Hot and spicy barbecue sauce in a pot next to ribs

Barbecue sauce and ribs (© HLPhoto - stock.adobe.com)

Mouth-watering ribs, succulent pulled pork, beef brisket, and so much more are all the delicious hallmarks of American Regional BBQ. Of course, smoked meats, cheese, vegetables, and fish are prepared as a part of major cuisines all over the world. Hot and cold smoking techniques were originally developed as a means of preserving food for storage, to add flavor, and to prevent spoilage. In the modern American context, smoked meats are the meticulously perfected art of pitmasters. The best American regional BBQ celebrates the amazingly rich culinary traditions of the United States and each region that practices the fine craft of BBQ has its own unique methods and flavors. Hungry yet? Let’s explore the top five regions for American BBQ.

The four “classical” regions of American BBQ styles are Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas, and Texas. These are by no means a definitive list and the regional stylings have grown to become more specific over time. Texas BBQ for example is often divided into Central, East, South, and West varieties. Carolina ‘Cue is further demarked as Eastern North Carolina, Western North Carolina, and South Carolina styles. In the modern American culinary lexicon, there are even new contenders like Chicago and California that have established themselves as emerging BBQ styles. BBQ is an art, a passion, and a way of life for many American eaters.

Smoked meats have a long history of being food for the masses. Smoking adds flavor, but it also turns less-desirable cuts like the rib, neckbone, or tail into culinary feasts. Working class folks could count on a smoked hot link or a pile of pulled pork on a slice of white bread to keep them going during the workday. Like so many heritage delicacies, BBQ transformed over time from a blue-collar food into a white-table cloth dining experience for some.

Despite this trend toward a bougie city version of BBQ, the best ‘cue in the nation should be enjoyed outdoors, served on butcher paper, and enjoyed with friends in an unpretentious way. After all barbecue is best when you eat it with your hands. When BBQ is done correctly, these incomparable smoked delicacies are culinary magic that simply must be experienced by those seeking the greatest flavors of American Regional Cuisine.

With so many up-and-comers, we needed our sources to rank the best regions for American BBQ. Did we miss a hot spot for smoked meats? Let us know your favorite BBQ regions in the comments below!

board of grilled meats
Board of smoked BBQ ribs (Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)

The List: Best American Regional BBQ, According to Foodies

1. Kansas City Style BBQ

Kansas City BBQ is ranked as the best by our sources. This delectable regional style includes sweeter sauces and a special emphasis on burnt beef brisket ends. Food & Wine acclaims, “This beloved barbecue capital is famous for its sweet tomato-and-molasses-based sauce, poured on everything from pulled pork sandwiches and beef and pork ribs to smoked chicken and turkey. Restaurants here will smoke just about everything, usually over hickory wood. Burnt ends, flavor-packed nuggets cut from the end of smoked brisket and slathered in the tangy sauce, are a local favorite, and no platter is complete without a side of spicy-sweet baked beans.”

A pulled pork sandwich on a wooden cutting board
A pulled pork sandwich (Photo by Rachel Bramlett on Unsplash)

WebstaurantStore Blog praises this regional style, “Kansas City style BBQ offers a smorgasbord of slow-smoked meats rubbed down in a sweet seasoning and slathered in a thick, sugary sauce. Brown sugar is the base ingredient of Kansas City rub (traditional recipes call for a two-to-one ratio of brown sugar to paprika). Pitmasters keep their heat low to prevent the caramelizing sugar from charring and blackening their meats.”

Taste Atlas raves, “Barbecued meat is the gastronomic passion of the so-called ‘world capital of barbecue,’ also known as Kansas City. Barbecued pork ribs, flavorful slices of hot or cold beef brisket, or a ‘pig salad’ of succulent pulled pork – those are just some of the delicacies of the Kansas City-style barbecue.”

2. Texas BBQ

Texas is the state that is perhaps best recognized globally for its BBQ reputation. With no fewer than four subregions, Texas BBQ platters have gigantic portions and proportionally huge flavor. Smoked BBQ Source offers clarification, “When we think of Texas barbecue, we think of beef brisket, slowly smoked on an offset smoker for hours at a time until it is melt in your mouth tender. In Texas beef has always been easily available and relatively cheap, so it has always been a staple on menus in barbecue restaurants.”

Forklift and Palate also praises the Lone Star State approach that emphasizes the flavor of the meat rather than sauces, “Texas-style BBQ comes in at number one. Specialties include beef brisket, sausage, and beef ribs. The rub comprises simple salt and pepper, and the sauce is thin and tomato based. If you’re a fan of simple, traditional and hardy barbecue, this style will likely suit you best.”

