Best BBQ Recipes, From Easy Hacks to Whole Hog
Learn about America's favorite types of BBQ, then choose your cooking adventure from slow-cooker to low-and-slow smoking
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American barbecue can mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. For me, growing up in a suburb on New York’s Long Island, it meant throwing some meat on the grill — burgers, dogs, maybe some chicken, and definitely Italian sausage. But as I made my way down south — first for college in New Orleans; then deep-dive visits to Birmingham, Memphis, and Austin; and now as a resident of Atlanta — I learned that it can be so much more.
Traditional barbecue — a word derived from barbacoa, a framework for supporting meat over a fire — is an art form. And it’s a labor of love, with careful attention to wood and smokers, stoking fires, prodding at meat, and making special sauces. Classic American barbecue is nuanced, smoke-infused slow cooking defined by four distinct BBQ styles in the continental U.S., and interpreted deliciously from sea to shining sea.
Luckily, whether you have the appetite for time-honored techniques or you want to cut to the chase with a shortcut method, there’s a recipe that’s right for you.
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What are the different regional styles of BBQ?
Traditional barbecue in the United States is generally divided into four major pillars whose styles are geographically distinctive: Kansas City, Memphis, Carolina, and Texas. Then there’s Hawaiian BBQ, which may not be as well known, but has plenty of fans.
Within the four pillars, there are differences. For example, Texas-style barbecue is famous for its sausages, prioritizes beef, and is lauded for brisket, pink-rimmed with a tell-tale smoke ring under a black bark. It’s cooked low and slow, enveloped in a cloud of smoke. However, folks will do it differently in Central Texas, West Texas, East Texas, and South Texas: dry-rubbed and cooked indirectly with pecan or oak, directly cooked over mesquite wood, sweet tomato-marinated over hickory, and enveloped in thick sauce, respectively.
The Carolinas have another barbecue style. Although both states focus on pork, parts of North Carolina BBQ favor pork shoulder (Lexington style) while others, and all of South Carolina BBQ, are about the whole hog. However, in South Carolina’s PeeDee, shoulder, ham, and Boston butt reign supreme. Further differences come into play with the sauces that accompany the meat, but more on that later!
Memphis, Tennessee BBQ is another pork-prominent style, but their cuts of choice add ribs to the shoulders. This type of cooking is done slowly in a pit, and is equally authentic dry, rubbed with a dry blend of paprika and up to 40 other spices, or wet, mopped with sauce before, during, and after cooking for a trifecta of lacquered lusciousness.
Then we have the broadest, Kansas City style, which encompasses slow-smoked and grilled preparations of all kinds of proteins. Beef and pork are well represented at any self-respecting Kansas City BBQ restaurant, along with the city’s signature burnt ends, but you’ll also see turkey, chicken, mutton, fish, and all other manner of meat. What ties them together is Kansas City barbecue sauce, which is simultaneously spicy, tangy, and sweet, with tomatoes at its core.
Bringing up the rear is Hawaiian barbecue, traditionally slow-cooked underground with hot rocks and most easily recognizable as the whole-hog Kalua pork served at touristy luaus. The new guard, however, include sauces, marinades, and ingredients from this Pacific Rim state’s multicultural background, with influences that include Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Polynesian, Portuguese — as well as local seafood.
What are the different types of BBQ sauce by region?
The meat and the process are intrinsically important, but another characteristic that distinguishes one region’s barbecue from another is the sauce you drench it in … or lack thereof. Dry rubs have their own legions of fans, and many pitmasters will have their own proprietary blends. But for some, the meat is just a vehicle for exceptional sauce.
Eastern North Carolina BBQ uses a tangy vinegar and pepper-based sauce that is actually considered “the mother of all American barbecue sauces,” and woe be to you if you dare add tomatoes. However, head west toward Lexington and the Piedmont, and adding tomatoes to a base of vinegar, red pepper flakes, and spices is more than fine. Go one state over to South Carolina, and toward the west, a ketchup base kicked up with pepper is acceptable, while in the Midlands, they swear by mustard instead — their Carolina Gold sauce is a nod to a proud German heritage.
Another famous BBQ sauce style is Kansas City’s, known for being on the more viscous side, thick and sweet, thanks to a tomato and molasses or brown sugar base. It’s the most commonly emulated by the big brands you’ll find in supermarkets, and in more forms than bottled sauce. If you’ve had the ubiquitous BBQ potato chips served at a cookout, or dipped your nuggets in fast-food BBQ sauce, you have an idea of its flavor profile. Thin it out a little with vinegar and turn down the sugar, and you have its cousin, St. Louis barbecue sauce.
Between the Carolinas and Missouri, there’s Tennessee’s Memphis-style sauce, which has a little more of a kick and a little less body than KC, but is thicker than North Carolina’s vinegar sauce. Here, the BBQ sauce is meant as a dipping condiment.
Further south, folks in Alabama top their meats with mayo-based white sauce. In New Orleans, their signature barbecue shrimp isn’t barbecue at all, but rather a spice-spiked stovetop sauce with a whopping amount of butter.
Finally, in Texas, it’s East and South Texas that like to sauce things up, so much so that some smokehouses will use an actual mop for big batches. In both areas, they use a thin basting glaze that’s smokier than the other styles.
