What we now refer to as “barbecuing” is the oldest known cooking method. After man learned to create fire, cooking over an open flame wasn’t far behind, so outdoor BBQ cooking was born. The first barbecuing tool was most likely a stick with a sharp end, and the very first barbecue probably consisted of simply holding a piece of skewered meat or a fish over a fire. Of course – some people prefer this method of cooking over the latest Weber bbq, but some of us have moved on.
Through experience and trial and error, cooking techniques improved. Rustic spits were invented, onto which large pieces of flesh were suspended high above the fire or burning coals and turned manually to enable even cooking. Humans also built simple frames of sticks and twigs over near hot coals to hold meats – the first “grills.”
He eventually learned about indirect heat using containers made from animal skins, and eventually clay pots and on to iron and steel utensils, which form the basis of our bbq cooking techniques today, along with that wonderful invention – the smoker – which is key to many types of modern-day American BBQ cooking. And there are a lot of different ways of cooking barbecue. The competition between the various types does not quite reach the intensity of the Civil War, but it comes close sometimes. I would be hard pushed to choose between Texas and North Carolina bbq, but they are definitely not the same.
BBQ Cooking in the United States
We Americans just love BBQ cooking. It’s a regular ritual in some parts of the country, and in others, it’s a good excuse to enjoy a get-together with family and friends. What does the verb “barbecue” actually mean, and where did it come from? Most scholars agree that “barbeque” came from the West Indian word “barbacoa,” which means “to cook slowly over an open fire or hot coals.” Actually, even modern dictionaries don’t agree on the exact meaning of barbecue. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word as “to roast or broil on a rack or revolving spit over or before a source of heat,” while The Free Dictionary describes the words as “to cook outdoors on a barbecue grill.” Okay…that doesn’t help much. What, specifically, is a “barbecue grill”? Does that mean barbecuing can’t be done indoors? And to make matters more confusing, some dictionaries provide a second meaning for “barbecue” as a verb – usually something like ”to cook in a seasoned sauce.” Aha! So that would mean barbecue cooking can be done indoors, right?
Specific definition aside, I think we all understand the concept of BBQ cooking. Even so, barbecue means different things to different people, depending on which region of the U.S. you live in. “Barbecue” to someone in Georgia or South Carolina doesn’t mean the same thing as it does to someone in Texas or California. And even when the basic concept, the type of meat cooked, and the cooking methods are the same, there can be a big difference in sauces. Join me for a tour of BBQ cooking across America!
Barbecue in the Southeast
In the Southeast, barbecue is all about the pig. Lovely, juicy, tasty, succulent pig. As a matter of fact, American pigs owe their popularity to Southerners and to the South. The first pigs in what is now the United States were brought by explorer Hernando de Soto. When he arrived in Tampa Bay in 1539, his inventory included thirteen pigs. Within just three years, those thirteen pigs had obviously been very prolific – the number of swine then stood at almost 800. Some of the pigs escaped, as pigs are wont to do, and they became feral. The rest were kept for breeding or were eaten or traded for other goods. The popularity of keeping pigs spread rapidly across the South.
More pigs were brought to the South by Sir Walter Raleigh, when in 1607, he brought European swine to Jamestown. An adult female hog, or “sow,” can begin having piglets when she reaches a year old. Most references state that litters usually include 8-12 piglets, but we’ve had several sows give birth to and raise 19 piglets each, with a little help from us. When you consider that after the first litter, a sow can have two litters every year, you’ll see how pigs spread so rapidly across the South.
In the early colonial days, most Southerners kept pigs. Swine were cheap to feed, as they could forage for much of their food. They were often turned out in wooded areas to search for acorns, roots, berries, and anything else that was edible. Pigs are omnivorous – they’ll consume a dead rodent just as quickly as they’ll eat corn. These nomadic pigs were rounded up when the weather became cool enough to prevent spoilage.
