When we started seasons two taste, it became apparent really quickly that there would be a lot of posts based on barbecue. This particular style of cooking has such a rich history and culture. I didn't feel that it was appropriate to just post recipes without addressing what it is, it's origins, and also try to set straight some of the myths that surround it. That's what this barbecue homepage is about, addressing as best as possible the complex and sometimes confusing topic of barbecue.
Barbecue means different things to lots of different people. It's a tradition that is generational in nature, and has roots in almost every region of the world.
We will mostly be focusing on the North American traditions and recipes on this site, primarily out of the desire to remain authentic, (that is where we are!), but also because it is in North America that barbecue originated.
We will of course explore the barbecue customs of other countries and cultures as well. To leave out the places where this food culture has rooted is to diminish the influence that this smoking and grilling cuisine has had globally.
What is barbecue? I cannot answer that question very easily, hence this compendium of knowledge. One of the things that I find very fun is the linguistic breakdown of the word itself. To barbecue is the act, the process of grilling and/or smoking, a way of defining the style of the cooking process. When you sit down to eat, you are eating barbecue, the name now connotes the finished item itself. When you invite friends and family over to partake, you ask them to come to your barbecue, referring to the event. The word is versatile and inclusive, my favorite trick of language.
A Living Document
I am not the foremost authority on all things barbecue, and i will never pretend to be. Not only is there so much information out there, making the goal of knowing it all almost impossible, and the landscape is always changing. This page will be updated as often as necessary to try to keep up with the changes, as well as to ensure accuracy of facts. I know that this page will result in a lot of comments and emails, and I welcome them all. Perhaps together we can shed the light of truth on a topic that is quite often a victim of misinformation.
The first mention in written historical records of barbecue were written by the early Spanish and Portuguese explorers of North America. In the journals, written in the early 1500's, these men refer to the natives cooking and preserving meats by means of a method known as barabicu, translated as "to cook over a fire with a framework of sticks and poles". These indigenous people would arrange and skewer meat over a smoking fire to take advantage of the preservative properties of live fire and smoke. The explorers apparently were intrigued by this technique, as they are credited with the dissemination of it to the rest of the known world at the time.
An interesting side story; the first appearance of the word barbecue in an English dictionary shows a definition eschewing the live fire entirely. It defines barbecue as cooking an animal in it's whole form. As best as any historians can tell, this was most likely a way to describe a whole pig roast, or a "boucherie", as it was called in Louisiana. This misunderstanding most likely led to the dish known in creole cuisine as barbecue shrimp, as they are cooked whole, but not over a grill.
Grilling Outside of North America
There is some form of live fire cooking culture in almost every place in the world. The practice of starting a fire, cooking over it, and making a communal event out of it for everyone to share is such a primal urge, very few places are exempt. My personal theory is that only when it is impossible or extremely difficult due to geographical or meteorological constraints do you find no barbecue culture where people congregate.
This page could go on forever if we chose to write about every single instance of 'cueing culture worldwide, so instead we will focus on the most well established and unique traditions. A common thread found in these places is a lack of refrigeration, air unconditioning, and reliable metallurgy in their history. Without these things, cooking out doors, with smoke and spices to preserve the food becomes almost a necessity.
The Jamaican cooking style known as "jerk" is definitely a type of barbecue. A paste is made of all of the things that are abundant on the island; onion, ginger, allspice, scotch bonnet chilies, thyme, and lime juice. This mixture is used as a marinade for the meat, pushing it into small cuts made into the flesh, hence "jerking" it. This is then slow grilled and smoked over the wood from the allspice tree itself. This process both cooks and preserves the meat, (it also makes it absolutely to die for, delish!).
In South America, the barbecue tradition is split into churrasco in Brazil, and Asado everywhere else. If you've ever been to a Brazilian steak house, you've seen churrasco in action. All kinds of different meats and cuts are skewered, seasoned with salt, and cooked over an open fire until ready to devour. Asado is very seldom referred to as simply a cooking style, it is more well known as a social occasion. a hardwood fire is started in a hearth, and once coals have been established, different cuts of meats and vegetables are cooked on a grill that is angled at 45 degrees so as to allow for specific amounts of heat and smoke to be exposed based on where the item is placed on the grate. Everything is cooked at an asado in fashion so that there is a succession of courses for the diners, with wine, of course.
