While debates rage over which state makes the best barbecue, let's face it: Most smoked meat is pretty tasty. How that meat is smoked, however, does vary from place to place. Each barbecue element—wood, meat, cut, rub, sauce—adds up to entirely different traditions, from the smoked brisket of Texas to the whole hogs of the Carolinas.
Not sure where you stand on the great 'cue debate? Don't know your wet ribs from your burnt ends? We're here to help.
To understand North Carolina barbecue, you have to split the state in half. In the east, you'll find whole hogs on the smoker, whereas western Lexington-style barbecue smokes just the shoulder. Eastern barbecue is served chopped with a vinegar-based sauce, while Lexington-style is often served on a sandwich with a tomato-based sauce.
South Carolina is also famous for whole-hog barbecue, which locals enthusiastically serve with a variety of sauces: a vinegar-based sauce similar to North Carolina's, a heavy tomato, a light tomato and a mustard sauce (aka Carolina Gold). In fact, a good chunk of the southern part of the state is known as the Mustard Belt, thanks to the regional affinity for this sauce.
Central Texas is perhaps most famous for brisket smoked over oak and served without sauce, either in slices or on a sandwich. Ribs are of the pork variety. And rounding out the so-called trinity of Texas barbecue are hot gut sausages (spicy, rough-ground beef sausages spiked with plenty of black pepper). In South Texas, you'll find more mesquite-smoked barbecue, while East Texas is known for its chopped pork and beef sandwiches.
Variety is the hallmark of Kansas City barbecue—everything from beef brisket to pork ribs to chicken to sausage. But the city’s famous ‘cue spots are perhaps best known for burnt ends: fatty nubs of brisket that are smoked until they're deep, dark and incredibly tasty. Kansas City smokes with hickory wood and serves everything with a thick, sweet sauce.
Memphis is pork country, where they serve heavily smoked pulled pork and either wet or dry ribs: Wet is sauced and then smoked for a sticky-finger experience, while dry is covered in a rub before smoking. Memphis is also home to one of the most famous barbecue competitions in the country, Memphis in May.
Alabama serves up chopped-meat sandwiches with either pork or chicken, but what it's really famous for is its white barbecue sauce. What makes it white, you ask? Mayonnaise combined with vinegar, lemon juice, black pepper and sometimes horseradish.
Western Kentucky is all about mutton, which is smoked with hickory and served with a black Worcestershire-based sauce. In other parts of the state, pulled pork and thinly sliced pork shoulder are also common.
This month, we're taking you Beyond BBQ into the deep, dark, drool-worthy corners of the 'cue world, from Seoul to South Carolina. Smoke will get in your eyes (and your cocktail) as we explore the best pits, tips, roasts and rigs—you might even see a vegetable or two along the way.
Paula Forbes is the author of The Austin Cookbook, coming spring 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @paulaforbes.
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