When it comes to Southern food, there are many influences at play—from Cajun and Creole cuisine in Louisiana to the Lowcountry cooking of the Carolinas to the barbecue of Texas and Kentucky. Southern food covers a lot of territory. And soul food, including African-American cooking, is also a huge part of the identity of the cooking traditions in this neck of the woods.
The common denominator ingredient is Southern hospitality—the most compelling reason that Southern food just tastes better in the south. The dishes are served with a side of that warm, inviting, bless your heart hospitality the south is known for—always willing to lend a helping hand or a second helping.
Brian Nagele, former restaurateur and CEO of Restaurant Clicks says there are many reasons why people in the south enjoy these meals more than others do. Southern cooking is known for being full of flavor and fat, with a focus on comfort, he says.
Here are 14 Southern foods that taste better in the South.
There's fried chicken and then there's Southern fried chicken. Why does fried chicken taste so finger lickin' good in the South? Answer: buttermilk. And, yes, the buttermilk component is non-negotiable.
Get the recipe from The Country Cook.
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One of the foods most eponymous with Southern food is grits, in particular, grits made from hominy, a type of corn that has been nixtamalized, says professional chef Beth Schubert, content director, Own The Grill.
Nixtamalization is a process where the hull, or pericarp, of the corn kernel is removed, by mixing the ground corn with an alkali, she explains. This process, used by the Aztecs for thousands of years, spread through Mexico and the South of America, giving hominy corn a deep connection with Southern cooking.
"I grew up in Georgia and throughout my childhood grits were an essential part of any special breakfast," says Rebecca Deitsch, blogger at Day Trip Queen. "It was only in my teens that I realized many Americans from other parts of the country had never tasted grits, and those who had, often disliked them. When I moved outside of the south, I soon discovered why: grits are rarely on the menu and when they are, they are lumpy, bland, or both."
So why are they better in the South? First, they're prepared with proper amounts of butter, cheese, and seasonings, she says. And also, grits are meant to be eaten along with other southern staples: biscuits, ham, bacon, and scrambled eggs. Perfect partners to complement the flavors.
And, of course, shrimp and grits—we think Bubba would agree that they taste better in the South.
Get the recipe from Taste of Home.
Low Country Boil
A beloved Southern staple, originating in coastal South Carolina, a low country boil tastes better at the beach, says Debra Cummings, recipe developer and owner of Fine Foods Blog.
Basically, you just fill a large pot (or two) with the ingredients (shrimp in the shell, kielbasa, lemon, garlic, beer, corn, potatoes, and seasonings like Old Bay and salt, and the boil is finished in about 30 minutes. Next, dump it on newspaper that's spread out on a picnic table and dig in with your hands while enjoying the sunset over the South Carolina beach.
She shares her family's recipe for a low country boil to feed a crowd.
Get the recipe from Fine Foods Blog.
Pineapple soufflé is a holiday staple in the south, says Marjory Pilley of Dinner Mom blog. Reminiscent of a sweet bread pudding, she says but infused with pineapple. "The funny thing is we eat it as a side dish in the south," says Pilley. "But it most certainly is a dessert. We can never agree at our house."
Get the recipe from Dinner Mom.
"I'm going to go with a childhood memory of vacationing in North Carolina," says Tommy Pederson, registered dietician nutritionist RDN, and author at Vekhayn. "We would camp at Cape Hatteras every summer, right on the shore. Every Friday, the local town had a fish fry to raise money for the fire department—a big outdoor picnic with all the fish and hushpuppies you could eat. I still remember the taste of those hushpuppies. Crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft, and just a little sweet on the inside. And of course, hummingbird cake for dessert."
Get the recipe from Southern Discourse.
Etouffee is a stew made with a roux, onion, celery, bell pepper, tomato, garlic, hot sauce, and either shrimp, crawfish, or chicken.
Gumbo is similar to etouffee made with the same ingredients but with the addition of okra—in fact, "gumbo" comes from a West African word for okra) and typically made with a combo of meats and seafood, whereas etouffee is made only with shrimp or crawfish.
"Rumor has it that Southern food is caked in butter and oil and always deep-fried which is why people love the taste," says Michael East, CEO of Griddle King. "However, this isn't the case. Food from the South contains a plethora of herbs and spices that enhance the flavors of the food that's being cooked, especially in traditional Southern cooking. There's also a specific technique that they use in the South that adds to these complex flavors. You'll typically find that the base for their most popular dishes typically consists of three vegetables—bell peppers, onions, and celery. These are most commonly found in dishes such as jambalaya, etouffee, and gumbo. This concoction is referred to as the holy trinity of veggies and adds a certain southern taste to almost every dish."
Get the recipe from Ask Chef Dennis.
This burger, unique to North Carolina, is covered with meaty chili, cheese, and a heap of tangy slaw. And a "pro tip" from Tommy Pederson: "Gas stations in rural Eastern North Carolina usually serve better ones than at a fancy joint in town."
Get the recipe from Sugar Dish Me.
New Orleans Muffaletta
The Louisiana dish is one of this music-loving city's most iconic sandwiches. Think large sesame bread rounds layered with olive salad, genoa salami, ham, mortadella, provolone, and Swiss cheese. It is influenced by its Sicilian roots, but tastes so good in New Orleans because everything tastes so good in New Orleans.
Get the recipe from Sugar Dish Me.
A Southern dessert created in 1951 by Chef Paul Blangé and Ella Brennan at Brennan's restaurant in New Orleans—at the time, New Orleans was a hub for importing bananas from South America.
Named for Richard Foster, the chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission and friend of the current proprietor Ralph Brennan's grandfather Owen Brennan, Bananas Foster is built with bananas, vanilla ice cream, and a sauce of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, dark rum, and banana liqueur that is ignited. Preparation of the showstopper dish is made tableside at Brennan's as a flambé. And it's so popular Brennan's flames 35,000 pounds of bananas each year.
Get the recipe from Life, Love and Sugar.
Six-time James Beard Award finalist Chef Steve McHugh sources local mesquite beans, an underutilized and nearly forgotten source of protein, incorporating them into sweet and savory dishes at his San Antonio restaurants.
The beans were once an important source of protein and nutrition for Native Americans in San Antonio, and mesquite spread throughout the state in the 1800s when cattle drives naturally spread its seed and fertilized the soil—but was forgotten as an edible resource. By the 1900s, mesquite was deemed an invasive species—its long roots dried out the land and sharp thorns harmed cattle and ranch hands alike, and it is only recently that chefs have begun to realize its potential as a cooking ingredient.
McHugh uses mesquite flour, the ground mesquite bean pods, in his apps, entrees, desserts, and even cocktails. In fact, mesquite flour can replace all-purpose flour in most baked goods, making them gluten-free. And Mesquite's molasses-like flavor can add sweetness, instead of sugar. Mesquite beans are also used in wines, jelly, syrup, and coffee.
Get the recipe from Food Network.
This pimento-studded cheddar cheese mixed with mayo is not only adored in a sandwich at the Masters' golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia, each year, it also has a cult following in other parts of the South.
In 2012, Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar&Eatery in Arlington, Virginia, received a weekly phone for a special order of a quart of pimento cheese. Finally, after about a year of this, chef-proprietor David Guas (a NOLA native, he knows his Southern cooking) intercepted the phone call and asked to meet the mystery patron the next time the order was picked-up. Much to Guas' surprise, the order was placed by the personal assistant to the Honorable James Addison Baker III, who served as White House Chief of Staff and the United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, and as U.S. Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under President George H. W. Bush.
Over the course of five years, the moment Mr. Baker touched down in Washington, DC, he and his assistant would drive straight to Bayou Bakery in northern Virginia to pick up the pimento cheese, which he hailed as the best in the country. During his last visits, he stated, "No need to put the Ritz Crackers in the bag. Just make sure there's a spoon!" Hail to the cheese!
Get the recipe from Cookie and Kate.
"Drink and food is enjoyed more in the South because it is more communal," says Hilda Delgado, co-owner, Fiddletree Kitchen&Bar in Lexington, Kentucky. "It truly embodies the saying of good food and great company. Southern eating is about sharing food with friends and family, made with a mother's love. It's simple and wholesome."
Small shareable plates, like Andouille Rolls, are co-owner David Bader's personal favorite. Andouille is a staple in Southern cooking, he says, especially in the deep south thanks to its Cajun and/or Caribbean influence. His recipe is super simple: browned cut-up pieces of a high-quality link rolled into a nice pastry, brushed with salted butter and seasoned with Everything Bagel seasoning, and then baked to a golden brown.
Get the recipe from Southern Living.
Iced sweet tea is a cup of Southern sunshine. It's on menus in other parts of the country but it's so much tastier and refreshing in the south. Maybe it's because Southerners typically add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the tannins in black tea, suggests southerner Jasmin Diaz, CMO, Smokey Mountains.
Steve Theunissen, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist RDN, of Smart Fitness Results, says another reason is that coffee just isn't big in the Deep South, like in other parts of the country.
Get the recipe from The Country Cook.
Bourbon, of course, is an American whiskey made in Kentucky from corn aged in oak barrels that is sold all over the country. But its distinctive sweet flavor is a perfect partner for "smoky dishes" in the South, says Tia Mula, founder of Live and Wed, Think barbecue ribs or pulled pork, and also in Southern cocktails like the Mint Julep.
Get our recipe for a Low-Calorie Pulled Pork Sandwich.
BBQ tastes better in the South, thanks to the year-round warm clime, and kick-back 'tude that has no hurry for slow, low techniques. A pulled pork sandwich in Texas, Tennessee, Kansas City, or Missouri is the South on a plate.