South Africa has the communal grilling tradition of Braai. A Braai is a barbecue of great social importance in this part of the world. It is tradition that everyone that comes to a Braai is to bring something to cook or eat for the whole group, which is sometimes as small as a family, but more commonly an entire neighborhood or village. The food is traditionally cooked over a large open fire pit, but in modern times sometimes gas grills are used, ( but still frowned upon). The national pride in the tradition is so strong, that there is a national heritage holiday that is dedicated to it!
Barbecue in the United States
We are going to attempt to stay out of trouble, here. If there is any food culture that is passionately debated and argued about in America, it's barbecue. Who started it, or did it this way or that way first, pork, beef, or other meats? almost every single detail or nuance is worth starting a war over to many people, This is why I will say over and over that trying to make any authoritative statement about American barbecue is inherently wrong. I know this will not stop the comments from coming in, I only ask that we try to make them constructive. As mentioned earlier, this is a living document, I will update it with every bit of new knowledge that comes my way.
One point that I have not found a lot of argument about, though, is where in the US barbecue comes from. the southern United States reigns supreme when it comes to this one bragging right. An interesting fact that puts things into perspective; Until the 1950's, southerners ate pork over any other meat in their diet by a ratio of 5 to 1. Domesticated pigs were introduced to the region by the Spanish in the 1500's, and they were the perfect animal for farmers to keep, given the climate.
My hope is that someday this site will cover every difference in barbecue based on even the slightest change in region or history. Everything, no matter how large or ambitious has to start small, though. In that spirit, we have chosen to highlight the major styles of barbecue by regions, somewhat generally.
Memphis, Tennessee has a long and illustrious history in the world of barbecue. Many of the things that Americans take for granted as being hallmarks of the style came from this beautiful city, also home of the blues.
"Wet or dry?", is a common question that you will hear when visiting a Memphis barbecue "joint". This is in reference to the two different prpeparation method common here. "Dry" points to the meat being rubbed down with a mixture of spices and seasonings referred to as a dry rub before cooking. "Wet" preparation of Memphis barbecue entails a "mopping sauce" that is perioditically applied liberally to the protein. Memphis claims to be the original home to both of these styles, but especially the dry rub.
There is a "finishing" sauce that is endemic to Memphis, lightly thick, tomato based, and piquantly spicy in flavor. The recipes for all of these condiments are very tightly guarded secrets from place to place, or family.
Although many kinds of meats are served, pork is king, with ribs being the main highlight. Hickory is the choice of wood used for fuel, and indirect, low and slow heat is used.
Not to sound like a broken record, but please know that i am aware of the many differences between North and South Carolina barbecue, as well as the multitude of regional variations within each state as well. My family hails from North Carolina, so I've been involved in many heated debates on the subject. I think we could create entire articles about the differences in this region, as well as Texas, (and maybe we will!).
Barbecue is complately synonomous with pork in the Carolinas, the whole hog and the shoulder, to be precise. It is eaten chopped, pulled, or occasionally sliced, most commonly as a sandwich or plate with sides. The meat is also served as a condiment of sorts, topping foot long hot dogs, hamburgers, or even baked potatoes.
The sauce serves as a true multi purpose master ingredient. It is a thin, vinegar based condiment,(in different regions it may contain mustard, tomato, chili flakes, onion, or any combination). It is used quite often as the marinade, mopping, and finishing sauce, as well as the dressing for cabbage slaw.
Carolina barbecue is cooked very slowly and indirecty with the coals and embers of hickory wood mostly, but oak and pecan are also occasionally used. The smoke flavor is light and sweet, due to the mild woods used, but also due to the larger peices of meat involved.
In Alabama, the domestication of hogs has always been an important industry. In the early years, it became a common custom to have large community based meals and festivals based on the pig harvest, hence, a barbecue. Chicken farming was also very prevalent, resulting in chicken being a part of these celebrations.
