How Barbecue Works


Jonh Luong, chef at Veranda Asian Market, adds slices of fresh BBQ pork to a rice, sliced carrot and mustard greens dinner. Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Jonh Luong, chef at Veranda Asian Market, adds slices of fresh BBQ pork to a rice, sliced carrot and mustard greens dinner. Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Barbecue is one of the most beloved of American traditions. From Fourth of July picnics to the joints that became gathering places in towns and cities, barbecue has brought people together to socialize, raise money for important causes, decide which political candidates to support and just enjoy some good eating. Beyond that, barbecue has helped reinforce the American ideal of egalitarianism. It's a cuisine that is beloved by the rich and poor, by whites and African-Americans alike.

Some people use the word barbecue as a verb, others as a noun and a verb. In the strict sense, barbecue is the art of preparing and cooking meat slowly over burning wood that gives off smoke to add to the flavor, and then serving this meat with a sweet or spicy sauce [source: Moss].

But barbecue is much more a type of cooking. It's a ritual that over the past five centuries has become an intrinsic part of American life, particularly in the South, but also in the Southwest and Midwest. George Washington famously enjoyed barbecues, and Abraham Lincoln's parents held a barbecue after their wedding in 1806 [source: Raichlen].

"To trace the story of barbecue is to trace the very thread of American history," barbecue historian Robert Moss has written.

No kidding. Americans are so passionate about barbecue that the subject has inspired a whole literary genre of barbecue books — not just collections of recipes, either, but histories and meditations on its cultural meaning. Musicians have composed scores of songs about the cooking style, ranging from Louis Armstrong's 1927 tune "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" to ZZ Top's 1972 cut "Bar-B-Q" [source: Drozdowski].

One reason for Americans' enduring devotion to barbecue may be its complexity. Barbecue is the antithesis of fast food. It takes many hours of careful preparation and slow, deliberate cooking to produce a plate full of tasty ribs or a pulled-pork sandwich. And the details — from what woods to use for smoke, to the cuts of meats, to the subtle chemistry of the sauce that a pitmaster (a person who's mastered the art of barbecue) uses — all vary from region to region and pitmaster to pitmaster. Barbecue aficionados engage in endless spirited debates about which techniques, food spots and pitmasters are the best.

In this article, we'll look at the history of barbecue, and the regional and international styles that have developed over the centuries. We'll also discuss barbecue's important place in American politics and racial issues, and pay homage to some of the cooking style's most influential pitmasters.

The Origins of Barbecue

This print shows early Native Americans preparing fish in the style of barbecue. Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
This print shows early Native Americans preparing fish in the style of barbecue. Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Part of the mythology and mystique of barbecue is that it's an American culinary invention. But barbecue's roots go back much further, to the ancient humans who discovered that cooking pieces of meat with a wood fire made it tastier and easier to eat. In 2007, Israeli archaeologists found what might be the world's oldest barbecue joint, a cave near Carmel where people butchered carcasses of wild cattle, deer and gazelle, and cooked their meat over wood fires 200,000 years ago [sources: Goldwyn, Shapira].

The ancient Greeks developed more sophisticated techniques, roasting meat basted with salt and wine on wooden spits high above the fire. This prevented the meat from burning, and allowed it to cook slowly and absorb smoke. As barbecue writer "Meathead" Goldwyn has noted, smoked meat not only tasted good, but it contained antimicrobial compounds and dehydrated the meat, making it last longer without spoiling. These latter qualities were extremely important in the days before refrigeration.

Modern American barbecuing's most direct roots go back to the Native American cooking techniques that Spanish explorers and conquerors encountered in the Western Hemisphere. The indigenous people that Christopher Columbus found on the island of Hispanola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1492 slow-cooked meat on wooden frames over an indirect fire.

In 1540, Hernando de Soto was a guest at a native feast of succulent barbecued pork [source: Geiling]. The explorer came back to Europe describing the delights of something he called barbacoa, which seems to have been a Spanish version of a word from the language of the Taino tribe of Native Americans. No one is exactly sure what Taino word the Spanish mistranslated [source: Goldwyn].

Native people on the southeastern coast of North America also had barbecues, and English colonists from the Carolinas all the way up to New England imitated their techniques [source: Moss]. The first mention of a barbecue feast was a 1706 narrative about a banquet involving English colonists in Jamaica roasting three pigs "in the West Indian manner." By the 1700s, cooking barbecue was such a popular pastime that George Washington noted attending six barbecues in his diary [sources: Moss, Collins].