The MeatStick adds, “One of the most famous things about Texas is its BBQ. With a long history dating back to the 19th century, smoked meats that were originally sold by German and Czech settlers made its way into the heart of Texans, who developed their own unique spin on this BBQ.”

3. Memphis BBQ

In Tennessee, pitmasters put a low and slow smoke on pork shoulder that makes it take the vibrant pink color only found as an outer “ring” on other types of ‘cue. They smoke every part of the pig but the oink; and perfect Memphis BBQ is unlike any other. Delish explains the most important details, “Memphis is known for loving pork—ribs, pulled, shoulder—pork, pork, pork. It may be rubbed with spices like paprika and garlic in a ‘dry’ fashion. If it’s prepared ‘wet,’ however, it’ll be continuously brushed with a sauce while being smoked.”

Brushing BBQ sauce on racks of ribs in a Z Grill pellet smoker
Someone brushing BBQ sauce on a rack of ribs (Photo by Z Grills Australia on Unsplash)

Thrillist also enthusiastically claims, ‘“No one does pork like Memphis,’ says Andrew Pollard of A&R Bar-B-Que. ‘We cook our meat long and slow, 14-plus hours, in a big open pit with the wood directly under the meat.’ Occasionally you’ll see pitmasters use a dry rub of paprika, garlic, and other spices, but Pollard says purists don’t even use salt and pepper. ‘We let the meat soak up the taste of the pit,’ he says. When it comes to sauce, it’s tangy and tomato-based, and usually slathered on a pulled pork sandwich.”

“Ribs also rule the Memphis BBQ scene. Here they’re served either wet (mopped with a sweet tomato-based sauce) or dry (rubbed with a spice mix that’s heavy on the garlic and paprika and served sauce-free). Pulled pork is also popular here; sometimes it’s even served atop spaghetti or on pizza,” according to Gold Belly.

4. South Carolina BBQ

Carolina BBQ sauce is tangy and sometimes mustard-based, but it is always so good you’d dip the bones in it just to get a little more. Like the other regions on the list, this style is heavily influenced by German culinary heritage. “While various parts of South Carolina don’t agree on the best sauce for its renowned BBQ, they do agree on slow-roasting whole pigs over a pit or grill rack to achieve that succulent, smokey flavor BBQ lovers lust after… the mustard-based Carolina Gold Sauce will offer the most distinct BBQ eating experience in the Palmetto State,” adds Tasting Table.

Traeger Grills Liquid Gold Carolina-Style Barbecue Sauce
Traeger Grills Liquid Gold Carolina-Style Barbecue Sauce

Food & Wine opines of this place with the divine swine, “The stretch of South Carolina from roughly Columbia to Charleston is known as ‘the Mustard Belt.’ The region’s distinctive mustard-based sauce originated with German settlers in the 18th century, and it’s applied liberally to whole hog ‘cue smoked over open wood pits. All-you-can-eat buffets are popular in these parts, with many trays full of chopped pork and dozens of Southern sides.”

Smoked BBQ Source stans for South Carolina mustard BBQ sauce, “The sweet yellow gold of a mustard-based barbecue sauce is steeped in tradition and tastes much better than you would expect. German immigrants made up a large patch of the original settlers in South Carolina, and they came with mustard, or at least with their love for it.”

5. Alabama

Though typically not included in the “Big Four” BBQ regions, Alabama BBQ has roots as old as they get. Alabama BBQ is known for a namesake white BBQ sauce that is utterly unique and fully delicious. “‘Alabama barbecue is all about the meat, typically pork shoulder and whole chickens,’ says Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama. ‘Alabamians like to sample barbecue first, without sauce. Great barbecue will stand alone, not needing extra sauce to improve the flavor. Sauce should be a complement to the flavor of smoked meat and not a cover-up,”’ writes thrillist.

“Alabama barbecue is identified by pork, chopped or sliced, served on a hamburger bun with coleslaw and dill pickles. In the north, you’ll find vinegar-based sauces, while all around the state, you’ll find a white barbecue sauce of mayo, vinegar, lemon juice, black pepper, and salt smothering all the meat,” explains Delish.

Food & Wine adds, “Alabama is home to nearly every style of Southern barbecue, but the state does add at least one touch that’s all its own. Decatur is the place to taste white barbecue sauce, a thin mayo-and-vinegar condiment that’s swiped on chicken, both as a marinade and a table sauce. The founders at local legend Big Bob Gibson’s, whose pitmaster Chris Lilly is widely renowned on the competitive ‘cue circuit, claim to have invented the white sauce, though takeout-only Whitt’s is a good alternative if the crowds at Big Bob’s are too much.”

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

About Alan Corona

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