American Barbecue Explained: Sauce, Region And More

Five barbecue myths that need busting

This July, Tasting Table celebrates the great state of American food.

There isn't a single food that Americans mythologize more than barbecue. It's almost a shock that folks manage to get any in their mouths at all, what with all the arguing over what makes it "authentic" or whether it cleaves to the particular standards of the region from whence it hails.

Just a few of the things people like to fuss over: Does beef or pork reign supreme (and if the latter, whole or shoulder)? Is mustard or vinegar sauce superior? Did it come from a gas-powered pit, or did the pitmaster haul an ax out to the woods? Pulled or chopped? Slaw topped or not?

And that mostly bodes well for the future of barbecue. The more people are talking about sumptuous, slow-smoked meat, the likelier they are to crave and seek it out (we certainly did after talking to the pitmasters about their specialties in the video above). But at the same time, some long-held notions now don't hold true, and others were inaccurate to begin with—which may get in the way of people getting the best barbecue they can. And the bottom line is: If it tastes good, it tastes good.

Here are a few myths we'd be happy to see go up in smoke.

Myth: It's got to be made in the South. There's no doubt that American barbecue's roots are historically, inextricably linked to the Native American and enslaved people in the South who were both struggling to keep their culinary traditions alive and using low, slow cooking to make the most of tough, meager cuts of meat. And it's well-documented that traveling and stationary pitmasters perfected the craft at church socials, family gatherings, political rallies and class-agnostic roadside stands across the region, using indigenous fuels and animals to create a cuisine that's distinctive to its area (dry-rubbed brisket in Texas, vinegar-and-pepper-doused whole hog in Eastern Carolina, wet or dry pork ribs in Memphis).

It's also true that nowadays you can get a killer brisket (or jerk baby back ribs or heap of smoked lamb belly) in Brooklyn, a perfectly smoked rack of ribs (and Boston butt and chicken) in Chicago and meltingly excellent pulled pork (and tri-tip and jalapeño cheddar sausage) in Los Angeles—and, yes, it still counts as barbecue. This is thanks in part to advancements in technology that allow smokers and their all-important venting systems to conform to local regulations and exist in urban areas. Pitmasters also have access to more varied meats and cuts than ever before—and ideas as well.

Pitmaster Samuel Jones pulls BBQ pork

Myth: It's a big secret that must be kept. Wayne Mueller stakes his family name on a recipe that's "so secret" he printed it on the back of the T-shirts he wears while tending the pits: nine parts pepper to one part salt. That's what he uses to rub Louie Mueller Barbecue's signature ribs and brisket, as his father and grandfather did before him. What he and other great contemporary pitmasters know is that the key ingredients in truly great barbecue are patience and sweat. It takes long, lonely hours to transubstantiate raw muscle, skin, smoke and spice into tender strands and a particular kind of gumption to do that for a living.

Though 17th Street Barbecue's Mike Mills has won countless awards (including multiple World Champion and Grand World Champion titles at Memphis in May), he's an open book about his techniques, as are many of the top pitmasters in the country who gather at symposiums, competitions, festivals and each others' restaurants to exchange ideas and sample each others' wares. "If it was easy, everybody would be doing it," Mills is fond of saying. The excellence is in the effort, rather than a hush-hush spice blend.

Myth: It's got to have a pink smoke ring. Seeing such a thing on a rib or slice of brisket is to many people the sign that excellent barbecue is nigh—and it may well be. But it's not a guarantee. The coloring can result from a chemical reaction between myoglobin in meat and nitrogen dioxide from woodsmoke, but it can also be achieved artificially with the use of sodium nitrite or other chemical cheats. And it may not appear at all, even in the most marvelously moist smoked meat. Yes, people eat with their eyes, but in this case, it may make sense to trust their tongues.

Myth: It's all about the sauce. There's no denying the knee-knocking power of a great sauce, but as Mueller says, "If people leave your restaurant talking about how good your sauce is, you failed." Sam Jones, the third-generation pitmaster of Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina, concurs. He serves his family's signature chopped whole hog (with the crisp skin mixed in) seasoned with a little salt, pepper, vinegar and hot sauce and nothing else. Though you're welcome to adjust it to your tastes once it's in your hands, he prefers you take an unadorned bite first. "Taste the flavor of the meat before you put anything on it. Taste the time and energy that went into it," he pleads.

Myth: It's got to fall off the bone. It's unclear which restaurant marketing whiz came up with the notion that rib meat ought to detach from the actual rib, but it's a pretty clear indication that it's overcooked. In fact, competitors in Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned events will get penalized by the judges if the pork goes flopping off before it's bitten into. The ideal bite comes off cleanly, with just the least bit of resistance.

Why, yes, there's an art to it—and that's our cue to tell you all about it.