American Regional Barbecue Styles

The quintessential American cuisine won’t be complete without the barbecue, barbeque, or BBQ. Indeed, American cuisine is a melting pot of different ingredients, spices, cooking methods, and traditions from many parts of the globe. As such, the barbecue may not be American in origin, just like pizza and hotdogs, but barbecues are now considered by many as an American dish.

In fact, the barbecue is considered so American that it now has several regional styles. While low and slow is the common denominator of all American barbecues, it’s the flavors that set them apart from each other. Which American barbecue style is your favorite? Do you like it sweet, tangy, or not-so-saucy? 

While there are many types of American barbecue, we break down the four most popular American regional barbecue styles.

Carolina-style bbq ribs

Carolina-style BBQ

The Carolina-style BBQ is distinctive for the following:

  • Defined as being pork
  • Pork can be prepared as the whole hog or just the shoulder
  • A wide variety of sauces depending on the region

This style of barbecue throughout the Carolinas is characterized as exclusively pork. North Carolina typically uses the pork shoulder, while South Carolina tends to use the entire hog.

In cooking the whole hog, it begins with roasting it over oak wood for 12 to 24 hours. The meat is then pulled from the bones after cooking and chopped using large cleavers. In some cases, the crispy skin (known as cracklings) is included and chopped as well. Then it is served with a vinegar-based dip.

In contrast to other barbecue styles, the Carolina-style BBQ uses seasonings only sparingly. Instead, the meat is brushed with mop sauce during the hours-long roasting process. 

The sauce used to brush the meat vary considerably from Western North Carolina to Eastern North Carolina. Here are the typical BBQ sauces found throughout the Carolina region:

  • Eastern North Carolina – Vinegar-based 
  • Western North Carolina – Ketchup and vinegar-based. Also known as Lexington-style sauce or Piedmont sauce.
  • South Carolina – Mustard-based

Carolina-style BBQ is typically served with Carolina-style red slaw, baked beans, collard greens, potato salad, hushpuppies, and black-eyed pea salad.

Kansas City style BBQ

Kansas City-style BBQ

Kansas City, Missouri, is historically a meat-packing town. So, it’s no surprise that meat is pretty big there. 

The Kansas City-style barbecue is distinctive for the following:

  • The use of a wide variety of meats, including beef, pork, lamb, and even poultry
  • Strong emphasis on the sauce, which is thick and sweet
  • The “burnt ends” (super-tender and flavorful pieces of meat cut from the fattier point end of a brisket) 

As you would expect from the Kansas City-style dry rub, it has a considerable sweetness. Its essential ingredients include brown sugar, paprika, salt, black pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, and cayenne pepper. Sometimes, white sugar is also added. The rub should have a two-to-one ratio of brown sugar to the rest of the spices.

Hickory wood is the most popular choice for smoking Kansas City-style meats.

The meats are cooked low and slow over hickory wood and often crusted with a fantastic bark from the sweet rub. The “bark” refers to the crispy dark layer of seasonings and flavorings, which builds on the outer layer of a slow-smoked barbecue.

The typical sides include coleslaw with mayonnaise-based dressing, Kansas City baked beans, macaroni and cheese, green beans, fried okra, collards, and other “soul food” favorites.

memphis-style bbq

Memphis-style BBQ

Memphis-style BBQ is unique mainly for the following reasons:

  • Almost exclusively pork, especially pork ribs
  • Heavy use of spices and seasonings for its dry rubs
  • Traditionally served as pulled pork sandwiches

If sweet and saucy barbecues aren’t your thing, you might like the Memphis-style BBQ. It uses only pork, particularly pork ribs, so meat purists will probably love the Memphis style.

It begins with a spice rub used to flavor the meat before cooking. Instead of the cloyingly sweet rub typical in other barbecue styles, you’ll find rubs heavy with salt, pepper, paprika, and other savory spices. And Memphis-style BBQ isn’t likely to be simple – in fact, some recipes call for as many as 40-plus spices!

Memphis-style BBQ is typically served as pulled pork sandwiches. After smoking, the pork is shredded by hand (and should not be chopped with a knife), served on a simple bun, and topped with BBQ sauce and creamy coleslaw. However, the Memphis-style BBQ can also be served in non-traditional ways: BBQ nachos, salad, pizza, and spaghetti.

Aside from the “dry” method, the Memphis-style BBQ can be prepared with the “wet” method. Pitmasters “mop” the pork ribs with sauce before, during, and after cooking. The sauce is comparatively thinner and more savory. The typical ingredients for the sauce include ketchup, yellow mustard, white vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, onion powder, cayenne pepper, and salt.

Texas-style BBQ platter

Texas-style BBQ

For a lot of people, when they think of American barbecue, they think of Texas. 

Texas-style BBQ is characterized by the following:

  • Use of different meats – usually beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausages
  • Different cooking styles depending on the region
  • Usually simple salt-and-pepper seasoning, as much of the meat’s smoky and hearty flavor is mostly derived from the wood.

The Lone Star State is big in terms of land size, so it’s hardly surprising that this BBQ style differs greatly depending on the geographical location:

  • Central Texas – This is the place where the Texas barbecue style started. The meat is seasoned with salt and pepper, then smoked low and slow over oak wood. The primary consideration is the quality of cooking meats, so sauces and sides are usually considered an afterthought. Some people argue that if there’s a sauce to go with the meats, it is typically used as a dip and intentionally made bland compared to the flavor of the meat themselves.
  • East Texas – Usually considered an extension of the South Texas BBQ style. The meat is smoked low and slow over hickory wood, resulting in fall-off-the-bone goodness. East Texas BBQ meats are served generously with sauces and sides. Pork BBQ sandwiches are also pretty common.
  • West Texas – This BBQ style, also called “cowboy style,” has a direct German and Czech influence. It involves direct cooking over mesquite wood, using different kinds of meat, such as goat and mutton as well as beef and pork.
  • South Texas – This BBQ has a heavy Mexican influence. The meat is cooked in barbacoa style, meaning in traditional underground pits. It is then served with sweet, molasses-based sauces to keep it moist.

Texas style BBQ is served with various sides, including pinto beans, fried okra, creamed corn, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, green beans, and Texas-style potato salad.

Getting interested in barbecues? Then you may want to know more about the different barbecue methods and techniques.