shutterstock_101247046_webWhen it comes to barbecue, there are two types of people: the type who thinks of a backyard and burgers, and the type who thinks of a smoky, saucy plate of meat. If you fall into the first group, this blog is for you. Put your aprons away, give your barbecue hand a rest and let us help you raise your barbecue IQ with this guide to the other kind of barbecue.

Though burgers, hot dogs and other backyard barbecue fare typically headline “American” cuisine menus, barbecue sauce is a genuinely American creation, with variations influenced by the cultures and ingredients found in different regions across the U.S. While most of us think of the sweet, burgundy-colored tomato and vinegar condiment served in big-box chain restaurants, there’s much more to the art of barbecue.

In fact, barbecue sauce is not even a necessary component in some parts of the country. Barbecue is, at its heart, a style of cooking that involves “smoking” meat, like chicken, pork or beef, for long periods of time at low temperatures. The resulting product is a tender, smoky flavored dish that is delicious on its own – the sauce is just a bonus!

Here are a few of the most common varieties of barbecue you’ll find in restaurants across the U.S.:

Texas – If you’re ordering barbecue at a Texas restaurant, plan on enjoying some beef. Texas-style barbecue makes use of the state’s ubiquitous cattle to produce tender brisket and beef ribs. Though Texas-style barbecue varies from region to region even within the state, most restaurants will serve your dry rubbed, barbecued meat without sauce on top. Enjoy the smoky flavor on its own, or add your own sauce, which is typically the least sweet of the American regional varieties. Some versions combine tomato, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, while others demonstrate the influence of Mexican cuisine with spicy hot peppers, chili powder and cumin. You’ll even find Texas some barbecue flavored with  coffee.

shutterstock_86646625_webKansas City – Kansas City barbecue sauce is the closest to the packaged version most Americans (or at least most northerners) are accustomed to. Kansas City barbecue sauce is a tomato-based sauce, thinned with vinegar and sweetened with molasses or brown sugar. This sauce is not designed to soak into the meat like some other varieties, but rather rests on top like a frosting glaze. When you order up some Kansas City barbecue, expect to get pork ribs or beef brisket heavily seasoned and rubbed with spices, then hickory-smoked for hours before receiving the quintessential sauce glaze.

Memphis Style –When ordering Memphis-style barbecue ribs or pulled pork, you’ll get two choices: dry or wet. “Dry” versions are liberally coated in a dry rub during or right after cooking, with a spice mix that is usually paprika based and garnished with other ingredients like salt, garlic, onion, black pepper, chili powder, and oregano. “Wet” versions come mopped in a sweet, tomato-based sauce similar to Kansas City-style, which is applied throughout and after cooking. Memphis loves its barbecue so much you can also order up barbecue spaghetti (noodles doused in barbecue sauce) or barbecue baloney!

shutterstock_176142812_webThe Carolinas – There are three major regional differences in the barbecue sauces found across the Carolinas, but one thing is for sure – the whole area is wild for pork, be it pulled, shredded or chopped. When you’re ordering barbecue in this area, here are the differences you’ll want to be aware of:

  • South Carolina – South Carolina barbecue sauce is unique in that it is mustard-based rather than tomato-based like most American regional varieties, which is the result of the large number of German settlers who inhabited the area during early colonial days. The sauce usually involves a yellow mustard base seasoned with vinegar, sugar and other spices and it goes on pork – not chicken or brisket.
  • Eastern North Carolina – Eastern Carolina barbecue goes whole hog – literally. Chopped pork is coated with a thin sauce that lacks the sweetness of other barbecue sauce varieties and instead favors pepper and vinegar. This sauce penetrates the meat rather than sitting on top. A note for parents: the lack of sweetness in this variety might surprise kids, who are used to sugary Kansas City-style versions, so order with care!
  • Western North Carolina – Western Carolina barbecue uses a thin, vinegar-based sauce flavored with pepper like its Eastern cousin, but adds a hint of tomato. Another important distinction – Western Carolina barbecue focuses on pork shoulder, not the whole hog.

Just because these styles are distinguished by region doesn’t mean you need to travel to those areas to try them. Plenty of southern barbecue masters have headed north and west, and you can find barbecue joints specializing in these styles in cities from California to Ohio. And now, you’ll know what the menu means! Start your search for the barbecue variety you’d most like to try at today.