Barbecue 101

Unless you already know, you likely have no idea how intricate barbecue culture in America is — really!

In select regions of this great land, barbecue means more than pouring a bottle of sauce on a slab of meat and grilling it up on a hot summer day. Frankly, it’s more than just cooking at all — it’s a way of life, or at least a sub-religion.

Naturally, when you have folks in disparate regions of the country living, eating and breathing this grill-inspired religion, there’s gonna be a battle about which region produces the best ’cue. We did our homework, scouring the map to find out why each region thinks it reigns supreme, so you can cheat off us. It is, after all, only a 100-level class.

The Carolinas

Perhaps you learned in grammar school that America had two states called Carolina: North and South. Apparently, when it comes to ’cue, there is also Western Carolina too. Carolina sauce is generally thin and watery, tangy, and peppery. Depending on the Carolina region you’re talking about, the sauce can be golden yellow (from a mustard base), or clear and vinegar-based; it might contain floating flecks of cayenne. The sauce cuts through the fat in the ribs and butt and soaks into the meat while cooking because of its tangy, vinegar base. Oh, and all about the pork — cows need not apply.

NORTH CAROLINA: The salt and vinegar used in this region give the slow-roasted pork its “pop,” while peppers add spice and heat; and sugar mellows things out a bit. In N.C., they also cook over coals rather than wood; heat up the whole hog at once, and then chop it all together.

SOUTH CAROLINA: The whole hog, or just choice cuts, are smoked low and slow. Then ingredients like pecan, hickory, peach and applewood are combined with spicy vinegar and mustard sauces. The meat is slow-cooked at a low temperature for several hours, seasoned with a dry rub that caramelizes on the pig. Throughout the process, the sauce is used to baste the hog.

WESTERN CAROLINA: Also known as Lexington-style or Piedmont barbecue, is centered around Lexington, N.C., a town of about 20,000 people and nearly 100 barbecue joints. This style is dominated by wood-smoked pork shoulder, ranging from sliced to very finely chopped, and served with finely minced cabbage. Lexington-style barbecue sauce, mixed with the cabbage to create barbecue slaw, is tangy and sweet.


Texas barbeque focuses on beef. There might be a little chicken, or even pork ribs tossed in as sort of garnish, but in general it’s beef, beef and more beef. No squeal, no cackle.

Beef brisket, and beef ribs, cooked with a dry mustard and chili powder-based rub. Sauces tend to be thin and bold, more like a basting or mop sauce, and are heavy with flavor from various kinds of ground chiles, cumin, onion, hot sauce, meat drippings — even beer or coffee. Texans smoke their meat using a dry rub versus liquid smoke and it is rarely sauced or “mopped” during cooking. If you want your barbecue “wet,” then the meat gets dunked into the mop bucket of sauce just before plating. The sauce is tomato-based, but tends to be spicier than other styles.

Kansas City

Burnt ends equal barbecue gold in Kansas City, which is known as the melting pot of barbecue. Walk up to a counter and you can find just about anything. Pulled pork, pork ribs, pork steak, beef brisket, smoked mutton, smoked chicken and sliced turkey; all are typically served with the city’s signature barbecue sauce — the thick, sweet, tomato- and molasses-based concoction that has become an American standard.

The list of legendary barbecue joints in K.C. is known around the country. K.C. Masterpiece, Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, Jack Stack and others are hot spots for tourists, but the locals know the best stuff comes from the back half of a gas station convenience store called Oklahoma Joe’s; so we are told.


In Memphis, it is all about the ribs. Memphis-style ribs are almost always baby-back ribs as opposed to “St. Louis Style Ribs,” which means they are spare ribs. Memphis barbecue calls for ribs to be cooked over indirect heat with a tangy and sweet dry rub. Memphis sauce tends to be tomato-and-vinegar based, with a sweet flavor and slightly runny consistency. The sauce is usually served on the side and intended for dipping. The rub is sprinkled upon the dry ribs before serving.

Now walk, don’t run and accidentally trip over something, to your nearest barbecue joint to show off your newly gained knowledge. Note, this class is only for beginners, so be careful who you start showing off to; real barbecue connoisseurs enjoy arguing over barbecue almost as much as they enjoy eating it! 

Bryan Gottlieb is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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