Low & Slow: The Ultimate Guide To BBQ Styles

Few food items resonate with the American psyche like barbecue. Consequently, few food items represent regional pride like barbecue as well. From the Texas highlands to the Carolina coast, methods of seasoning, saucing, and cooking these cuts of meat slow and low for hours on end have actually sparked friendly – and not-so-friendly – feuds amongst devotees of particular styles. Whatever the case, we can all agree that barbecue – like baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie – is something that’s strictly American in nature; born out of our history and thriving into our present day palates.

And for those of who either didn’t grow up in America’s ‘BBQ Belt’ or had the chance to taste authentic slow cooked BBQ done right, we’re truly sorry. For there’s nothing quite like an afternoon pig roast, a belly full of southern-cooked perfection, and a beer to help wash it all down. From here, we deemed it appropriate (given the season and all) to go ahead and spell out the main BBQ styles to help avoid confusion next time you’re at the counter deciding between Carolina ‘cue or Texas Brisket. It’s a tasty conundrum yes, but one that the forefathers of this delicious feast would hope you get right. Not to worry, we’re here to help.

History of BBQ


From Tough to Tasty

Believe it or not, the origins of barbecue date back to colonial times where, naturally, the core region was – and still remains to this day – bordered by Texas and Oklahoma to the West, Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia to the North, and the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast to the East and South respectively. This isn’t to suggest that this is the only region where BBQ is done well, we’re simply suggesting this region is where you’ll find the origin of the many styles available and the highest concentration of award-winning BBQ joints.

Ironically enough, the method of cooking BBQ – cooking meat for extended periods of time over low heat generated by wood – was conceived as a means to make tough cuts of meat easily consumable. The term itself is derived from the Spanish word ‘barbacoa’ which means to dry or slow roast meat to help keep it preserved. Today, the word barbecue carries with it a more cultural meaning, associated with community gatherings of family and friends over a large and fulfilling meal.

At least from the beginning, BBQ was cooked over an open flame but using indirect heat. The result was a smoky taste that soon became an essential trait to all barbecue styles thanks to meat’s myoglobin reacting with the carbon monoxide from the smoke. To this day, the humble beginnings of American barbecue can be found throughout the American South at multi-generational rib joints that have been in business for decades. They’re few and far between no doubt, but with a little research, your efforts will be rewarded ten fold.

The Wood: Up in Smoke

As a general rule, wood for smoking BBQ is broken down into two categories: smoky and sweet. And depending on where you are or what style you enjoy these are the main cuts of wood used in American BBQ.

For stronger, smoky flavors, pit masters will use mesquite, pecan, oak and hickory cuts of wood.

On the flip side, fruit woods such as apple, pear, cherry, maple, and alder result in barbecue that boasts a milder and sweeter taste that’s ideal for thicker sauces.

Memphis Style BBQ
Photo: Central BBQ


Full-on Flavor

As one of the most well-known styles of barbecue out there, Memphis is certainly one of the Kings when it comes to preparation and style. Here, the majority of what you’ll find are pork-based dishes – typically served as pulled pork or as a rack of ribs – that have been heavily smoked, dry rubbed and smothered in a tomato-vinegar based sauce.

It’s a slow smoking process here as well, typically next to a wood fire in an enclosure of sorts that allows the smoke to circulate and permeate the meat for hours on end. Seasonings for the barbecue here, prior to the application of the sauce, typically contain spices such as garlic, paprika, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. However, much like the sauce, seasonings are a topic of contentious debate amongst pit masters with each and every one forming his or her own opinion on what the best combination of seasonings should be.

North Carolina Style BBQ
Photo: Sam Jones BBQ

North Carolina

Whole Hog Cookin'

Back in the 1500s the Spanish first introduced pigs to the American southeast, whereafter the animal thrived in the environment and soon became feral in the wild. It’s no wonder then, that the majority of BBQ found in this region to this day is pork-based. Because why mess with tradition – especially when it comes to topics such as these. At least for North Carolina, BBQ in this region means roasting the whole pig over a BBQ pit then serving the meat as a finely chopped delight.

These are your classic Carolina barbecue sandwiches, topped with coleslaw and covered in a peppery and vinegary sauce. Both light and dark meat are combined here as well, yielding a drier finished product than their counterparts out west. Sauce wise, the eastern part of the state features a vinegar-based sauce complete with hot peppers, black pepper, water, and salt while the western regions add a touch of tomato puree and brown sugar to thicken things up a bit.

