I had a conversation today with two gentlemen about styles of BBQ. Unless you’ve traveled to the different areas of the United States and seen or eaten it yourself you may not know that there are fairly distinct regions of barbecue, differentiated by the meats used, the cooking styles and, most notably, the sauces.
The four most commonly defined styles are Memphis, Carolinas, Kansas City and Texas. This list is by no means definitive as there are plenty of other regional styles of barbecue but these constitute the four main styles generally referred to. [Clicking on the image above will expand the map large enough to make the text readable, it goes more in depth than I will]
Memphis barbecue is generally thought of as pork ribs and, to a somewhat lesser extent, pulled pork. What’s interesting about this style is it’s mostly known for “dry barbecue” which is meat that has no sauce on it (but usually has some served on the side). Memphis does have a style of sauce distinct to the region, though, which is tomato and vinegar-based, usually thin and both tangy and sweet.
In the Carolinas pork is the predominant meat, both ribs and pulled pork. In Eastern North Carolina a style of barbecue called “whole hog” is common, where the meat from all parts of the pig are chopped and mixed together. This differs from Western North Carolina where generally only the shoulder meat is used. And although South and North Carolina tend to be lumped together in describing this region, the two states are generally noted to have very different sauces. North Carolina is actually known for two different styles of sauce, both vinegar-based and tomato-based versions depending on where in the state you are, whereas in South Carolina a mustard-based sauce called “Carolina Gold” is common.
The Kansas City region (my personal favorite) isn’t so much known for a particular meat used as it is known for its sauce. A tangy, sweet tomato-based sauce heavy on the molasses is the norm here with most commercially produced sauces widely available in North America generally conforming to this style. One item generally available in this region that is somewhat unique is “burnt ends”, the end pieces of beef brisket and pork shoulder cut into chunks and served either alone or as a sandwich. Burnt ends are not actually burnt but are called this because their surface is mostly composed of “bark”, the blackened somewhat-crispy outside of smoked meat that has been exposed to the greatest amount of heat and smoke.
Texas barbecue is all about the beef, including gigantic beef ribs that are so massive an order generally only contains a few of them. There are four general regions of Texas barbecue differentiated mainly by the types of wood used: hickory, oak, pecan and mesquite (mesquite being really unique to Texas barbecue and quite an interesting flavor). For sauces, the tomato-based variety is the norm here with some areas being known for fiery versions common in areas with historically close ties to Mexico.
Again, this list should not be considered definitive or inclusive but, hopefully, will give you some kind of idea about what things to expect from barbecue restaurants when you travel.