BBQ Across America- A Guide to Grilling Styles by Region

From the vinegar-splashed whole-hog pig pickin’ in North Carolina to the finger-licking, sticking sweet sauce of Memphis, there’s no doubt about it: America is the home of barbecue. We may not all agree about the best sauce, the best rub, or even the best meat, but one thing is for certain: barbecue is at the heart of the nation. 


Barbecue is a passion for some folks, but the barbecue regions of America are divided almost as clearly as our state lines. Want to know more about BBQ across America? Here’s your guide to grilling styles, region by region. 

A Guide to Grilling Styles Across the U.S.

Grilling in the South: Memphis


If you were to invite someone from across the pond to experience American barbecue, you’d probably bring them to Memphis. The flaky, fall-off-the-bone style of ribs Memphis is loved for is quintessentially American, from the hickory smoked flavor to a tomato-forward sauce on the side. 


Country style ribs grilled right are a staple of Memphis cuisine, and of American BBQ history. Memphis barbecue was born on the ports of the Mississippi, and has retained its sweet-as-molasses (easy to grab off the docks) flavor even today.


Memphis barbecue grilling styles may vary from backyard to backyard, but this cuisine is typically pork. Trying your hand at Memphis style barbecue at home? Grab some Whiskey Barrel Smoking Wood to get that fire smoking hot. 

Photo by Bao Menglong on Unsplash

Grilling in the Southeast: North Carolina


From Memphis, we’ll travel east to Carolina – North Carolina, that is – where barbecue flavors have divided the state east from west. When you order barbecue in the east, you won’t get those messy country style ribs on the grill. You’ll be served up a plate of pulled pork, a scoop of collards, a dollop of slaw and some hush puppies. 


The barbecue in Eastern North Carolina is splashed with (or drenched in, depending on who you ask) a vinegar-based, slightly tangy sauce with just a little heat. Headed to the Great Smoky Mountains? Western Carolina barbecue features a ketchup-based red sauce that’s thick and sticky. 


The biggest difference between Eastern and Western Carolina BBQ? In the west, you’ll usually find just pork shoulder served on your plate. In the east, Carolinians use the whole hog, so you’ve got to know how to grill pork if you want to keep up there. In fact, we’ve heard a pig pickin’ makes for a great rehearsal dinner for a true Southern couple. 


We won’t tell you which grilling style we like better, but (here’s a hint) if you want to try that tangy Eastern style goodness, you’ll need a quality drip pan to catch that fatty goodness. 

Grilling in the Midwest: Kansas City


Let’s move out to the Midwest and talk about Kansas City barbecue. It’s not for everyone, because Kansas City is one of the most bustling meat-packing hubs in the country. Kansas City folks believe that if it once said moo, quack, oink or cock-a-doodle-doo, it’s fair game for the grill. 


If you don’t care which animal supplied your barbecue, you may find that you’re into the Kansas City grilling style. Like other types of barbecue, Kansas City meat is slow-cooked on ultra-low heat. What you may find different about the meat you’re served at a Kansas City BBQ restaurant is that your plate will be loaded with burnt ends and fatty pieces. 


As with many barbecue grilling styles, Kansas City meats are preferable to the locals when hickory smoked and glazed with a molasses-rich, sticky sauce. 

Grilling in the Northern Midwest: Chicago


The Windy City is much like North Carolina in that barbecue divides the city. The history of Chicago barbecue is a long and storied one. Travel north in the city and you’ll find the boilbecue. In the 1800s, Eastern Europeans came to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire. They’d always boiled their meats, cabbage and just about everything else back home, so the ribs they savored were boiled as well. 


But these immigrants fell in love with the sweet sauce the locals used in their barbecue, and adopted it as their own. The result is the Northside barbecue you’ll find in restaurants today. 


In the South, settlers often used cuts of meats others would toss away. In fact, you’ll still find “unexpected” cuts of barbecue, though rib tips are favored over most of the city. 

Grilling in the Southwest: Texas


As with most things in the Lone Star State, Texans do barbecue a little differently. The style you’ll eat, though, depends on where you travel in the state. In Central Texas, it’s not unusual to be served up a plate of slow-smoked meat with just a salt and pepper dry rub. In the east, you’ll find that same smoked meat served in a thick pool of a sweet tomato-based sauce. 


Travel to the south of the state and you’ll find a classic Mexican dish called barbacoa. The grilling style of south Texas is heavily influenced by the Hispanic cuisine; it’s a bit more spicy than other styles. Don’t be surprised if you find barbecue cow’s tongue on a Southern Texas menu! 


Finally, West Texas barbecue is the most like the grilling style you do in your own backyard, meaning it’s cooked over an open flame. A smoky Mesquite flavor is West Texas barbecue’s claim to fame. 

Photo by Matt Connor on Unsplash

Grilling in the West: California


Finally, we head out west to California, where the center of the state has a grilling style all its own. The ingredients are simple: meat, salt, pepper and the open air. Santa Maria style barbecue is to cook over wood embers, but only for around two or three hours. A grate is raised and lowered so the cook can control the heat. 


You may be used to barbecue that takes hours to perfect, but don’t knock Santa Maria barbecue until you’ve tried it! Try a good sirloin grilled over red oak. Then, order a side of pinquito beans and top that plate with salsa. You’ll be in barbecue heaven.

A National Dish, Served Locally

As you can see, grilling styles across the United States differ quite a bit. Even within a state, you can hear squabbles between grill masters over which is the best style, sauce or cut of meat. 


But wherever you go, you’re guaranteed a dish cooked with passion and served with pride; after all, barbecue is America’s cuisine, and one that every state can be proud of.