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It’s Time To Settle The Debate: BBQ Vs. Grilling
Finally learn the difference between barbecuing and grilling, and try to determine which style of BBQ is truly superior to all others!
Outdoor BBQs with friends and family are a staple of the Summer months. But, what if we told you that you weren’t actually barbecuing? Depending on where you live in the United States, the locals have different definitions of what constitutes barbecuing versus grilling. That said, the official definition seems to be that you are barbecuing when you are cooking meat or vegetables using circumvented hot air with the lid closed. Meanwhile, grilling is done using direct heat and the lid is left open. To get more specific, grilling involves cooking food quickly on a rack using an intense heat source that is typically created using a charcoal fire or ceramic briquettes heated by gas flames. Conversely, barbecuing is a slow process that uses low heat to cook food on a rack or revolving spit while exposed to an enclosed heat source. Plus, it’s important to note that not all grills and BBQs can go back and forth because each cooking method has different requirements involving space, rotisserie attachments and the presence of burners. For example, a grill with one burner is strictly a grill and can’t be used for BBQ as well.
Now that we’ve established the difference between barbecuing and grilling, we have to talk about the food! Taste and style is everything, and the type of food will determine if it should be grilled or barbecued. If you are cooking a piece of meat, the cooking method may be determined by the cut, size, and desired taste or texture. For example, you might want to grill a steak and barbecue a pork butt. But even within the world of BBQ, each state seems to have a right way to do it. Take a look at some of the most popular styles of BBQ, and see if you can settle the debate of who does it best once and for all!
Texas BBQ has earned its fame as one of the best places for BBQ in the country because of the state’s unique way of preparing its most common dishes, which usually consist of brisket, pork and sausage. That said, the right way to BBQ is heavily debated within Texas and has actually divided the state into 4 regions that all BBQ a bit differently. Central Texas prioritizes brisket and simplicity, usually seasoning dishes with just salt and pepper and opting to forgo additional sauces when serving. Once the meat is lightly seasoned, it’s cooked over indirect heat from pecan, oak or mesquite wood. Similar to Central Texas, West Texas likes to BBQ using mesquite wood, but this region’s method is much more similar to grilling. BBQ starts to really differentiate in South Texas, where meat is marinated in thick, molasses-like sauces that keep the meat moist and juicy after cooking. In Eastern Texas, the name of the game is chopped beef and pork that is barbecued over hickory wood until the meat practically falls off the bone. As far as which region in Texas barbecues best, the world may never know!
We know we just went on and on about Texas and Memphis is a city in Texas, but we’re moving on to Memphis in Tennessee. Often regarded as one of the food capitals of the world, Memphis, Tennessee serves some truly incredible BBQ. In this city, the chef’s goal is to cook the meat for as long as possible without adding any glaze or sauce, letting all the delicious flavoring come from the rub and hickory wood.
However, that doesn’t mean all Memphis BBQ is served without seasoning or sauce. Like many Southern States, Tennessee residents love pork ribs that can be served “wet” or “dry.” Wet ribs are often served with a sweet tomato-based BBQ sauce while dry ribs are rubbed with a spice mix that usually contains salt, cayenne, pepper, and garlic powder prior to grilling.
Of course, we can’t discuss BBQ without mentioning Kansas City! Kansas City BBQ first became famous around the 1920s, when a man named Henry Perry started barbecuing in an outdoor pit next to his streetcar barn. He’d serve slabs of meat wrapped in newspapers to delighted customers, who loved Henry’s barbecuing so much they started trying to replicate his style themselves.
Today, Kansas City BBQ is noteworthy because of the state’s ability to cook a variety of meats well, including chicken, sausage, pork, beef, lamb, and fish, although Kansas City Burnt Ends are particularly beloved. Meanwhile, other regions tend to specialize in just a couple main dishes. Kansas City BBQ is typically prepared low and slow over hickory. After being slow-smoke or grilled to perfection, the meat is served slathered in thick molasses and tomato-based sauces.
In addition to battling it out with other states for the honor of being home to the best BBQ, the Carolinas have their own rivalry for who does it best. The only thing that the Carolinas really agree on is that meat should always be smoked. Let’s start by taking a closer look at North Carolina because the state is said to be home to the “original BBQ recipe.” To be considered quality BBQ in North Carolina, the meat must be barbecued and not grilled, the meat must be made from pork, and it has to be served with a thin-vinegar based sauce.
North Carolina’s standards for BBQ have led to the development of two distinct BBQ styles within the state, which are Eastern and Lexington. Eastern Style BBQ is all about cooking the entire hog low and slow over hickory. It is then served with lemon juice or vinegar, pepper-based sauces, and can be used for delicious pulled pork sandwiches or Carolina Pulled Pork Dip. This type of BBQ utilizes absolutely no tomato in the sauces or cooking process. Meanwhile, Lexington style BBQ revolves around only using the pork shoulder instead of the entire hog, which is served with vinegar, ketchup and spice-based sauces along with red slaw and classic Southern hushpuppies.
South Carolina also believes it is the birthplace of original BBQ, and prides itself on the strategic use of 4 sauces, which are mustard, heavy tomato, light tomato, and vinegar and pepper. The most prevalent sauce is known as “Carolina Gold,” which is made from mustard, brown sugar, and vinegar. Similar to Eastern Style BBQ in its sister state, South Carolina cooking prioritizes using the whole hog. However, South Carolina’s use of sauces is what really makes this state’s BBQ stand out.
St. Louis is known as a barbecue town, and is particularly famous for making the best spare ribs, which are always cut in the “St. Louis Style.” This means that the strip of meat and cartilage near the sternum is trimmed away so the whole rack is cleaned up, making it look neat and tidy. The style is so popular that St. Louis Style Ribs are often a class entry at BBQ competitions throughout the country.
That said, St. Louis also excels at barbecuing lesser known pork cuts, including rib tips, pork snoots, and pork steaks, which are often paired with a lettuce-free salad. Like South Carolina, St. Louis’ signature style BBQ sauce helps this town stand out from the competition. But while South Carolina is known for 4 different sauces, St. Louis BBQ is defined by one sweet, thick sauce. The sauce can be slightly acidic and sticky, and is tomato-based.
Sauce has been a theme with our last few states and Alabama is no exception. This state is famous for it’s white BBQ sauce, which is made from mayonnaise, vinegar, and a generous amount of black pepper. The sauce is traditionally served with BBQ chicken.
This state also stands out because while many BBQ hubs rely on hickory for cooking, Alabama also utilizes oak and pecan wood for variety in flavors. In addition to cooking chicken, Alabama specializes in pork, mainly focusing on the pork shoulder and ribs and can be served chipped, chopped, sliced, or as a burger. If serving the meat with the signature white sauce isn’t appropriate, Alabama often uses tomato-based BBQ sauces that are reminiscent of what you might find in Memphis.
Santa Maria is probably the least talked about BBQ style on this list, but we think this style is a truly delicious underdog that is here to stay. This method of barbecuing first became prominent along the California coast in the mid-19th century. Local ranchers began hosting Spanish style barbecues for their vaqueros, or horseback riders who herded the ranchers’ livestock, to express gratitude for their work. As a mainstay of California’s culinary heritage, Santa Maria-Style BBQ prioritizes beef tri-tip that is seasoned with black pepper, salt, and garlic. The meat is cooked on an iron grill using native coast live oak and an oxidative fire to account for the powerful gusts of wind that happen frequently in the Santa Maria Valley. Regional variations of Santa Maria-Style BBQ will also cook venison or sausage along with the tri-tip, but the key is to always serve the meat with pinquito beans.