Our Guide to Regional American BBQ Styles

No matter how you spell it—BBQ, Bar-B-Q or barbecue—this smoky sensation is beloved across the country. Here's a closer look at the most iconic American BBQ styles at the heart of this cuisine.

Our Guide to Regional American BBQ Stylessydney watson/taste of home

The most iconic American regional barbecue styles are from the Carolinas, Memphis, central Texas, Kentucky and Kansas City. However, barbecue is a topic that is as hotly debated as politics, so there will certainly be people out there who disagree. I like to say that there are three things you don’t talk about with strangers; barbecue, politics and religion!

In recent years, barbecue has exploded in popularity and several other regions are important to note, too, including Alabama, California and the Pacific Northwest. Let’s take a closer look at them all.

North Carolina

North Carolina is all about pork.

In North Carolina, pulled pork is served on a platter or a classic white hamburger bun with green cabbage slaw. It’s best known for a tangy vinegar sauce that is clear and peppery in the eastern part of North Carolina and “red” from the addition of ketchup in the western part of North Carolina.

In western North Carolina, the slaw is made with the same “red” vinegar sauce and drips into and seasons the meat as you eat the sandwich. Generally, this sauce compliments smoked pork butts or shoulders, but in a few special places, it’s made with whole hog.

South Carolina

South Carolina is also all about the pig…

…but it’s s different from North Carolina because it has a thin yellow mustard barbecue sauce. At many of the traditional barbecue joints, they even toast their buns—which would be sacrilege in North Carolina. Learn how to make South Carolina sauce, plus other regional barbecue sauces.

Memphis, Tennessee

This barbecue capital is known mostly for pork barbecue.

The dry-rubbed ribs at The Rendezvous restaurant are an iconic tourist attraction. This famous rib joint has served their charcoal ribs in a downtown Memphis alley since 1948. The dry-rubbed ribs join whole hog, shoulder, sausage and even baloney on the banks of the Mississippi River for the World’s Largest Barbecue Contest.

The spices and seasonings in the dry rubs vary from cook to cook and are “top secret.” There is also a Memphis-style barbecue sauce, which is a tangy, thin, sweet sauce made with tomatoes, vinegar and spices.

Central Texas

This is where the world-renowned Texas barbecue originated.

It started out being all about the beef, because the locals were ranchers and butchers of German descent. This part of Texas has historically been a “no sauce” zone, but today, you can find sauce in most places because, well, barbecue customers love sauce! The central Texas style is smoked over oakwood and the meat is seasoned simply with a rub made from kosher salt, black pepper and enough cayenne to turn the spice rub a pale pink.

The most popular cuts of meat here are brisket, Texas “hot guts” sausage, shoulder clod and ribs, but other meats include whole racks of pork chops, pork ribs, jalapeno-cheddar sausage, hams, chicken and turkey. The large cuts of meat are typically sliced to order and sold by the pound accompanied by cheddar cheese, jalapenos, avocado, white onion, pickles and saltine crackers or white bread.

Kentucky

Here’s an outlier in the world of barbecue.

The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro is famous for their barbecued mutton, and the International Bar-B-Q Festival held the second weekend in May has helped put the Owensboro on the barbecue trail. (Of course, this spot is on our list of the best BBQ restaurants across America.)

In the beginning, this area raised more sheep than beef, and thus mutton became the meat they barbecued. The mutton is served with a thin sauce or “dip” flavored with Worcestershire sauce instead of tomato, and allspice in addition to traditional barbecue sauce ingredients of vinegar, brown sugar, onion and garlic.

This type of barbecue only exists in western Kentucky, though. In the eastern part of the state, the barbecue is similar to western North Carolina’s vinegar-dressed pork shoulder.

Kansas City

There’s a saying in Kansas City: “If it moves, we barbecue it.”

To that end, they smoke beef, pork, chicken, turkey, sausage, game and more. As barbecue has become more of an extreme sport, this area has turned making “burnt ends” into an art form—and they are in high demand.

What are burnt ends? They’re the crusty, dark, fatty and intensely flavored ends of a long-smoked brisket. Kansas City has developed a method for smoking, cubing, spicing and fabricating burnt ends from the point of the brisket and it is very popular among barbecue lovers. Kansas City is traditionally known for its thick, sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce popularized by KC Masterpiece. Despite all the articles and information about “authentic” barbecue that have been published in the past 20 years, most people identify the taste of barbecue with the taste of Kansas City barbecue sauce.

You can master KC barbecue with this recipe for Kansas City-style ribs.

Alabama

Alabama barbecue is similar to Memphis barbecue—with one exception.

It is mostly pork shoulder and pork ribs served with a tomato-based sauce. However, the most famous item from Alabama is its white barbecue sauce, made popular by Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama. White barbecue sauce is made from mayonnaise, vinegar and black pepper among other seasonings. The white barbecue sauce is traditionally served on chicken and turkey and dates back to the 1920s.

California

California is known for their Santa Maria tri-tip.

Santa Maria-style barbecue is based on a rub with predominant flavors of salt, pepper and dried garlic rubbed liberally on a tri-tip or triangle steak. The tri-tip is a small 3-4 pound “steak” cut from the bottom sirloin that has three points that vaguely resemble a triangle, and thus the nickname.

Find more of the best BBQ recipes from across America.

Pacific Northwest

Here, salmon is smoked around an open fire.

In the Pacific Northwest, sides of salmon were staked on cedar wood and smoked traditionally by native Americans over an open fire. Today, cedar-planked salmon is popular whether you use a pellet smoker, a grill or still smoke it over an open campfire.

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