Although barbecue was popular throughout colonial America, it became a particularly big deal in the South, where a lot of farmers raised hogs. Hogs were low-maintenance animals that could be set loose to forage in the woods. Those hogs had leaner, tougher meat, and barbecue's long, slow cooking was a good way to tenderize it. Further, the white people who lived in the South tended to hail from the south and west of England, which had a culture of roasting and broiling meat. Other parts of the U.S. preferred baking or broiling.

Working a barbecue pit requires long hot hours over a smoky fire. In the antebellum South, in the 1800s, the job was often given to an enslaved African to prepare barbecue for the whole plantation, both white and black. Africans too, had the tradition of spit-roasting meat in their native countries and contributed a lot to the cooking styles of the traditional Southern American barbecue [sources: Moss, Geiling].

Barbecue Technology and Techniques

A family prepares barbecued chicken and sausages at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A family prepares barbecued chicken and sausages at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Over the centuries, ingenious folks improved on barbecue technology. The Native Americans laid their meat on wooden frames over an open-pit fire. Later settlers replaced the wood frames with metal gridirons, and the pits themselves with masonry structures. In 1897, an inventor named Ellsworth Zwoyer patented the charcoal briquette, which was first mass-produced in the 1920s [source: Goldwyn].

In the early 1950s, a metalworker named George Stephen got the idea of attaching legs to half of a spherical nautical buoy, and using the other half as a lid over a grill. The Weber Kettle Grill, as his invention was called, made it possible for Americans to set up moveable barbecues in their backyards [source: Raichen].

Though the tools have improved, barbecuing remains more of an art than a science, one in which master cooks can use an array of techniques and ingredients to create a distinctive eating experience. Since the smoke imparts flavor to the meat, for example, one important choice is which type of wood briquette to use in the fire.

The choice of briquette was traditionally based on the wood found in a particular area. For classic Southern barbecue, the wood of choice is hickory, which adds a rich, slightly sweet taste that works particularly well with pork ribs, shoulder, ham and chops. Mesquite, a prolific but scraggly tree that Texas ranchers saw as a nuisance, adds a stronger flavor to beef [source: Vaughn]. Fruitwood such as apple, cherry and peach adds a lighter, fruitier taste that enhances the taste of poultry and seafood [source: Kingsford].

Preparing the meat for cooking is even more nuanced. Barbecue cooks typically start with a dry rub — a mix of spices, sugar, herbs and other ingredients rubbed into the meat to add a range of flavors. As Goldwyn explains, a rub "is like a good orchestra," with precise combinations of the four S's: sweetness (sugar or honey), savory (like garlic), spices and herbs, and spicy sensations, like hot pepper or ginger.

A wet rub will have these ingredients, plus vinegar or oil. Cooks often swear by one or the other type of rub. Rubs — wet or dry — shouldn't be confused with barbecue sauce, which should always be applied at the very end of cooking.

Barbecue Versus Grilling

Mary Simon owner of Mama Mary's BBQ prepares chicken for judges at the National Capital Barbecue Battle in 2014. Her grill allows her to do direct and indirect grilling. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Mary Simon owner of Mama Mary's BBQ prepares chicken for judges at the National Capital Barbecue Battle in 2014. Her grill allows her to do direct and indirect grilling. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

People tend to use the words interchangeably but the two mean very different things:

To barbecue means to cook a meat over a low temperature of 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (107 to 121 Celsius) for several hours (you might hear this referred to as "low and slow"). This method creates a tender meat that falls off the bone. It's mainly used for tough cuts like pork shoulder and brisket that require long cooking times to break down the collagen and melt the fat. Smoking and barbecuing are technically the same thing, though we tend to use the term "smoking" for chicken and fish more than for pork.

Grilling, on the other hand, is hot and fast. It's best for lean cuts of meat like steaks and chicken breasts. These don't require long cook times and should be grilled very quickly at a temperature of 350 degrees F (177 C) or hotter [sources: Southern Living, Raichlen].

There are two kinds of grilling, direct and indirect:

Direct grilling means cooking the meat at a very high heat over the fire — 600 degrees F (315 C). The high heat sears the meat and seal in the juices. It's used for small cuts of meat (steak, shrimp or kebabs) and the fire is usually left uncovered.

Indirect grilling is a hybrid between barbecuing and grilling. The temperature is high — around 350 degrees F — and the meat is cooked off to the side of the coals or heat source, as opposed to directly over it. This method allows your grill to function more like an oven and get some of that barbecue tenderness but in less time. It is best for whole chickens, rib roasts and other large fatty meats. Not every grill allows you to do indirect grilling [source: Raichlen].

