopped, and served with a sauce that combines vinegar, ketchup, and chili. Each region offers its own unique take on North Carolina barbecue.
What is Kansas City known for in terms of barbecue?
Kansas City has earned the reputation as the “World Capital of Barbecue.” Unlike other regions, it doesn’t have a specific protein or technique dominating its barbecue scene. Instead, Kansas City is known for its diverse range of barbecue styles that come together under a thick tomato-and-molasses sauce. One must-try delicacy is the burnt ends, which are double-smoked, caramelized chunks of fatty, charred brisket.
What is the preferred choice of barbecue in Kentucky?
Kentucky has a unique barbecue tradition centered around mutton. Historically, the region’s wool industry led to the prominence of mutton on the dinner table. Farmers tenderize the meat by smoking it over hickory and basting it with water, vinegar, salt, and hot peppers. The modern adaptation of this tradition typically focuses on using pork shoulder, and the sauce may include Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and other flavorful ingredients.