However, one of Texas’s most famous barbecue joints achieved superstar status with a recall to Hawaiian barbecue. The beloved sauce at The Salt Lick in Driftwood, just outside of Austin, was actually inspired by the Hawaiian heritage of one of the original owners, Hisako T. Roberts.
What type of wood is used for BBQ?
There are a variety of woods you can use for barbecue in America, and these, too, can vary by region. In East Texas, hickory wood is the flavor of choice as the meat — typically marinated beef — cooks low and slow off the bone. This results in a savory heartiness reminiscent of bacon. In Central Texas, nutty, sweet pecan or basic, medium oak wood is preferred, while in West Texas, intense and distinctive mesquite is the way to go.
In general, though, for barbecuing beef and pork (including sausages), it’s hard to go wrong with any hardwood like hickory, pecan, oak, and mesquite for the bold. For lighter proteins such as chicken or fish, lighter woods such as apple, maple, cherry, and alder are your best bet. In other words, consider pairing your woods as you would your wine: heavy meats, harder woods. And if that sounds like a lot to master, well, there’s always liquid smoke.
7 easy BBQ recipes
While everyone has the appetite for barbecue, not everyone has the time or materials to cook the traditional way. With this first set of recipes you have options for shortcuts and hacks that will make your dinner guests swear that you’ve transported them to a BBQ capital instead of your backyard.
Yes, authentic Texas-style barbecue brisket involves hours and hours of laborious smoking. If you can get the same results in less time, well, why not? You won’t get that smoke ring, sure, but when all you need is a grill, an oven, and 3 or so hours, it’s a pretty fair tradeoff.
The previous brisket recipe has you go from grill to oven, but this one flips the script. Although shorter slabs of beef back ribs are easier to maneuver, we say if you can fit one of those big dinosaur bone-style beef ribs on your grill, go for it.
Great news! For some dishes, you don’t even need to fire up the grill or the oven to emulate the effect of barbecue. While a slow cooker can’t impart the rich depth of flavor or smokiness of real barbecue, it can at least do low, slow, and fall-apart well.
Tasty, tender pulled meats aren’t limited to pork, as this recipe proves. It smartly pulls in liquid smoke to mimic that flavor, and suggests dark meat on the bone for juicier results and deeper flavor.
For another easy barbecue recipe, try these baby back ribs coated with a sweet and savory dry rub, a wee bit of sauce, and roasted off the bone right in the oven. This Yummly original includes an easy-to-follow video.
Hawaiian barbecue typically just means the addition of tropical or Asian flavors, and soy sauce and pineapple are entry-level ways to get to the Pacific Rim. Try a new flavor with simple grilled chicken breasts.
Cooking chicken on a bone can be time-consuming. Removing the backbone and butterflying the bird — also known as spatchcocking — cuts down on that significantly. Bonus: Having a batch of dry rub and a favorite BBQ sauce on hand brings the ingredient list down to just 4.
6 low-and-slow BBQ recipes
You’ve heard me say low and slow several times already, and that’s because this method yields the juiciest, smokiest meats. If shortcuts aren’t for you, then these next recipes most certainly are.
Here’s the step-by-step recipe you need for pulling off traditional Texas-style BBQ, with all the details for smoking a full packer beef brisket to succulent perfection. Where the recipe departs from tradition is the delicious root beer BBQ sauce.
If you’ve got a smoker or grill and some wood chunks, you’ve got the necessary equipment to cook up authentic Missouri-quality pork ribs at home. This lip-smacking recipe starts with a dry rub for base flavor, then elevates it with an easy vinegar, ketchup, and spice St. Louis-style sauce.
Mesquite is typically reserved for beef, but this recipe is not afraid to take a bolder approach … and neither are we.
Who says Thanksgiving is the only time to enjoy a good turkey? Add this to your summer repertoire by using your grill as a smoker. This recipe tells you how, and guides you to taming mesquite’s heaviness with honey.
Pork belly became the “it” meat of the culinary world several years ago, and although it’s not “hogging” the spotlight as much as it was, it’s still nothing to sniff at ... especially if you’re infusing it with smoky aroma, in which case, you’re going to want to take a deep breath.
Ready to go whole hog? Try this ambitious project for your next big barbecue. You need 9 hours and a smoker or grill big enough to fit 70 pounds of meat, but it’s easier than you think — and the results of this backyard feast will be more dramatic and impressive than your guests could imagine.
3 easy BBQ sauce recipes
Change up your favorite barbecued protein with a generous brushing or spoonful of one of these delicious sauces.
Simple grilled chicken breasts or a quick ribs recipe become special when you add the classic thick, sweet flavors of Kansas City.
Little did you know that Carolina Gold could be this easy … or this paleo! A classic recipe gets a modern-day makeover with raw honey and coconut aminos to help barbecue fans enjoy their meat in an even more old-fashioned way.
Take your saucy self one state up with this easy Lexington-style barbecue sauce, where tomato paste adds another dimension to the apple cider vinegar that carries the flavor.
Learn more about the art of ‘cue
Whether you define barbecue as a quick flash on a hot grill or a day-long adventure hovering near a low fire, we have lots more amazing recipes to explore.
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