American Regional Barbecue Styles

North Carolina Barbecue: Wyatt Dixon prepares pulled pork by extracting it from the smoked pig and adding his Pig Whistle sauce. April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images
North Carolina Barbecue: Wyatt Dixon prepares pulled pork by extracting it from the smoked pig and adding his Pig Whistle sauce. April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images

As barbecue spread across America, different regions developed distinctly different styles of 'cue that were influenced by their environments and the people who settled in those places [sources: Geiling, Suddath]:

  • Carolina-style barbecue is one of the earliest styles of barbecuing. The British colonists in North Carolina and Virginia liked tart tastes, so they developed the vinegar-based sauces that we think of as North Carolina sauce today, and appropriated the Caribbean technique of basting to keep the meat juicy. In South Carolina, French and German immigrants liked mustard on their pork, so they developed a mustard-based barbecue sauce.
  • Texas barbecue evolved as German immigrants moved westward and started raising cattle. That led them to apply barbecue techniques to beef instead of pork. They also cooked on fires made with mesquite. "Cowboy style" beef brisket is a signature menu item in Texas.
  • Memphis barbecue was influenced by the Tennessee city's prominence as a Mississippi River port. Pitmasters there were easily able to get molasses, an ingredient they used to make the sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce for which the region is known. One favorite Memphis dishes is pulled-pork shoulder drenched in the sweet sauce, which can be eaten by itself or inside a sandwich.
  • Kansas City-style barbecue was the last regional style to develop. In the early 1900s, a Memphis native named Henry Perry settled in the city and opened a barbecue restaurant. Perry used a sweet, spicy barbecue sauce similar to the ones that he grew up with, but instead of sticking to pork in classic Memphis fashion, he cooked beef and other meats, merging barbecue's southern and western influences.
  • Alabama barbecue is a lesser-known style from Northern Alabama involving a white sauce made with mayonnaise, vinegar and lemon juice [source: Encyclopedia of Alabama].

Barbecue in Politics and Race

Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, jokes with Ghiana Guzman during a cookout at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston in 2017. Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, jokes with Ghiana Guzman during a cookout at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston in 2017. Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Barbecue's linkage with politics dates to before the Declaration of Independence, when candidates for Virginia's colonial legislature held events where they plied potential voters with ribs and liquor. Eventually, some communities also began holding holiday barbecues of their own, and candidates came as guests.

The custom of political barbecues spread throughout the South. In a time when mass media didn't yet exist, barbecues filled the information void, becoming the places where people could gather to hear speeches and engage in spirited debates about issues [source: Moss]. Barbecue was a food that people of different races and economic levels — from the poor to the wealthy — all seemed to love, so it was a convenient unifying tool. Fourth of July events generally featured a barbecue, along with parades, speeches and a reading of the Declaration of Independence.

By the 1830s, these barbecues had proven to be such an effective tool for reaching voters that they spread beyond the South, and grew larger in size. In 1836, for example, U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster, a Whig politician who represented Massachusetts, gave a two-hour speech to 5,000 people at a barbecue in St. Louis. In the presidential campaign of 1840, Whig candidate William Henry Harrison relied heavily on barbecues as an organizing tool, and even gave out aprons decorated with the log cabin in which he'd been born [source: Moss].

Holding barbecues gradually became an established presidential custom that continued into the modern era. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson threw barbecue parties on this Texas ranch where he often invited important people to conduct official business — a practice that one journalist of the time called barbecue diplomacy. George H.W. Bush hosted an annual barbecue on the White House's South Lawn, to which he invited all the members of Congress and their families, and his son George W. Bush resurrected that tradition when he was president [source: Shahin].

Barbecue was also intertwined with racial issues in the U.S. "Slaveowners used barbecues as a means of control, giving Fourth of July and Christmas barbecues to their slaves as a supposed reward for their labor," wrote historian Moss. However, slaves also held barbecues at other times often using them as a cover to plan uprisings. Even the Nat Turner rebellion took place after a barbecue.

After the abolition of slavery, many blacks went on to open their own barbecue joints. In an ironic twist, during the Jim Crow era, many whites would stealthily visit black-owned joints to get some take out barbecue [source: University of Virginia].

Barbecue also played an important part in the Civil Rights movement. During the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s, for example, a barbecue joint called Brenda's in Montgomery, Alabama, became the place where organizers printed flyers and held meetings to plan their protests. In Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with his lieutenants at a small establishment called Aleck's Barbecue Heaven [source: Shahin].

