Guest blog written by Why I Grill Ambassador, Matthew Eads of Grillseeker.
When cooking for friends and large groups that are not as addicted to barbeque as yours truly, I’m often asked what makes certain regions’ BBQ style different than another. Most everyone is familiar with the traditional Carolina vinegar based sauce, but most don’t know the difference between Central Texas and East Texas styles of BBQ. If you’d like to have some fun and introduce a regional spin on your next BBQ, read on for a high-level look into what makes each region unique and how they differ from one another.
Eastern North Carolina barbecue is the original barbecue in the United States. It’s not unusual to find an entire pig roasting over a pit full of hot coals in this region. While the pig is roasting, it’s basted thoroughly with the true eastern North Carolina sauce: vinegar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes are the foundation of this tangy sauce. Over time, the sauce has been modified with the addition of brown sugar and even a little ketchup. Once the pig is done, all parts of the hog are chopped up by hand to maintain its moisture and seasoned with the same vinegar-based sauce before serving.
Barbecue in western North Carolina is a tad different. Following many residents’ German ancestors, they roast only the shoulder of the pig, which is dark meat with a layer of fat over it. It’s roasted over hot coals for about 10 hours with no basting. When it is ready, the skin and fat are pulled off and the meat is pulled apart. The large chunks of meat are sliced and small pieces are chopped up. This is where the twist on traditional Eastern Carolina sauce comes in. Ketchup and sugar are added to the vinegar-based sauce, and it is dressed over the meat before serving.
South Carolina barbecue picked up some of its sister state’s barbecue style by roasting an entire hog or just the shoulder. What makes barbecue in South Carolina stand out is their unique mustard-based sauce. You might see bright yellow barbecue sauce or orange barbecue sauce. The color varies depending on how it was made. Along with mustard are vinegar, salt, pepper and a sweetener such as honey or sugar to reduce the mustard’s strong acidity. To serve, drizzle some mustard-based sauce on chopped or sliced pork.
Tender and moist pork is what you’ll find in Memphis. What makes barbecue in Memphis so unique is the seasoning and cooking style. The pork is covered with a dry rub that is a blend of several spices, including plenty of paprika, giving the meat its signature red color. Then, it’s smoked low and slow to ensure flavorful and tender meat. Another method used during the cooking process is mopping, where water is added to the dry rub. This thin sauce mixture is “mopped” onto the meat every 30 minutes to maximize flavor and tenderness. The traditional Memphis-style pork is usually eaten dry, with no sauce. However, one can choose to eat it wet i.e., with barbecue sauce. A typical Memphis-style barbecue sauce is vinegar-based with hints of tomato. It can be served on top of pulled pork or on the side of pork ribs.
While pork is a popular choice in the Carolinas and Memphis, beef is king in Texas. There is a different spin on barbecue styles depending on the region.
Barbecue in central Texas is influenced by German and Czech settlers who owned butcher shops and just wanted to preserve their meat. There is no sauce on the meat with just a simple rub of salt and pepper and cooked on a pit.
Meanwhile, south Texas is known for its barbacoa, which was introduced by Mexican workers near the border. Traditional barbacoa is a cow’s head wrapped in damp maguey leaves buried in the ground and left to cook overnight for 12 hours or more. Today, however, barbacoa is used often for beef cheeks, which have a different texture than most meats. You’ll find the fat in beef cheeks resembles partially dried rubber cement but the flavor is intense.
Barbecue in east Texas was influenced by freed slaves who settled in the area after the Civil War. The Carolina region is traditionally that of very saucy ‘cue, and the freed slaves brought that tradition with them to east Texas. You can find meat that’s been chopped, not sliced, and drenched with sauce.
As for west Texas, it is the rawest form of barbecue you can get. Often known as cowboy style, the meat is cooked over mesquite and gets the more direct heat than all other cooking methods in Texas.
St. Louis barbecue is known for their spare ribs, which are cooked then drenched in barbecue sauce. The sauce used in St. Louis barbecue is the same each time: sweet and tomato-based. You can find it thick or thin, or spicy and tangy. St. Louis spare ribs have the sternum, cartilage and rib tips removed to give the rack a traditional rectangular shape so you can spot it from a mile away.
Chicken and pork are the most popular meat choices in Alabama, which is known for its white sauce. It is a tangy mayonnaise-based sauce used to marinate, baste and dress the meat once it is done. There are no tomatoes or mustard in this barbecue sauce, just your basic mayonnaise, vinegar, salt and pepper. Its color ranges from white to putty, and its consistency varies from thick and creamy to thin like milk. Even though it is popular for barbecue, the Alabama white sauce is also all-purpose for dips, salad dressing and sandwiches.
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