Sauce Bosses: A Roadmap of American BBQ

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From Alabama White and Carolina Gold to Texas brisket and a little something called crispy snoots, American barbecue culture encompasses a diverse medley of cooking techniques, cuts of meat and finger-lickin’-flavorful sauces. Today, many regions across the country have their own variations of barbeque — and some seriously deep local cultures to go along with them.

To celebrate the fact that grilling season is officially underway, we’re taking a quick trip across the country to highlight some of the United States’ tastiest and most time-honored barbecue legends. Some are more famous than others, sure. But they’re all unique and more than worth a try, whether you’re an aspiring pitmaster or still don’t know your way around a pair of tongs.

Carolina Gold Is Terrifically Tangy

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What’s the first stop on the tour? The Palmetto State — specifically a band of land stretching from Columbia to Charleston. The barbecue here in South Carolina focuses more on the sauce than the meat, which isn’t to say the barbecued pork isn’t important, but the sauce is definitely the main event.

Carolina Gold is its name, and mustard is its game. Thanks to an influx of German immigrants to South Carolina in the mid-1700s, the region’s most famous barbecue sauce has a mustard base. Vinegar is also a key player in Carolina Gold barbecue sauce — it thins the mustard — and some sugar and zesty spices finish it off. This uniquely courageous condiment is a must-try for all barbecue fans visiting South Carolina.

Alabama White Is Smooth — With a Kick

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While traditional barbecue sauce is red in color as a result of its tomato base (ketchup is a common ingredient in traditional sauce), Alabama has taken its preferred condiment in a totally new direction: The state’s famous barbecue sauce is a much lighter color and completely free of all things tomato-y. Called Alabama White, this recipe begins with a mayonnaise base and incorporates apple cider vinegar, horseradish, salt, pepper and sometimes a spoonful or two of brown sugar.

Another distinctive feature of Alabama barbecue is that it’s not just a champion of slow-cooked pork, but of chicken as well. Head to an Alabama barbecue pit and you’ll likely find pork or chicken nestled comfortably on a sandwich and smothered in that signature kicky white barbecue sauce.

St. Louis Pork Steaks Boast a Sweet Char

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St. Louis is all about barbecue in all forms — St. Louisans buy nearly twice as much barbecue sauce as average Americans elsewhere around the country. And they’re not just going whole-hog when it comes to their sauce, but when it comes to their meats as well. The love of all things barbecue means this city has become known for some special cuts that you won’t see as often anywhere else, including the coveted pork steak.

To prep this distinctive dish, pork shoulder is slow-cooked over a grill and slathered with a classically sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce. The steaks are thin-cut and come from a specific part of the pork shoulder known as the Boston butt. Despite its name, it’s a cut of pork you’re most likely to find in the Midwest. Pork steaks became popular in St. Louis in the late 1950s, and now you can find them at virtually every grocery store and butcher in the region.

Texas Brisket Might Just Be the Juiciest

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The saying “everything’s bigger in Texas” rings true just as much for barbecue as it does for everything else in the Lone Star State — with an area that large, you’re bound to encounter variations in cooking techniques, seasonings and cuts, right? Right. However, when people think of traditional Texas BBQ, the first thing that comes to mind is likely the central Texas cowboy staple known as brisket.

Given the ubiquitous nature of beef in Texan cooking culture, it should come as no surprise that brisket, a cut of meat from the lower chest of a cow, often takes center stage in barbecue pits around the state. Making this mouthwatering staple involves lots of time and not too much heat — that famous “low and slow” technique that’s a barbecue hallmark and a key way to soften tough cuts. Many Texans apply a dry rub spice blend before popping their brisket into a smoker — not a grill — and tend to forego sauce completely with this cut.

Lexington Style Packs on the Flavor

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Lexington, North Carolina, has more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other city around the globe, and its famed annual barbecue festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year — so its title of Barbecue Capital of the World is pretty well deserved. But what’s the big draw for all these hungry travelers (and not to mention the native Lexingtonians)?

Lexington-style barbecue is one of a kind, roasting salted pork shoulder over hickory wood. It also incorporates a secret rub made with paprika, pepper, brown sugar and mustard. And if that wasn’t enough, Lexington barbecue has another trick up its sleeve; for even more depth, the pork shoulder is basted with a special dip of vinegar, water, salt and pepper. Both the dip and the fat from the meat drip onto the coals below, and the resulting smoke infuses the meat with a deliciously rich flavor. You can request more of that “dip” on the side, though the tender meat generally won’t need it.

Kentucky Mutton Has a Special Tang

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Wool production was booming in Kentucky during the early 1800s, partly due to the fact that Irish and Scottish settlers in the region brought their keen sheep-farming skills when they immigrated. Having so many sheep around led to the growing popularity of mutton as the meat of choice in local barbecue culture.

To barbecue mutton, Kentuckians typically smoke it slowly over a hickory wood fire or in a smoker. Barbecued mutton is served with “mutton dip,” which is a blend of Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice and a handful of spices. It’s a sour and tangy sauce that can’t be missed when you’re trying barbecued Kentucky mutton.

St. Louis Crispy Snoots Might Just Beat Bacon

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St. Louis pork steaks are a definite must-try, but if you’re sampling St. Louis barbecue you can’t miss out on a truly unique dish with a pretty spectacular name: “crispy snoots.” These snack-worthy delights are pig snouts — nostrils not included — roasted on an open grill until they’re nice and charred, which gives them their signature crispy texture. Then, they’re generously covered in a sweet and thick tomato-based sauce whose ingredients include molasses, vinegar and spices.

St. Louis’ crispy snoots have relatively humble beginnings; they originated at food trucks in East St. Louis during the 1940s, and they’ve become internationally renowned in the years since. Still not sure about noshing on noses? Their flavor and texture is best described as a “mix between pork skins and bacon…served like a chip,” which does a better job of highlighting why millions of diners chow down on snoots each year.

Memphis-Style Dry Rubs Create Crisp Crust

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Memphis-style barbecue gained its fame from its dry rub. But don’t go thinking that somehow makes the meat itself dry — it creates a zesty seal that locks in moisture, making Memphis meats fall-off-the-bone good. Before smoke-cooking pork shoulders and ribs, pitmasters here coat their cuts in an aromatic spice mix that usually consists of paprika, cumin, sugar, cayenne pepper and garlic powder, working it into the meat and building up a thick coating of flavor.

As the meats cook low and slow, the rub forms a kind of crispy, delicious crust. Some people even sprinkle a bit more of the dry rub onto the meat for good measure. The vibrant flavor that comes from the rub usually means serving the meat without any kind of sauce is a Memphis standard — but don’t be afraid to ask for some on the side.

Hawaiian Kālua Pig Is Smoky and Tender

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If you’ve ever heard of Hawaii’s traditional lūʻau feasts, you might know that a frequent star of the party is a barbecued dish called kālua pig. The word “kālua” describes a Hawaiian cooking method that involves building a fire in a pit called an “imu,” placing stones over the embers and nestling ti leaf-wrapped meats on those stones. To finish things off, the meat is covered in a layer of vegetation and completely buried in soil, creating an underground oven that holds in plenty of steam to keep different meats tender and moist.  

To match the celebratory mood of a lūʻau (and to feed a large number of guests), a whole pig is often cooked in this manner. After steaming and caramelizing in the imu for several hours, the pork is removed and served shredded. It takes on a smoky-sweet flavor from the ti leaves and the cooking process, so it’s rarely served with sauce — and once you get a taste of this dish, you’ll see why condiments aren’t necessary.