So it came to pass that Alabama barbecue is primarily pork shoulder and whole chickens. The pork is kind of a hybrid of Carolina and Memphis styles, in that it usually involves a dry rub of seasoning, as well as a mopping with a vinegar based seasoning sauce. the chickens are simply seasoned with salt and pepper.
The sauce for pork is usually very similar to Memphis style, leaning a little sweeter. The chicken sauce, though, is where Alabama barbecue is unique. The sauce is a white sauce, mayonaisse based, with a lemon-y tartness. The chicken is literally dipped into this sauce before serving, in many cases.
An indirect smoke at a slightly higher temperature fueled by any combination of oak, hickory, or pecan is the usual methodology.
Being the cattle industry captial of the United States, beef is a big deal in Texas. Throughout the history of the area, ranches, ranchers, and cowboys play a major role. it should not be a big surprise to anyone, then, that the barbecue of Texas is dominated by beef.
Whenever discussing barbecue with experienced pitmasters, the topic of conversation almost always ends up being one of the real tests of smoking expertise, the brisket. This large primal cut of beef is notorious for being difficult to get just right, and famous for it's flavor and juiciness when it is absolutely correct. Beef ribs are also common, and some of the best sausage to come out of a smoke pit comes from the lone star state. The seasoning applied is salt and pepper, with a little garlic or onion thrown in also fro time to time. The sauces tend to be tomato based, but heavy on onion and spices.
The Texas natives are a very self reliant bunch, and so mesquite is the wood of choice, being that it grows in the state profusely. The spicy and strong smoke rendered from these coals does a very good job of seasoning those large chunks of beef.
Kansas City, Missouri
All of the other places that we have discussed thus far could be seen as specializing in one type of meat or preparation within their local grilling or smoking culture. Once Kansas city got a hold of the barbecue buzz, it seems to have decided to become the "supermarket" of them all. You can find a little bit of everything, and even a few surprises, here.
You can find ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage, chicken, turkey, and more as far as meats are concerned. Kansas City tends to use a thicker and sweeter sauce that has become the archetype for what the world thinks of as classic. Molasses contributes most of this sweetness, while also a rich and slightly bitter finish. This sweet base is also used as a mopping sauce, resulting in a thicker and darker "bark", or charred surface to the edges of the meat. It is because of this phenomenon that the service of "burnt ends" originated here. When cooking beef brisket in this style, the ends and edges have a tendency to get quite dark, and they are trimmed off, doused in a copious amount of sauce, and served.
Just like with the meats served, many types of wood are used to smoke. The use of fruit tree woods, as well as blends, are quite common.
Not a lot of attention is paid to the grilling culture of the southwestern United States, but I would argue that it deserves a lot more. The line between native American, south American, and what US citizens consider barbecue is blurred here, contributing to the lack of a clear cut barbecue culture and pride seen elsewhere.
In the southwest, the typical "low and slow" smoking done elsewhere is eskewed for direct grilling over wood coals, and digging an earthen closed pit for longer cooks and larger cuts. The direct grilling method used here results in meat cooked to lesser done-ness, (typically medium), but with a lovely smokey bite from the coals used. Salt and pepper, and many times just salt alone, is the standard seasoning, with no sauce. Beef cuts such as tri-tip, sirloin, flank and skirt are the standards for grilling in the "Santa Maria" style, as it is referred to. The grill grates are adjustable to different heights from the coal bed, to control the heat and smoke. Confusing this for simple grilling is a mistake.
Almost all southwestern barbecue is cooked over the coals resulting from oak, but mesquite is sometimes thrown in also.
Summation and Links
This will be an ongoing tutorial about all things barbecued. We still haven't touched on the "how to" instructional sections, as well as reviews of grills, smokers, tools. There is enough information to cover here that it's hard to imagine this series ever coming to a close.
I hope that the content contained herein has helped to shed some light on this culinary tradition, as it is of special importance to me. Please comment and ask questions, if there's ever been a place for community discussion, this would be it.
Here are some grilled and barbecued recipes we're quite proud of: