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In the South, barbecue is a way of life. Drive a few miles in different directions, and you could find totally different barbecue styles. Many regions in the U.S. have their own way of taking pork, chicken, or even lamb, smoking it until it falls apart, and dressing it up in deliciousness. We talked to some barbecue experts from around the country to see just how they do it in their state. Here's a breakdown of the main barbecue regions in the U.S.
Most known for: whole pig on the smoker, vinegar-based barbecue sauce
"The whole hog, which can be found now in other areas, was made famous by North Carolina," said Elizabeth Shepard of Shepard Barbecue in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. "That’s accompanied by our vinegar sauce. Usually a slightly spicy, sweet, and tangy vinegar-based sauce added to the pork once finished."
Most known for: regional sauces, pork
South Carolina is all. about. pork. "Traditionally, South Carolina barbecue is synonymous with pork—whether it's pulled pork or whole hog is dependent on the establishment," said John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston. "Typically [it's] smoked low and slow over an open fire." The sauce is what differentiates the regions. In the northern regions of the state you'll find a light tomato, the west is heavy tomato, the south and central is mustard, and the east is a vinegar-pepper sauce.
Most known for: smoked brisket, pork ribs, hot gut sausages
Central Texas is all about the dry rub. It's smoked over mesquite, pecan, or oak wood and eaten sans bread—no sandwiches.
Most known for: chopped pork and beef sandwiches
In East Texas, you can almost guarantee the meat is going to fall off the bone. It's marinated in a tomato-based sauce and usually smoked over hickory wood. And you'll definitely find plenty of pulled meat sammies served with pickles. "All orders come with dill pickles, sliced white onions, and homemade bread," said Rick Og of Goldee's Barbecue in Fort Worth. "We have a mustard-heavy sauce on the tables."
Most known for: barbacoa and molasses-based barbecue sauce
Because of the nearby Mexican border, you'll find a lot of Tex-Mex barbecue here, like barbacoa. You'll also see plenty of meat covered in a molasses-based sauce. Sticky, sweet, and so delicious.
Most known for: direct heat, mesquite wood
Most known for: burnt ends, hickory-smoke, thick, sweet barbecue sauce
If you go to Kansas City and don't try the burnt ends, you're missing out. They come from the "point" half of the smoked brisket and are so fatty and delicious. You'll also find them covered in a tomato-based barbecue sauce.
"We use a variety of meats and smoke our meats with hickory or oak wood," Deborah Jones of Jones Bar-B-Q said. "We use a five-brick BBQ pit and hickory wood. We’re also known for sweet, thick barbecue sauces."
Most know for: smoked pulled pork, served "wet" or "dry"
Memphis is known for loving pork—ribs, pulled, shoulder—pork, pork, pork. It may be rubbed with spices like paprika and garlic in a "dry" fashion. If it's prepared "wet," however, it'll be continuously brushed with a sauce while being smoked.
"Marinades and bastes usually consist of apple cider vinegar, spices and sometimes apple cider, Coca-Cola, or beer," said Ernie Mellor of Hog Wild. "The finished product is complimented with a well-balanced barbecue sauce, tomato-based with spices, honey, cider vinegar, and usually a bit of yellow mustard. Aromatic veggies such as onion and garlic are staples in the sauce."
Most known for: white barbecue sauce made with mayo, vinegar, lemon juice
Alabama barbecue is identified by pork, chopped or sliced, served on a hamburger bun with coleslaw and dill pickles. In the north, you'll find vinegar-based sauces, while all around the state, you'll find a white barbecue sauce of mayo, vinegar, lemon juice, black pepper, and salt smothering all the meat.
"Every chicken that comes off the pit at Big Bob Gibson's gets baptized in a vat of white barbecue sauce," Chris Lilly, the pit master at the barbecue joint credited with inventing it, said in a Thrillist video. "It's a tangy, peppery flavor. It is uniquely Alabama."
Most know for: mutton (lamb meat) served with a black Worcestershire-based sauce
Mutton in Kentucky (mostly western Kentucky) is sliced thin and topped with dips made of Worcestershire or vinegar and cayenne. Unfamiliar with mutton? It's sheep parts, typically shoulder, slow-roasted.
Most known for: regional sauces, chopped and sliced pork
Any barbecue spot you go to in Virginia will likely have pork on the menu. But what's more important is the sauce. Each region has its own type: Northern Virginia is known for sweeter tomato-based sauces sometime incorporating fruit; Central Virginia has sweet and sour sauces; and in Southern Virginia you'll find tomato- and vinegar-based sauces with mustard. And then you have the Shenandoah Valley, which is famous for barbecue chicken with an apple cider vinegar-based sauce.
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