All of these fine styles and more have their own armies of fans and lovers. There are other regional styles, too. But in this poll, we are concentrating on the Big 4.
In some parts of the country, barbecue means more than simply pouring a bottle of sauce on a slab of meat and grilling it up on a hot summer day – rather, it’s a way of life. And naturally, there’s an ongoing battle about which region produces the best ‘cue. We talked to five renowned BBQ chefs across the country about why their specific style reigns supreme. Get ready for some smack talk!
Have some of your own? Have at it in the comments.
In Raleigh, NC, chef Darrell Brown dishes out his own region’s style of barbecue at The Pit restaurant, which he says is far superior. “Here’s the secret – the salt and vinegar give the slow-roasted pork some ‘pop,’ while the peppers add spice and heat, and the sugar mellows things out a bit.” In NC, they also cook over coals rather than wood, heat up the whole hog at once, and then chop it all together.
How You Make It: “First you butterfly a whole hog, salt it and place it on a grate meat side down over a bed of 225 to 250–degree hardwood and charcoal. We cook them for about 12 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone and the skin is crispy with a deep reddish-brown color. After pulling the meat from the pig, we chop it and season it with salt, apple cider vinegar, black pepper, red pepper and a little sugar.”
Tips: “Touch the top of the cooker – if it’s just right you can lay your finger on it for a second, any longer and it’s too cool, any shorter and it’s too hot. Also, be sure to build a fire without lighter fluid so you won’t taste it later, and it’s best to use hickory or oak for the wood.”
Why It’s the Best: “Eastern North Carolina is not only the first barbecue produced in America, but it’s the best barbecue in the country, hands-down. If you can’t get the flavor of the meat right, then you bury it in tomato sauce. That’s what most everyone else does in the country except for us, where our vinegar-based sauce is simply the best. In South Carolina, they take perfectly good, mostly whole-hog barbecue and turn it baby-poop yellow with a mustard-based sauce.”
To get the skinny on barbecue in South Carolina, Jimmy Hagood, owner of Food for the Southern Soul and founder of the award-winning BlackJack Cooking Team in Charleston, SC, explains what makes it so darn good. “We think of barbecue as a noun,” he says. “And in its truest form, it come in classic cuts of pork or the whole hog, which is smoked low and slow.” First, he says, pork rules the scene. After that, it’s a three-step process of local meats, abundance of natural ingredients like pecan, hickory, peach and applewood, and the regional spicy vinegar and mustard sauces.
How You Make It: “You start with slow cooking the meat at 225 degrees over a selection of indigenous wood for many hours. On the exterior of the meat, you use a dry rub that caramelizes into a mahogany color, while continually basting with barbecue sauce. Having the regional table sauce completes the layering of flavors unique to South Carolina.”
Tips: “For pork shoulder, whole hog and ribs, the proper cooking temperature is important. One hundred ninety degrees is an optimal internal temperature.”
Why It’s the Best: “Get a South Carolina pulled pork sandwich with all the sides, and I guarantee you won’t find a better meal anywhere in the country. After all, we’ve been smoking meat around here for 250 years, and it’s ingrained in our DNA. We have exported the art of cooking barbecue throughout the country, and the origins of other regional styles can be traced right back to the low country of South Carolina.”
You don’t have to actually go to Texas to get some awesome Texas-style ‘cue; at Hill Country in New York City, chef Elizabeth Karmel is doing it right. “It’s all about the meat,” she says. “It’s simply seasoned and smoked slow and low.” But the best thing about it, she adds, is that Texas is a no-sauce zone, leaving the meaty goodness to shine through.
How You Make It: “The rub is as simple as it gets with the sole purpose to enhance the natural flavor of the meat. Our rub is made with kosher salt, butcher grind black pepper and enough cayenne pepper to turn the rub pink. Season the meat with the rub, smoke it slow using sweet post oak wood, use a low heat and lots of love.”
Tips: “Have patience! Also, buy a whole brisket with the fat cap left on because fat equals flavor.”
Why It’s the Best: “Really, I enjoy all styles of barbecue. And, actually, I grew up in North Carolina and find their style similar to Texas, though in the latter, it’s all about the beef while North Carolina is all about the pig. Ultimately, if the barbecue is done right, then you don’t need to cover it up with a heavy, sweet sauce. Also, liquid smoke should be banned since no real barbecue needs it.”
After 30 years of cooking, Paul Kirk, aka the “Kansas City Baron of Barbecue,” and the winner of 500 barbecue competitions, takes his roll in the smoked meat world seriously. “We cook it all including brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sliced pork, chicken,” he says, “and in some places, you even get lamb.” But one thing that really makes Kansas City barbecue unique is the sweet, spicy, tomato-based sauce that they use.
How You Make It: “It’s pretty much the seasoning and woods that we use that put out the best products. The rubs are a balance between sugar and salt, paprika, chili powder and pepper, which give it a little heat without being really salty or really sweet. Next, we smoke it. My preferred woods are oak, hickory and apple.”
Tips: “Pay attention to what you are doing and, most of all, have patience. Don’t open up the pit to see how the meat is doing – it’s doing just fine.”
Why It’s the Best: “It used to be hard for me to say Kansas City is the barbecue capital of the world until people started competing with our meat and we kept winning. It’s just better. I don’t really know how to compare it. Though I do love all the different types like the vinegar- and mustard-based sauces. As for the ones that don’t have sauce, well, that’s fine too since it’s more an accompanist, not a necessity.”
In the city where dry-rubbed meat trumps saucy brisket and pork reigns as king of meats, we talked to Chris Russell, a barbecue connoisseur who helps whip up the menu at Southern Hospitality in New York, to see why this style won his heart. Russell’s officially the director of operations at the restaurant, although he does a fare amount of barbecuing, and he flocked to the Memphis-style because of its no-mess approach and tender meat that takes on a sweet tang from the spice rubs.
How You Make It: “Though just about any meat can be used, traditional Memphis barbecue is usually smoked pork served in one of two forms: ribs on a slab or pulled. Memphis is probably best known for its dry-rubbed barbecue, which is highly flavorful and is less messy to eat than wet. In this process, first the ribs are coated with a rub made from a special blend of seasonings and then cooked in smokers over hickory and cherry wood until they are tender. After, they’re smoked and then finished on the grill with another liberal dose of the dry rub.”
Tips: “Don’t overcook your ‘cue, it’s not supposed to fall off the bone.”
Why It’s the Best: “In Texas, they serve mostly beef with a salt-and-pepper rub, which can be……
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