When cooking for friends and large groups that aren’t as addicted to barbecue as yours truly, I am often asked what makes certain regional styles of barbecue different from another. You may be familiar with Carolina vinegar-based sauce but do you know the difference between barbecue from East Texas and Central Texas? Today I’m taking a high-level look into what makes each of these regional styles unique and how they differ from one another.
Eastern North Carolina barbecue is the original barbecue in the United States. Traditionally, it involves an entire pig roasting over a pit full of hot coals. While the pig is roasting, it’s basted thoroughly with the true Eastern North Carolina sauce: vinegar, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. This vinegar-based sauce contains no tomatoes, sugar, or sweeteners. Once the meat is done cooking, all parts of the hog are chopped up by hand to maintain its moisture and it’s seasoned with the same vinegar-based sauce before serving.
Barbecue in Western North Carolina is a tad different. Following their German ancestors, they roast only the shoulder of the pig, which is dark meat with a layer of fat over it. It is roasted over hot coals for about 10 hours with no basting. When it is ready, the skin and fat are pulled off the pig and the meat is pulled apart. The large chunks of meat are sliced and small pieces are chopped up. Western North Carolina even added their own twist to the basic Eastern sauce. Ketchup and sugar are added to the vinegar-based sauce, which is dressed over the meat before serving.
South Carolina barbecue picked up some of its sister state’s style: 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 taste. This mustard-based sauce is drizzled over chopped or sliced pork.
Tender and moist pork is what you’ll find in Memphis. What makes this style of barbecue so unique is the seasoning and cooking technique. The pork is covered with a dry rub that is a blend of several spices and it generally includes 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. Traditionally, Memphis-style pork is usually eaten dry, with no sauce; however, one can choose to eat it wet (with barbecue sauce). A typical Memphis-style barbecue sauce is vinegar-based with hints of tomato and 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. The many different and diverse regions that make up the state have resulted in a variety of approaches to barbecue.
Barbecue in Central Texas is influenced by German and Czech settlers who owned butcher shops and wanted to preserve their meat. There is no sauce on the meat, just a simple rub of salt and pepper before the meat is cooked in a pit.
South Texas is known for its barbacoa, which was introduced to the area 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 often uses beef cheeks which have a different texture than most meats. You’ll find the texture of the fat in beef cheeks resembles that of 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 traditionally prefers a very saucy ‘cue, and the freed slaves brought that tradition with them to East Texas, where you can find meat that’s been chopped, not sliced, and drenched with sauce.
As for West Texas, this 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 is known for 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, spicy or tangy. St. Louis spare ribs have the sternum, cartilage, and rip tips removed to give the rack a traditional rectangular shape that you can spot it from a mile away.
Chicken and pork are the most popular meat choices in Alabama, but the real distinguishing feature is the 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 most popular for barbecue, the Alabama white sauce is also an all-purpose base for dips, salad dressing, and sandwiches.
While we each may have our favorite, the wide variety of barbecue styles across the US present a fun and exciting challenge; it’s always a treat to find, taste, and maybe even try your hand at cooking a new style.