There are four main regional varieties of traditional, slow-cooked barbecue and those what love ‘em is usually them what growed up with ‘em, and sometimes they’ll even fight to defend ‘em. BUT, there aren’t really any hard and fast rules about the differences between ‘em, nor even what constitutes grillin’ Vs barbecue. It’s all just meat usually placed on a platform of some kind, and heated either directly over wood or coals or heated indirectly off to the side a bit. So in very general terms here ya go.
Slow-cooked barbecue goes beyond the grillin’ steaks, various chicken, pork, or armadillo parts or the occasional vegetable or pineapple tossed onto the grill. You have to plan your day and activities around barbecue; it’s not something that you just do on a whim or when you’re in a hurry to eat. At temperatures of 200° – 250°F or so and possibly up to 16 hours or so of cookin’ you just have to be patient. The original slow food, slow-cooked barbecue is very much like art based on what used to be cheaper and tougher cuts of meat. Slow cooking imparts flavor and tenderness to those cuts that just cannot be achieved by high temperature grilling.
Kansas City Style
Out here in the wild west, Kansas City style is the barbecue with which we’re most familiar, and is the dominant style of most of the sauces on the local grocery store shelves. In fact, it’s probably pretty darn near impossible to even find Carolina or Texas style sauces out here where the sun sets into the ocean every night. Kansas City style barbecue is characterized by thick, tomato-based sauces containing mucho sugar. An interesting variation to Kansas City barbecue is that Miners Mix (minersmix.com) barbecue sauce. This product is a dry mix that contains all of the stuff that makes Masterpiece and those other bottled sauces taste like barbecue, but you blend it yourself with ketchup, vinegar, molasses (or brown sugar if your molasses is all gone). Once blended, Miners Mix is a thick, dark, rich sauce that’s full of flavor. The best things about it though, are that it’s a dry, packaged mix, so it has little weight, takes up little space (good for camping), yet still makes over 5 cups of sauce, plus you can adjust the vinegar/molasses ratio to your sweet/tangy version of bbq heaven!
Kansas City style rubs are mostly brown sugar, or some other form of sugar as well. It’s imperative that Kansas City barbecue be cooked slowly over low heat, or you’ll end up with a crispy black lump from all that charred sugar. Not good! Kansas City style barbecue usually focuses on pork, pork ribs, and chicken. Miners Mix also makes a really good barbecue rub with flavor that mirrors that of the sauce above.
Memphis style barbecue is somewhat similar to Kansas City style, but doesn’t pack nearly as much sugar as that stuff from further west. Memphis style tends to be more spicy than Kansas City style, and pork ribs or butt are usually the primary meats found in Memphis barbecue joints. It’s usually served sans sauce, but the meat might get basted occasionally while cooking. Because sauce isn’t slathered on the meat, Memphis barbecue is not nearly as messy as Kansas City style so perhaps it’s not nearly as much fun to eat. If sauce is used, it’s generally served at the table for dipping or pouring over pulled pork. Memphis sauce is generally thinner, runnier, more tangy, and less sweet than Kansas City style sauce. Memphis style uses rubs as well, but the sugar in Memphis style barbecue is either greatly reduced, or lacking in the rub.
Texas barbeque focuses on beef. Might be a little chicken or pork ribs tossed in as sort of garnish, but in general it’s beef, beef and more beef. No squeal, no cackle. Beef brisket, and beef ribs, cooked with a dry mustard and chili powder-based rub. Sauces tend to be thin and bold, more like a basting or mop sauce and are heavy with flavor from various kinds of ground chilis, cumin, onion, hot sauce, meat drippings and even beer or coffee. If you want your barbecue “wet” then the meat gets dunked into the mop bucket of sauce prior to plating.
As much as Texas style barbecue is beef, Carolina style barbeque is pork. What kind of pork, you ask? Pretty much all but the squeal, from pork butt (actually the pork shoulder) and ribs, all the way up to the whole critter done in a pit. Not much if any of a rub is used; this barbecue is sauce-based. Carolina sauce in general is thin and watery, tangy, and peppery. Depending on the Carolina region you’re talking about, the sauce can be golden yellow from the mustard base, or clear and vinegar-based and it might contain floating flecks of cayenne. Being tangy from the vinegar, the sauce cuts through the fat in the ribs and butt and soaks into the meat while cooking. Like the other three styles above, there are many variations on the theme.