Many white-owned barbecue restaurants were the scenes of desegregation battles. In the 1968 case "Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises," the Supreme Court ruled that Maurice Bessinger's chain of four barbecue restaurants had unlawfully discriminated against African-American patrons by refusing to serve them and that he had to comply with the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Bessinger claimed serving black people was against his religious beliefs) [sources: University of Virginia, Collins].

Legendary Pitmasters and Barbecue Joints

Pitmaster Ed Mitchell attends the 10th Anniversary Big Apple Barbecue Sponsored By Southern Living on June 9, 2012, in New York City. Brian Killian/Getty Images for Southern Living
Pitmaster Ed Mitchell attends the 10th Anniversary Big Apple Barbecue Sponsored By Southern Living on June 9, 2012, in New York City. Brian Killian/Getty Images for Southern Living

There are many people who cook barbecue but ones who become truly adept are known as pitmasters. While there have been many such virtuosos over the decades, here's a list of some current barbecuing stars who've won acclaim for their skills and contributions to the art of barbecue.

  • Aaron Franklin: In 2015, the owner and pitmaster of Austin's Franklin Barbecue won the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest, the first pitmaster to take home the title — an achievement that helped barbecue's prestige in the culinary world [source: Rupersburg].
  • Chris Lilly: Alabama pitmaster Lilly runs Big Bob Gibson BBQ, and has won numerous barbecue competitions, including the Memphis in May BBQ cook-off that's known as the "Super Bowl of Swine." He was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2016 [sources: Rupersburg, Barbecue Hall of Fame].
  • Tootsie Tomanetz: The pitmaster — or perhaps more accurately, pitmistress — of Snow's BBQ in Lexington, Texas, made an important contribution to barbecue by reviving the use of mop sauce — a sauce slathered onto the meat during the cooking process, which adds a more complex flavor [source: Vaughn].
  • Ed Mitchell: North Carolina-based Mitchell has been featured in Bon Appetit magazine and competed against Food Network chef Bobby Flay in a cook-off. He's also traveled internationally as an ambassador of American barbecue [source: WRAL]. He's famous for his vinegar sauce that barbecue writer Steven Raichlen describes as "sharp enough to make you sit up and take notice."
  • Rodney Scott: As the pitmaster of Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C., Scott has helped keep the smoked whole-hog tradition alive. Chef and food journalist Anthony Bourdain featured the restaurant on an installment of "Parts Unknown" in 2015 [sources: Giddick, Donovan].
  • Sam Jones: A sixth generation pitmaster working in Eastern North Carolina and owner of Sam Jones BBQ, Jones also works with his father at his own destination restaurant Skylight Inn [source: Weigl].

Barbecue Around the World

Cooks make Jamaican-style jerk chicken at the Notting Hill Carnival in London. Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images
Cooks make Jamaican-style jerk chicken at the Notting Hill Carnival in London. Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

While American barbecue purists like to think their cooking style is something distinctly American, at the most basic level, the idea of cooking meat over a fire is pretty much universal. Other countries across the globe have cooking styles that are similar in some ways to American barbecue, though they have significant differences too.

Here are some of the many international versions of barbecue [sources: Elie, Zamora].

  • Jamaica: European explorers first encountered barbecue in the Caribbean, so it's not surprising that people of this island nation have their own barbecue style, called jerk — meat is given a spicy run and cooked on a metal frame over hot coals.
  • South Africa: The South African version of barbecue is braii, a word that refers both to the metal or brick pit in which the meat is grilled, and to the gathering at which it's served.
  • Mexico: In a fashion similar to whole-hog barbecue in the American South, whole goats are butterflied — that is, sliced to separate the meat from the bone — and then skewered and cooked over a low fire.
  • Philippines: Lechon, also known as lechon baboy, is a type of cooking that's a staple at birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Whole pigs are roasted and the meat is served on skewers, with sides of noodles and rice and sweet gravy called mang tomas.
  • Korea: Korean-style barbecue is what American purists would call grilling, because marinaded meats — such as bulgogi (beef sirloin) and galbi (beef short ribs) are thinly sliced and cooked quickly on a tabletop grill. It's often followed by a shot of soju, a Korean rice-based liquor.
  • India: Instead of using an open fire, Indian cooks do their grilling inside a buried clay pit called a tandoor. In tandoori cooking, meats, seafood and vegetables are marinated in an orange mix of yogurt, spices and other ingredients, and then grilled on vertical skewers.
  • Brazil: During a churrasco (a Portuguese word for grilled meat or for barbecue)the meat is usually skewered, set above charcoal embers and roasted. This style of cooking is also popular in other parts of Latin America.

Author's Note: How Barbecue Works

I was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, which also happens to be the home of "BBQ Stu" sauce, an award-winning brand.

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