The Sauce: A Contentious Debate

Oh, the sauce. One aspect of BBQ hosting such a rivalry that competitions are held around the country to crown one lucky chef the high honor of concocting the “best sauce.” And just like the rub, the best of the best are often family secrets; recipes handed down through the generations with only minute iterations at a time.

Here, it’s nearly impossible to nail down any constants within a sauce since there are so many versions. However, consistent base ingredients range from clear vinegary and peppery sauces along the East Coast to mustard-based sauces in the south to thicker, sweet molasses-based sauces in the West. Some, however, swear against sauces altogether and instead use a dry rub (a secret combination of salt and spices) to prep the meat before cooking.

Photo: The Smoked Hog

South Carolina

Pass the Mustard

As is the case with North Carolina, South Carolina is also known for whole hog BBQ in which the entire pig is roasted and smoked over a pit for more than 18 hours. The result is deliciously chopped BBQ that combines both white and dark meat into either delectable sandwiches or served simply on its own with a side of ‘slaw. Barbecue – like baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie – is something that’s strictly American in nature; born out of our history and thriving into our present day palates.

Unlike their northern neighbors however, or any BBQ region for that matter, South Carolina is know for the addition of one special ingredient into their sauce: mustard. For the most part – again depending on the pit master – the remaining ingredients are constant here. That is, your vinegar, pepper, light tomato puree and seasonings. And in case you’re wondering, the addition of mustard comes from the influx of German immigrants who settled the small coastal towns between the capital – Columbia – and the coastline.

Texas Style BBQ
Photo: The Salt Lick


Where's the Beef?

If the Lone Star State has its way there would be no other styles of BBQ out there. Just Texas style. And given the state’s penchant for independence, it’s not surprising that they do their best – and succeed we should add – at standing out amongst the fray. Here, they use good old Texas beef when barbecuing, with brisket serving as the most popular cut of choice. Also, because the state is so large, we’ve gone ahead and broken it down into separate regions for easy digestion – poorly placed pun intended of course.

Central: Functioning as the most recognized style, this is old school brisket at its finest. The style here has its roots in the tradition of the butcher, where he would season the brisket with a combination of black pepper, salt, and cayenne, smoke it low and slow and slice it for the customer where they would it buy it by the pound. Here, the sauce is served on the side (if at all) but not to worry, they’re known for their flavorful rubs in these parts – easily some of the best in the country.

East: If there’s one region in this state that has the least amount of adversity to sauce it’s the east. Here, you’ll find chopped beef and pork rather than brisket along with slow cooked ribs that fall off the bone and melt in your mouth. They’re cooked through an indirect smoking method with hickory wood and lightly sauced with thick and sweet tomato-based sauces.

South: South Texas is known mainly for two things – sausages and barbacoa. In this region, hungry BBQ hunters will find smoked barbecue beef links that are fatty, juicy and seasoned heavily with garlic, paprika, and chile powder at their disposal while other BBQ joints will offer what South Texans consider the only true Barbacoa in the country, prepared by burying whole cattle heads with hot coals in BBQ pits in the ground.

West: Finally, the western part of the state – otherwise known as the Texas Hill Country – meats are commonly cooked over large pits with mesquite wood for a strong smoky flavor. It’s in this lesser known region that barbecue will resemble that of your background grill, with cuts of pork ribs, chops, and sausages taking center stage. However, beef will always reign supreme in this state, and odds are where there’s a BBQ joint here in Hill Country, beef is on the menu.

Photo: Q39

Kansas City

Where is Sauce Is Boss

Just how Texas is known for beef, Kansas City is known for its non-discriminatory policy towards BBQ. That is to say, they’ve worked to perfect the art of barbecuing to the point where just about any meat is fair game. We’re talking, pork, beef, chicken, lamb and even fish are used in traditional cooking methods here. However, there are two aspects of Kansas City barbecue that other regions simply can’t touch: burnt ends and sauce.

For those unfortunate souls who are unfamiliar with burnt ends, pay attention. Your taste buds will thank you. At each end of the brisket cut are points – typically thinner but full of marvelous fatty marbling – that cook quicker than the rest of the meat, caramelizing and crisping in the process while the whole cut is slowly smoked over wood. From here, these ends are cut into squares, doused in Kansas City’s famous sweet and strong sauce complete with fruity and spicy flavors and served by themselves alongside various fixings such as cornbread or greens.

An Ultimate Guide to Beef Cuts

Now that you’ve got the styles down, continue in you tour de meat with this guide to beef cuts where you’ll learn where practically every cut of beef is located on America’s most tasty animal.