A BBQ overview for National Grilling Month

Because July is National Grilling Month, it seems appropriate to discuss the difference between grilling and barbecuing, and barbecuing and a cookout.

Barbecue is more than a sauce or anything that comes off a grill. Technically, barbecue is a method of cooking just like grilling. The difference between the two is the length of time and the amount of heat.

Barbecuing is long slow cooking (think 8 hours or more to cook the meat, such as ribs, pork shoulder and brisket) that is done over low heat (180 to 250 degrees F). Grilling is a faster, more direct method of cooking and is usually done at a higher heat (temperatures that may exceed 550 degrees F). When someone says that they are barbecuing hamburgers or hot dogs, they are mistaken because they are actually grilling. Also, barbecuing is done with charcoal or wood, not gas. Grilling can be done with charcoal or gas.

What’s difference between a barbecue and a cookout? It’s usually an issue of regional terminology. For example, when a southerner says, “y’all come over for a barbecue” it most likely will mean that you will chowing down on ribs, pulled pork and traditional sides (coleslaw, banana pudding and sweet tea). Northern folks tend to use the term BBQ, barbecue or barbeque for a cookout that most likely will involve burgers and hot dogs.

Most experts believe the cradle of ’cue is the Carolinas, where whole-hog cooking evolved over centuries. There are at least three other widespread American styles: Memphis, Texas, and Kansas City. The differences among regional styles are the sauces and types of meat.

Kansas City barbecue is slow smoked over a variety of woods and then covered with a thick tomato- and molasses-based sauce. The KC metro area is renowned for barbecue as it has more than 100 barbecue restaurants, and I had the honor of visiting one of them, Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q, when I was in Kansas City.

Kansas City barbecue is characterized by its use of a wide variety of meat — pork, beef, chicken, turkey, mutton and sometimes fish — and an equally wide variety of methods of preparation. Slow-smoking — traditional barbecue — is the most common method, but dishes cooked by other means, such as grilled chicken, also can be found on the menus of local barbecue restaurants. Just about any type of barbecued meat served in the country’s other barbecue capitals, from Carolina pulled pork to Texas brisket, is served here, though burnt ends — the crusty and flavorful tips of a beef brisket or pork — are distinctive to the city.

As in St. Louis, barbecue sauce is an integral part of Kansas City barbecue. The sauces found in the region are tomato-based, with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles. Most local restaurants offer several sauce varieties but the staple sauce tends to be both spicy and sweet. Ribs are mostly pork, but also come in beef varieties and can come in a number of different cuts.

Like many southern varieties of barbecue, Memphis-style barbecue is mostly made using pork, usually ribs and shoulders, though many restaurants will still serve beef and chicken. Memphis-style barbecue is slow cooked in a pit and ribs can be prepared either “dry” or “wet.” “Dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub consisting of salt and various spices before cooking, and are normally eaten without sauce. “Wet” ribs are brushed with sauce before, during, and after cooking.

Barbecue is a traditional style of preparing beef, which is considered the cuisine of Texas. Texas barbecue traditions can be divided into four general styles: East Texas, Central Texas, South Texas, and West Texas. The Central and East Texas varieties are generally the most well known. Additionally, in Deep South Texas and along the Rio Grande valley a Mexican style of meat preparation known as barbacoa can be found. The word “barbacoa” in Spanish means barbecue though in English it is often used specifically to refer to Mexican varieties of preparation.

Generally speaking, the different Texas barbecue styles are distinguished as follows. In the East Texas style the beef is slowly cooked to the point that it is “falling off the bone”, typically over hickory wood, and marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce. In the Central Texas style the meat is rubbed with spices and cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood. In the West Texas style the meat is cooked over direct heat from mesquite wood giving it a somewhat bitter taste. The South Texas style features thick, molasses-like sauces that keep the meat very moist. The barbacoa tradition is somewhat different than all of these. Though beef may be used, goat or sheep meat are common as well (sometimes even the whole animal may be used). In its most traditional form barbacoa is prepared in a hole dug in the ground.

Carolina barbecue is usually pork, served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced. It may also be rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid during smoking. A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw.

Two styles predominate in different parts of North Carolina. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is normally made by the use of the “whole hog,” where the entire pig is barbecued and the meat from all parts of the pig are chopped and mixed together. Eastern North Carolina barbecue uses a thin sauce made of vinegar and spices (often simply cayenne pepper). Western North Carolina barbecue is made from only the pork shoulder, which is mainly dark meat, and uses a vinegar-based sauce that includes the addition of varying amounts of tomato. Western North Carolina barbecue is also known as Lexington barbecue, after the town of Lexington, North Carolina, home to many barbecue restaurants and a large barbecue festival, the Lexington Barbecue Festival (road trip!).

South Carolina has three regional styles. In western parts of the state, along the Savannah River, a peppery tomato or ketchup-based sauce is common. In the central part of the state (the Midlands), barbecue is characterized by the use of a yellow “Carolina Gold” sauce, made from a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and other spices. In the coastal “Pee Dee” region, they use the whole hog, and use a spicy, watery, vinegar-and-pepper sauce. In the Piedmont area of the state shoulders, hams, or Boston butts are used.

While less prevalent than the other Southern styles, Virginia barbecue is a fair mixture of Carolina and Memphis barbecue. The traditional meat is pork (often Virginia ham) or chicken, although more gamy meals contain venison or squirrel. Unlike Carolina barbecue, the texture of meat is sweeter and finer. However, it does contain the smoky blend of Memphis barbecue. The key ingredients are bourbon or wine, vinegar, peppers, corn, and a tomato-based sauce.

And then there’s Kentucky, which has one of the most unique traditions when it comes to barbecue in the South. In the western portion of the state, mutton is the meat of choice as pitmasters smoke whole mutton shoulders over cinderblock pits of coals, using hickory, oak, and sometimes sassafras. This region favors a Worcestershire based sauce, often referred to as “dip.” In the south central part of the state, “shoulder” is the choice meat. This refers to sliced pork shoulder thin sliced and smoked over live coals for 45 minutes to an hour. It is sauced a vinegar and pepper sauce, and often served on bread.

Perhaps more distinctive than Kentucky barbecue is Alabama-style as a white sauce was concocted at legendary barbecue joint in the state in the 1920s to go with barbecued chicken. It has since spread to other meats. The white sauce is a mix of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Regardless of your favorite style and terminology, have a great summer and dig in!

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3 thoughts on “A BBQ overview for National Grilling Month”

  1. Some folks will debate “which” BBQ is the “best” (Kansas City, Carolina, Texas, etc)

    The simple answer is, they ALL are.

  2. Pingback: Barbecue/grilling author Steven Raichlen stops in KC on book tour – BBQGrillsGalore.Com

  3. Pingback: Geografia do BBQ | All You Can Eat Ribs

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