Few things are more American than baseball, good old-fashioned apple pie…and, of course, barbecue. American barbecue dates back to early colonial times, but over the centuries it has evolved to become an art form.
Modern American barbecue styles and recipes vary widely from coast to coast, but the country is largely defined by four barbecue style giants. Each region boasts very different cooking methods, preferred sauces, meats and flavors, and as your resident barbecue experts, we took the time to put together this exhaustive guide to American barbecue by region. You’re welcome.
We never claimed to be impartial, so we’re starting with our hometown. If there’s one thing we know here in Kansas City, it’s barbecue. One unique feature about barbecue in this neck of the woods is that we claim no discrimination, serving mouthwatering barbecue pork, beef, chicken, turkey and even lamb and fish alike. Kansas City barbecue involves meat rubbed with spices, then slow-cooked over many kinds of wood. Barbecue sauce in this region is a thick, tomato based sauce, and can be either spicy, tangy or sweet, but the widely requested regional favorite is a blend of both sweet and spicy.
Kansas City barbecue is served with many sides, mostly southern in nature, but often with a unique regional barbecue recipe of baked beans which involves a seriously serious flavor profile of both savory and sweet.
Kansas City barbecue menus always include the famous barbecue beef burnt ends, which are cut from the point of a smoked beef brisket. Burnt ends are crusty and flavorful, and you’d be hard pressed to find a Kansas City barbecue menu that doesn’t include this regional favorite. Speaking of menu, Kansas City is also known for serving up delicious barbecue recipe offerings curated from other areas of the country without any fuss.
When we say we’re the heart of the country, we mean it.
The largest of the 48 contiguous states, Texas spans over 268,000 square miles and is home to over 27 million people, so it comes as no surprise that a wide variety of barbecue styles can be found within the borders of this southern state. Texas barbecue recipes stem from the heavy influence of Czech and German butchers in the state’s rich history.
From “slather on the sauce” to “dry as a bone”, “sweet and rich” to “some like it hot”, there’s an option – and a barbecue sauce – for everyone in the Lone Star State. Texans define their various barbecue styles by location within the state, so here is your guide to authentic Texas barbecue:
The hallmark of East Texas barbecue recipes is that they are typically wood-fired and slathered in sauce – either hot or a sweet and rich tomato-heavy blend – then slow cooked until the meat falls off the bone. Borrowing from traditional southern barbecue, East Texas barbecue is composed of a nearly equal divide of pork and beef. Most barbecue lovers here like their barbecue served on a bun, and brisket here is served chopped rather than sliced.
Folks in Central Texas also prefer wood-fired – either pecan or oak – barbecue recipes, but that is where the similarities to East Texas end. Central Texas barbecue is given a thorough dry rub, then cooked with indirect heat by using horizontal convection so the air flows laterally. The result is barbecue with a thick, perfect crust and tender, smoky meat. Barbecue sauce is considered an absolute offense, and Central Texas brisket is sliced in the way some might carve a prime rib.
Barbecue from South Texas is best known for the well-loved Mexican-American tradition of cooking meat – typically cow heads for barbacoa – in a pit formed in the ground. Sauce is welcome here, and is unique in that the traditional sauce choices are thick, savory, molasses-rich sauces that stick to any barbecue recipe.
West Texas is more commonly known as “Hill Country” to natives of the state, and is widely known as the home of “Cowboy Style Barbecue.” This style of barbecue involves a faster method of cooking barbecue meat over direct heat, most often with mesquite wood. Due to the quicker cooking time involved in this style, half chickens, pork chops, sausages and ribs are prevalent, but brisket is well loved in West Texas, too.
What regional barbecue list would be complete without a nod to The Carolinas? Authentic Carolina barbecue is usually pork, and is typically served either pulled, shredded or chopped. Carolina barbecue recipes include meat that may be rubbed with a mixture of spices, and sometimes basted with a vinegar and spice liquid during the smoking process. From there, the Carolinas split in their translation of authentic barbecue.
North Carolina’s claim to barbecue fame stems from two distinctive styles of barbecue – Eastern and Lexington. While both styles hold true to the Carolina way of pork, they are differentiated by the cuts and sauces used in each. Lexington barbecue is found in the central and west area of the state, the Piedmont region, while Eastern barbecue can be found in – you guessed it – the Eastern portion of the state.
The Lexington barbecue style is sometimes referred to as “Western” or “Piedmont” barbecue, and is known by the use of a red, vinegar-based sauce that includes red pepper flakes and various other spices. Lexington barbecue uses pork shoulder exclusively. While barbecue recipes within this region can vary greatly, the Lexington sauce is also used in the creation of “red slaw” or “barbecue slaw,” which is a coleslaw unique to the region in the incorporation of the red sauce in lieu of traditional mayonnaise. This Carolina side is most often served with hushpuppies.
Eastern style barbecue recipes are perhaps best known as “whole hog” barbecue. Where Lexington style barbecue involves only the pork shoulder, Eastern style barbecue is far less discriminatory and can include any and all portions of the hog. Eastern barbecue sauce is based with vinegar and pepper, without a hint of tomato. Eastern coleslaw holds to a more traditional recipe, with mayonnaise or salad dressing in place of the red sauce included in its Lexington counterpart.
Barbecue in South Carolina may not be quite as high profile as some of the other regions, but ask any barbecue lover what comes to mind when they hear the words “South Carolina barbecue,” and you are sure to hear about the state’s distinct Carolina Gold sauce. Carolina Gold barbecue sauce recipes can vary, but all include the famous yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and other spices. Throughout the state, different regions prefer four main sauce styles: a thinner concoction of vinegar and pepper based sauce, thick or thin tomato-based sauce, or the well-known yellow barbecue sauce.
Memphis barbecue makes up the fourth predominant barbecue style region in the United States. Memphis barbecue recipes hold fast to southern barbecue tradition in that pork is the primary meat, with most barbecue sandwiches served as pulled pork topped with barbecue sauce and coleslaw. Barbecue sauce in this region is thin and tangy, with a touch of sweetness. Lovers of Memphis barbecue are also known for more unconventional applications of delicious Memphis pulled pork, such as topping baked potatoes, salads, spaghetti, or pizza.
This Tennessee-based barbecue style also has a heavy – and delicious – emphasis on ribs. Barbecue recipes in this region involve slow cooking the meat in a pit, and ribs can be prepared either dry or wet.
Dry ribs involve no barbecue sauce in preparation, but are instead prepared with a flavorful dry rub consisting of garlic, cumin, paprika and various other spices. Dry ribs are generally less messy, and are served with sauce on the side for dipping.
Wet ribs are basted with barbecue sauce before, during and after cooking, and are a messier, although equally delicious, version of Memphis barbecue.
Are you hungry yet? We are, too! Before you go fire up the smoker, tell us in the comments which style is your personal favorite, then share this post with your friends – we promise they’ll thank you!