5 Plates in 5 States: A Tour of Southern BBQ Styles

Southern BBQ Chicken

What makes good Southern BBQ? The answer may depend on whom you ask and, more importantly, where they’re from. A creamy mayonnaise-based sauce over poultry may be heaven in Birmingham but not quite right for the Memphis native who likes pork with a spicy, tomato-based topping.

Barbeque in America has a long and rich history, dating back centuries to indigenous peoples from the Caribbean and southeastern United States. Legend has it that the term “barbeque,” is derived from language of the Arawak tribes and their practice of “babacots,” or cooking meat slowly at low temperatures over wood. Smoking meat is similar, but as the name suggests, the method uses more smoke and generally takes longer.

As the country expanded westward, so, too, did the practice of barbeque. As with other cuisines, barbeque took on the tastes of local ingredients and has come to include a broad range of styles and flavors.

Despite the explosion of BBQ across the country, the primary region for American barbeque remains the Southeast. In this culinary-rich region of the U.S., barbeque takes on many forms, and it’s important to know how they differ and overlap. For a quick taste, here’s a look at the main styles of Southern BBQ.

BBQ, Alabama style
Southern BBQ, Alabama style (Source: iStock.com/AlexPro9500).

Alabama

While Alabamans are fine with both chicken and pork, chicken tends to be more prevalent. The state’s famous white mayonnaise barbeque sauce is attributed to Big Bob Gibson, a barbeque restaurateur from Decatur. Gibson made the sauce in 1925 for a friend who didn’t care much for the more commonly used tomato-based sauce. The rest is saucy history.

South Carolina

Folks in South Carolina enjoy a whole hog barbeque. The cooking is done over the course of several hours in a pit (dug or constructed) with a hardwood fire. This method, which has not changed in centuries, is designed to break down the connective tissue in the meat to reduce excessive toughness. The accompanying sauce is typically vinegar-based with tomato and mustard accents for a rich, tangy taste.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, there are two main barbeque techniques. To the east, they cook the whole hog like their neighbors to the south, but serve it chopped with a vinegar-based sauce. Further west, it’s just the shoulder that is cooked, then pulled apart and served in a sandwich with a tomato-based topping.

Memphis BBQ
In Memphis, things can get sticky. (Source: iStock.com/Victority).

Tennessee

In Memphis, it’s all about pork – either smoked pulled pork, or ribs – served wet (laden with a tomato-based sauce then smoked for a sticky, glazed effect) or dry (rubbed with herbs and spices before smoking). You won’t find any soppy sauce here.

Southern bbq in Kentucky
Kentucky is famous for its lamb and mutton bbq (Source: iStock/grandriver).

Kentucky

Barbeque in western Kentucky means mutton, smoked with hickory wood and served with a black Worcestershire-based sauce. Owensboro is also famous for Burgoo, a hearty stew that typically includes roasted mutton and other meats.

To be sure you know exactly what American barbeque style you prefer, make a trip around the South and taste your way to the best. We guarantee there will be something that suits your palate.