BBQ Styles – A Primer

January 10, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Food anthropologists (yes, that is a thing) say there are certain foods where people tend to be very territorial. The style one first tries of a certain dish soon becomes the only acceptable recipe. No food demonstrates this more than barbecue. Once one learns to move beyond local prejudice, a new world of flavors emerges. To reach this heightened awareness one need only stop comparing the foreign recipe to the familiar. Only then can we learn to accept the beauty of that which is unfamiliar; it could be said that barbecue is a metaphor for culture.

Alabama plays host to three styles of BBQ. The style that most of us grew up with here along the Gulf Coast is actually an example of Kansas City barbecue – various smoked meats glazed with a tomato-based, sweet and smokey sauce. About 90% of the commercial barbecue sauces sold in grocers are variations of Kansas City sauce and it is because of this that KC style is the nation’s favorite. KC Masterpiece is the most popular sauce controlling more than half of the US market.

North Alabama is heavily influenced by the approach made famous in Memphis. This Memphis style is made up mainly of smoked pork butt or spare ribs and is distinguishable by the use of a dry rub (recipe below) rather than a wet sauce. At the same time there is a distinctive Memphis sauce that is less sweet and more acidic than KC style but is still tomato-based. The Memphis style sauce is very common at North Alabama BBQ joints like Tuscaloosa’s legendary Dreamland.

East Alabama border communities like Opelika, Auburn, and their Georgia neighbors enjoy a sauce that uses mustard as it’s base and a very specific cut of pork called a CT butt. The style is often called Smokey Pig because of the Columbus, GA shack that originated it. The mustard sauce (recipe below) most likely migrated from South Carolina and tends to be quite acidic and a touch on the spicy side. Moving from South to North Carolina the mustard disappears and the sauce is primarily vinegar and hot spices. In both Carolinas the primary meat is whole hog.

And Texas is a hole other matter. For these BBQ aficionados it is all about the smoke. The wood or combination of woods used in the smoking process is where the Texan expresses his individuality. Pork is rarely seen in the Lone Star State as Texans love their beef. The most popular cut in Texas is beef brisket because it captures the taste of smoke so well. Seldom will you ever find a bottle of sauce at an archetypal Texas smokehouse and those who dare bring their own should prepare for looks of disdain and the whispered murmurs of Yankee or city folk.

In the resorts of the Rocky Mountains classically trained chefs combine their refined European techniques with the wild flavors of the region. The result is a bold barbecue that uses grilled game like duck or venison and exotic sauces made with everything from raspberries to root beer. In Louisiana you might find a KC style sauce kicked-up with spices that add Cajun sizzle and in the Mississippi Delta they are fond of a sauce called Mississippi Blues that has blue berries as its main flavor ingredient.

Chicken seems to be universal in all regions of the country and can be augmented with a dry rub or any of the aforementioned wet sauces. Which brings us back to Alabama where we have a sauce formulated specifically for chicken. Alabama White BBQ Sauce hails from the northern half of the state and has been popularized at celebrated restaurants like Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur. This sauce is mayonnaise-based with acidity coming from apple cider vinegar and sweetness from brown sugar; black pepper adds a little nutty heat to the finish.

Mustard Barbecue Sauce
South Carolina mustard barbecue sauce can be traced to German settlers in the 18th century.
INGREDIENTS:
4 cups yellow mustard (two 20-ounce bottles of French’s mustard should do the trick)
8 ounces of beer (less for thicker sauce, more for thinner sauce)
½ cup apple cider vinegar
8 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup tomato puree
2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon cayenne
1 tablespoon fresh cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
PREPARATION:
Heat all ingredients in a sauce pan over medium heat and mix well. Cook until sauce just begins to thicken. Serve cool or warm. The sauce will last in the refrigerator for a long time. Quantity: 6 cups.

Memphis Rub
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 teaspoons celery salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

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Stuart Reb Donald

Stuart is a celebrity chef and award winning food writer. Donald performs live cooking demonstrations and penned the cookbook Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor."

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