An Introduction to Southern Barbecue

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Our first human ancestors began cooking meat over an open flame about 1.8 million years ago. But in the past million years or so, we’ve started to take barbecuing to the next level. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Southern barbecue.

Keep reading for our brief guide on the basics of Southern barbecue, from where it started to all the different types that you can find across the country today.

What Is Southern Barbecue?

Southern barbecue is a popular way of cooking meat. It refers to the technique of cooking various cuts of meat, especially beef or pork, low and slow over a source of indirect heat. Usually, this means smoking the meat.

There are different popular forms of Southern barbecue that can be attributed to various regions in the Southern United States. The main differences in preparation are usually in the types of meat used, the seasoning mixes, preferred sauces, and the type of wood used to fuel the barbecue.

The Origins of Southern BBQ

Although we associate barbecue strongly with the United States today, the cooking technique had a bit of a roundabout journey before it reached this part of the North American continent. Spanish explorers brought barbecue to the United States after observing this means of cooking on various Caribbean islands.

Indigenous tribes on these islands would cook whole pigs over an indirect flame for long periods of time. The Spanish termed this “barbacoa,” and continued the cooking practice as they traveled north to what is now the United States. Barbecue spread to the then very young American colonies, and it’s stuck ever since.

Pork is the main staple of Southern barbecue, and that’s in part due to the fact that pigs were, for a long time, a major staple of the Southern diet. Pigs were cheap to raise, and they required little maintenance, so farmers mostly let them fend for themselves until it came time for slaughter.

Unlike our pigs today, the pigs in the pre-Civil War era of the South were much leaner, driving Southerners to cook the meat low and slow in order to tenderize it. Then, since this was such an arduous process — butchering, cooking, cleaning — Southerners would gather with their family and friends to share the burden. “Barbecue” became a social gathering, not just the word for the grill.

The different styles of Southern barbecue stem from different immigrant groups that settled in various regions of the South.  

Different Types of Southern Barbecue

When it comes to differentiating the styles of barbecue, it comes down to the seasonings and the sauces. You may see some different cuts of meat as well, but it’s really all about the flavor.

Carolina Barbecue

Truthfully, you can split this style of barbecue down even further into the North Carolina style and the South Carolina style. Overall, though, this is one of the oldest styles of barbecue.

In North Carolina, the principal meat is pork. It can be served shredded, chopped, sliced, or as pulled pork.

In the Eastern style of North Carolina barbecue, the whole hog is used, and the meat is chopped and served alongside the skin. It’s served with a vinegar-based sauce that’s tangy and spicy.

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In the Lexington style, or the Western part of North Carolina, they cook up barbecue ribs and pork shoulder to make the best pulled pork sandwich. The sauce here is thick and tomato-based, and it’s more of a dip than a true sauce. 

Moving to South Carolina, we have two more distinct styles of barbecue: Pee Dee style and Midlands style. Like the Eastern style in North Carolina, they use the whole hog in Pee Dee style barbecue and serve it with a vinegar-based sauce. In the Midlands style, the focus is on the pork shoulder, and it’s served with a mustard-based sauce.

Kansas City Barbecue

In Kansas City, you’ll find a variety of meats served in this style. But, regardless of whether it’s beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or sausage, the meats here are cooked low and slow over hickory wood.

There are a couple of aspects of Kansas City barbecue that really make it stand out. One is the sauce. It’s ketchup-based and packed with molasses and other spices for a thick, sweet, and smoky final product.

Kansas City is also famous for its burnt ends, which are the charred bits that are cut from the ends of smoked brisket. Barbecue ribs are also popular.

Texas Style Barbecue

Like Carolina barbecue, there are a number of different styles in the overarching moniker of “Texas barbecue.” Beef is especially popular here, particularly brisket, and they tend to use woods like oak, hickory, and mesquite for smoking.

In the Central-Texas style, meat is dry rubbed and smoked on pecan or oak wood, then served in slices. In the East-Texas style, on the other hand, pork is more popular, and it’s served chopped with a thick, sweet tomato-based sauce.

The South Texas style has a lot of influence from Mexican cooking, and they tend to use cheaper cuts of the cow such as the head or the tongue. And the West Texas style, sometimes called the cowboy style, applies more direct heat to the meat while cooking. 

Memphis Style Barbecue

In this style of down-home cooking, you’ll find mostly pork ribs and pulled-pork sandwiches. The meat is usually rubbed with a dry spice mix before smoking and cooked over hickory wood. People seek out Memphis barbecue not for the sauce or the seasoning but for the tender, falling-apart meat.

Alabama Style Barbecue

Like Kansas City, Alabama will serve up a variety of meat, all of which is slowly smoked over hickory wood. It’s served in a bunch of different ways, but the stand-out is the white barbecue sauce. The base is made of vinegar and mayonnaise, and it’s a popular glaze for a whole barbecued chicken.

Put Your Southern BBQ Knowledge to the Test

Next time you come across smoked brisket, barbecue ribs, or pulled pork, see if you can figure out what style of southern barbecue you’re eating. With all of this information, you’ll be sure to get it on the first try. Remember, it really comes down to the seasonings and the sauces.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out more of our food and drink blogs for similar content! 

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