Hog killings were often community events. Friends and neighbors would be invited to attend, and the men would help with the slaughtering and the butchering. A hog or two would be cooked over a fire or in a pit, and most of the women would bring side dishes to go with the barbecued pork. Such events were good reason for joviality – it meant food for survival through the winter, when other foods were often in short supply. Pork could be eaten fresh, it could be cured or salted, and it could be made into sausage. These festive hog-killing events served as the basis for the traditional Southern barbecue.
Southern Style Pulled Pork BBQ
By the time plantations and the importation of African slaves were emerging, barbecue gatherings and outdoor BBQ cooking were commonplace in the South. Whole hogs – sometimes more than one – were cooked for hours and hours over a slow fire. Fellow plantation owners and their families were invited to attend the barbecues, which often included music and dancing. If you’ve ever seen Gone with the Wind and remember the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, you get the idea.
Take North Carolina, for instance. The state is divided geographically into the Eastern coastline, the central piedmont, and the western mountains. Each area is convinced that their sauce and cooking styles are superior. East Carolina usually prefers an entire cooked pig with a thin vinegar-based sauce. If you have a barbecue sandwich, it will most likely be served with slaw in the sandwich itself. Western North Carolinians more often barbecue the pork shoulders, and they generally like a BBQ sauce with a ketchup or tomato-sauce base. The middle part of the state can go either way, but sometimes they have their own sauce, too – a mustard-based sauce.
In Georgia, it’s the pork butts that are usually barbecued, unless a big crowd is expected. In such an event, a whole hog might be cooked, resulting in a “pig pickin’.” Most Georgians like a sweet, tangy sauce with their pulled pork or chopped pork, and we can get pretty creative with sauce ingredients. For example, we might put peaches or Vidalia onions in the sauce, and molasses is a common ingredient in Georgia barbecue sauces.
South Carolina is situated slap-dab between North Carolina and Georgia, so the state’s BBQ lovers are somewhat divided. Some lean toward the tastes of East Carolina, while others prefer the mustardy sauce. Some near the Georgia line have adopted a sweeter sauce.
Most of Tennessee follows the lead of Memphis, famous for its barbecued ribs and for its pulled pork. Memphis-style pork ribs are usually cooked with a spicy dry rub and served with a thin, slightly sweet tomato-based sauce. Memphis barbecue, however, usually places more emphasis on the quality of the meat and cooking process than it does on added flavorings.
Alabama loves its BBQ cooking, too! Here, the sauce is usually similar to that found in much of Georgia, but often with a little more “heat” from added spices.
A couple of decades after the Civil War, the refrigerated railcar appeared on the scene. Slaughterhouses and pork packing plants sprang up in cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago, so, of course, these venues created their own ways of cooking and serving barbecued pork, along with other meats.
Kansas City, Missouri was long the center of the railways and home to seven major packing plants. As a result, all kinds of meats are barbecued there. These include pork roasts, pork ribs, beef briskets, beef ribs, chicken, sausage, and even turkey. They also specialize in “burnt ends,” the charred ends of beef and pork cuts. There’s also a good supply of hickory trees in the area, so it was inevitable that the barbecuing or smoking process would be done with this type of wood. Often referred to as “The BBQ Capital of the World,” Kansas City has over one hundred barbecue restaurants. Kansas City barbecue sauce has a tomato base with both tanginess and sweetness, and it’s used liberally.
St. Louis is famous for its pork ribs, pork steaks, and a variety of sausages. Another favorite is “pig snoots.” These are fatty pork cheeks that are grilled over a hot fire. The high fat content makes the meat very crispy. St. Louis barbecue sauce is similar to that used in Kansas City, but it’s not quite as thick. The meat is often seared before slow smoking, and the sauce is usually caramelized at high heat once the meat is done. Beer, often used as a marinade, gives St. Louis barbecue a unique flavor.
Ironically, Chicago-style barbecue is the same kind you’d find in much of the Deep South. Why? Because blacks escaping prejudice and persecution by relocating to the Windy City took their barbecue recipes with them. Chicagoans seem to have a special affinity for barbecued ribs.
