Essentials: Barbecue Basics

Real food people might throw around the terms grilling and barbecuing interchangeably, but when they get down to business they know there are big differences between the two. The 411: Grilling is a quicker and hotter way to cook; barbecuing is a slow-and-low method of cooking.

Barbecue versus grilling 
The key to true barbecue is a low temperature, between 212 and 300 degrees F, and a long, long cooking time (often, hours). The low temperature keeps meats — whether beef, pork or poultry — juicy, and a lengthy stay in a covered grill, a makeshift smoker or a real-deal smoker lends proteins telltale smokiness.

Over the top 
Barbecued foods get their taste from wood chips or charcoal, often enhanced by marinades, wet or dry rubs, mops and sauces.

Barbecuing, American Style(s) 
All barbecue is not created equal — just travel some American byways, ask the locals what's essential and taste the difference. Here's a sampling:

Carolina BBQ

  • Origins: This old-time American barbecue (probably the original) dates to Colonial times.

  • Meat: Pulled pork, either the shoulder (butt) or the whole hog

  • Sauce: Eastern North Carolinians prefer a peppery vinegar sauce. In the west, the sauce is thickened with ketchup or tomato sauce and loses some of the vinegar. In South Carolina, the sauce is yellow from the added mustard.

  • Preparation: The meat is smoked over oak or hickory, sometimes above a pit dug in the ground (don't try this at home, kids) and cooked over coals for 12 hours. The meat is then "picked" off the carcass and shredded or chopped before the vinegar sauce is heaped on.

Memphis BBQ

  • Origins: Probably developed shortly after the Civil War, this urban style of barbecue required less space, time and fuel.

  • Meat: Ribs, traditionally spareribs

  • Sauce: Ketchup, sugar, vinegar and mustard, with other flavorings such as Worcestershire, powdered garlic and a dash of pepper.

  • Preparation: Memphis-style is what most people expect of barbecue: pork ribs with a sticky sweet-and-sour, tomato-based mopping sauce (a mopping sauce is usually thin and watery, spread on the meat with what looks like a small mop). Served either "wet" (with the sauce brushed on during cooking) or "dry" (sauce on the side).

Texas BBQ

  • Origins: During those long Texas cattle drives, barbecue was a great way to serve leftover beef to the cowboys. Today, Texans still can't get enough of it.

  • Meat: Beef, usually brisket, dry-rubbed and smoked over mesquite

  • Sauce: Tomato-based with plenty of mustardy tang, but less sweet than the sauces in Memphis or the Carolinas.

  • Preparation: Cooked slowly over indirect heat, most of its flavor comes from the smoke. Proper slicing is crucial to good Texas BBQ. Brisket must be cut across the grain to be tender.

Kansas City BBQ

  • Origins: Kansas is a BBQ crossroads. It bridges both Texas and Southern BBQ styles.

  • Meat: Brisket and ribs coexist here

  • Sauce: Its sweet-hot, tomato-based sauce is the model for most bottled BBQ sauces. This is what most people recognize as barbecue sauce.

  • Preparation: K.C. sauce is both a mop sauce and a table sauce. Traditional versions often begin with loads of butter, plenty of garlic and onions, and enough chili powder to clear your sinuses.

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