Barbecuing the way that Americans know, meat cooked over a grill or pit, covered in spices and basting sauce, originated in the Caribbean. The word barbecue comes from the language of a Caribbean tribe called the Taino, whose word for grilling on a raised wooden grate is barbacoa.
In the U.S., barbecue originated from the colonial era when Western European settlers observed Native Americans smoking and drying meats over an open flame. As settlers spread out, barbecue traditions evolved in pocket communities, and regional barbecue styles took shape. In the U.S., there are four prominent BBQ regions, each with their own techniques, rubs, sauces and cuts of choice.
Often referred to as the “world’s barbecue capital,” barbecue has been prevalent in the Kansas City area since the early 1900s when Henry Perry began serving barbecue with his secret dry rub from an inner-city pit. Kansas City barbecue distinguishes itself for featuring a broad array of meats, from beef and pork to lamb, chicken, turkey and sausages.
Kansas City is also known for its burnt ends, which are charred tips of beef brisket and a popular staple on barbecue restaurant menus. Typically the meats are dry-rubbed then slow-smoked over hickory wood and served with another quintessential element of Kansas City barbecue, which is its sauce. KC-style sauce includes ketchup and molasses as well as brown sugar, to create a tangy and sweet sauce with a thick consistency.
Carolina barbecue is all about the hog, where an entire hog is cooked for 12 to 24 hours. North Carolina offers two distinct regional barbecue styles. In the eastern part of the state, smoking a whole hog over hickory wood is the preferred method.
Carolina-style whole-hog cooking requires a moistening mop sauce with a spicy vinegar-based sauce made from vinegar, salt and red pepper before being chopped. In the western part is the Lexington style, which revolves around pork shoulder as well as pork ribs that are smoked to let the skin caramelize and form a crispy layer, then sliced or chopped. The preferred sauce is the vinegar-based sauce from Eastern Carolina but with tomato and brown sugar added.
South Carolina barbecue is another style that revolves around whole hog cooking, but extra slow and over low temperatures with several distinct barbecue sauce flavor profiles such as “Caroline Gold,” which is a mustard-based sauce with brown sugar and vinegar.
While beef and chicken are on menus, pork is the foundation of Memphis-style BBQ, especially pork ribs and shoulder. Memphis-style pork shoulders are dry-rubbed, slow-smoked, pulled, and served with thin, tangy vinegar and tomato-based Memphis style BBQ sauce on the side.
Memphis-style BBQ prepares ribs in two ways: wet and dry. When prepared wet, the ribs are slathered with a sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce before and after cooking. When prepared dry, they are rubbed with a spice mix that usually contains salt, cayenne, paprika and garlic powder before cooking and served without sauce.
In Texas, barbecue is all about the beef. In Texas, you’ll find four distinct regional barbecue styles: Central, East, West and South. Central Texas, which is the most well-known Texas-style, involves smoking beef brisket over oak or pecan, seasoned with salt and pepper, and barely any barbecue sauce. East Texas prefers hickory wood and finely chopped beef or pork slathered with a tangy, tomato-based sauce. West Texas is where you’ll find more of the cowboy style of barbecuing that is done over an open fire and direct heat. Finally, South Texas style is based on the barbacoa traditions, where slow-cooking is done in a covered pit.
While Kansas City, Memphis, Carolina and Texas are the four major styles of American BBQ, there are countless micro barbeque regions throughout the United States such as St. Louis, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia. Each region has its own unique flavor profile of seasonings, sauces, meats and signature dishes based on some of the popular local ingredients and taste preferences.