Texans have come up with hundreds of different methods for barbecued brisket, but most are cooked “low and slow” over mesquite. Sauce is rarely applied to the meat during the cooking process. Instead, it’s served on the side – if it’s offered at all. In some parts of Texas, especially the Hill Country, barbecued brisket isn’t served with sauce.
I’ve never been to California, but from what I can gather, their signature barbecue is mostly beef. They seem to prefer top sirloin cut into strips and grilled, or beef ribs cooked on a charcoal grill. Californians are also fond of beef tri-tip roast or steaks – cut from the bottom of the sirloin. A friend of mine went to Cali once. He went into a restaurant and ordered ribs. Boy, was he surprised when he got beef ribs instead of pork ribs!
Folks on the West Coast aren’t stupid. I think they realized that pork makes better barbecue than beef, so now many California restaurants serve dishes like St. Louis-style ribs and pulled pork. Better late than never, Cali!
Dry rubs are so called because they consist of dry ingredients that are rubbed directly into the flesh before it’s barbecued. Sometimes the meat is dry rubbed and then wrapped in plastic wrap to “cure” in the refrigerator. The meat might be cured in this manner for an hour or two or overnight. Below is a list of common ingredients for dry rubs:
- Granulated garlic
- Garlic salt
- Garlic powder
- Onion salt
- Onion powder
- Black pepper
- White pepper
- Red pepper, or cayenne
- Lemon pepper
- Brown sugar
- Chili powder
- Dry mustard
- Ground basil
Wet rubs are used much the same as dry rubs, only a wet base is used as a “vehicle” to carry the spices and herbs. Wet rubs are more capable of penetrating the flesh than dry rubs are. Below are some popular wet rub bases:
- Worcestershire sauce
- Liquid Smoke
- Hot sauce
- Soy sauce
- Prepared mustard
- Olive oil
- Italian dressing
- Fruit juices
The mop is a liquid that’s “mopped” or basted onto the meat as it cooks. Mops are made of wet ingredients and usually also contain dry ingredients like spices and herbs. Applying mops adds flavor to the meat and prevents it from becoming too dry. Popular mops might include any combination herbs and spices with any combination of:
- Fruit juices
- Worcestershire sauce
- Hot sauce
The Sauce – Homemade
As they say, “The secret’s in the sauce!” There must be a lot of truth in the old adage since people focus so much effort and attention into creating the perfect barbecue sauce. Everyone has his or her own favorite barbecue sauces. Some like a hot sauce, some like a sweet sauce, and others prefer a tangy or sour sauce. Cooks get pretty creative when concocting their own sauces. These might include any of the following ingredients:
- White vinegar
- Balsamic vinegar
- Wine vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
- Prepared mustard
- Dry mustard
- Bell peppers
- Hot peppers
- Hot sauce
- Tabasco sauce
- Soy sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- Liquid Smoke
- Tomato sauce
- Chili sauce
- Tomato juice
- Lemon juice
- Lime juice
- Orange juice
- Orange juice concentrate
- Pineapple juice
- Apple juice
- Pureed fruit
- Maple syrup
- Cane syrup
- Brown sugar
- White sugar
- Olive oil
- Melted butter
- Cola drinks
- Salt, herbs, and spices
Some homemade barbecue sauces are cooked before using with meats, while others aren’t. Some homemade BBQ sauces are very simple, while others contain numerous ingredients and require quite a bit of processing. People who barbecue different types of meats will usually have more than one favorite homemade barbecue sauce recipe.
Here’s a simple recipe for a basic homemade barbecue sauce:
Holle’s Quick and Easy BBQ Sauce:
- 1 cup ketchup
- 2 tablespoons prepared mustard
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke
Directions: Mix all ingredients together, making sure brown sugar is completely dissolved.
Add your favorite herbs, spices, and/or seasonings, including salt, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder, or cayenne. Store in refrigerator in a covered container.
Commercial Barbecue Sauces
If you don’t want to make your own homemade barbecue sauce, you’re in luck! There are tons of good commercial barbecue sauces on the market, and you can find just about any flavor or taste combination you like. These include the basic flavors like hickory smoke, honey barbecue sauce, sweet barbecue sauce, hot barbecue sauce, and mustard-base sauces, along with more creative sauces like raspberry-chipotle, onion, mesquite, maple, Dr. Pepper, Jack Daniels, rum, jerk, plum, apple, orange, brown sugar, moonshine, peanut, lime, Jim Beam, Hawaiian, Budweiser, and habanero. Low carb barbecue sauces are also available and are gaining in popularity.
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BBQ Grills and Smokers
BBQ cooking can be done on a grill or on a smoker. Actually, most grills can function as a smoker, and most smokers can work as a grill. To be used for smoking, your bbq grill needs to have a lid that can be closed tightly. This lowers the heat of the fire and allows the meat to cook more slowly and absorb more smoky flavor.
A good quality grill or smoker will last for years if properly cared for. It’s best to keep your bbq cooking device out of the weather as much as possible. If this isn’t an option, buy a protective cover that fits over your grill or smoker.
When using traditional bbq grills for smoking, you need to use indirect heat. The charcoal and/or wood needs to be placed on one side, and the meat needs to be placed on the other. More wood or charcoal will probably need to be added during cooking.
Either of the following bbq grills can be used for smoking:
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Charcoal smokers use commercial charcoal to cook meats, infusing a lot of smoke into the meats. Wood chips like hickory, mesquite, pecan, or fruit wood can be used along with the charcoal to add more flavor.
Like traditional bbq grills, charcoal smokers don’t need any electricity, so they make great choices for camping and for other activities and events where you want great barbecue but don’t have access to an electrical outlet.
Here are some of the best charcoal smokers available:
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Gas smokers are powered by propane and require a tank, much the same as a turkey fryer or fish cooker. Smoky flavor is achieved by adding wood chips during cooking. A big advantage with gas smokers is that they don’t require electricity.
Check out this great gas smoker:
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For ease of use and the most consistent results, an electric smoker is tops. Since the heat is supplied by electricity, you don’t have to bother with loading the cooker with fuel while cooking. Smoky flavor is added by placing wood chips or twigs on the burner element or in the hopper.
Some of the best electric smokers on the market:
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BBQ Cooking – The Final Verdict
So…what does “barbecue” mean to Americans? I think you’ve already figured out that it depends on where you are. A father in Vermont might notice on some warm Saturday afternoon that it’s a great time to be outdoors with his family, so he says to his wife, “Hon, let’s barbecue this evening!” What he means is to fire up the grill and to cook steaks, chicken, pork chops, fish, or other flesh over a charcoal fire or a gas flame.
If a Southern dad uttered the same words, the wife and kids would be calling up the relatives and neighbors to come over and enjoy some smoked pork. ..in about 8-12 hours. The men would get busy digging a hole in the ground and/or chopping wood for the fire. If a pit isn’t the chosen method of cooking, Bubba would be called to bring over his hugemongous barrel smoker that has to be pulled behind a four wheel-drive pickup truck. One of the guys would be in charge of supplying the cold beer – Southern-style BBQ cooking is hot, hard work.
All the women would bring side dishes like potato salad, coleslaw, corn-on-the-cob, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, biscuits, hushpuppies, and desserts. Along with the copious amounts of beer, there’d be gallons and gallons of sweet iced tea. Once the meat was done and ready to eat, several of the guests would encourage folks to try their homemade barbecue sauce, swearing that it was the tastiest at the gathering.
After everyone filled their tummies with good vittles, a few people would break out their guitars and banjoes, and a group sing-a-long would ensue. The men would talk farming or discuss politics, while the women would chat about recipes, work, and kids. The teenagers would be slinking off into the dark for a stolen kiss, and the younger kids would play tag or catch fireflies in Mason jars. Now THAT’S a barbecue! Ahhh…I’m so glad I live in the South!
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