BBQ Road Trip: American Traditions & Recipes
Region by region, we tracked down favorite recipes and tried-and-true tips from some of America's leading barbecue experts.
Across the dusty plains of Texas and the shady hills of North Carolina, down the blues alleys of Memphis and the blustery streets of Chicago, barbecue is the great American constant — the beloved food of the people, by the people and for the people. Yet no two barbecues are exactly alike: Each region has its preferences and specialties, from sticky brown sugar-mopped ribs in Kansas City to tender slabs of beef brisket in Austin and vinegar-spiked pulled pork in Winston-Salem. You can crisscross the country following a delicious trail of smoked, spiced meat — or this summer you can get behind the grill and bring the road trip to your own backyard. To help, we’ve reached out to some of America’s leading barbecue experts for their favorite regional recipes and tried-and-true tips. All that’s left for you to do is start those fires!
Ray Lampe, aka “Dr. BBQ”; competition barbecue judge; spokesman for The Big Green Egg; and author of Slow Fire, Ribs, Chops, Steaks, and Wings and more.
"The dry-rub ribs that Memphis has become known for really evolved by chance," explains Ray. According to local lore, they were first introduced in 1948 at a restaurant called the Rendezvous, which remains a Memphis culinary landmark to this day. After discovering an old coal chute in the restaurant's basement and getting a good deal on a shipment of ribs, the Rendezvous’ owner, Charlie Vargos, decided to expand his business into barbecue. Drawing on his Greek background, Charlie seasoned his meat with a distinctly Mediterranean-inflected rub, which included spices like coriander, oregano, allspice and mustard seed. The mixture was a hit and before long the style spread to other establishments around town. "Charlie didn't have the Internet to consult or experts for market research," says Ray. "He was just trying to sell some delicious ribs."
Serve it with: "If you want to get authentic, lots of folks in Memphis are crazy about poor-man's specials like smoked bologna or barbecue spaghetti, which is pasta tossed with half tomato and half barbecue sauce," says Ray. "And also plain-old white bread, of course."
Pro tip: "Salt and sugar are the building blocks of any good rub," says Ray. "You can play with the ratios, but half-and-half is always good place to start."
Memphis-Style Dry-Rubbed Ribs
Elizabeth Karmel, founder of GirlsattheGrill.com; executive chef of Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York and Washington, D.C.; and author of Taming the Flame and Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned: The Guide to Flavoring Food for the Grill.
"When I first started to learn about barbecue I was taught a rub that was full of lots of seasonings. But over time, as I started spending time with barbecue legends like Rick Schmidt of Kreuz's Market in Lockhart, I realized I'd been going about it all wrong," says Elizabeth. "In Texas, the old-timers season with only salt, pepper and just enough cayenne to turn the rub a gentle pink. That's the great thing about Texas barbecue: It's all about the meat, just dressed simply and kissed with smoke from indigenous wood like post oak."
Serve it with: Beans and ice-cold Texan beer, like Lone Star or Shiner Bock.
Pro tip: Explains Elizabeth: "The one secret to success is starting with a whole untrimmed brisket. Unfortunately, those can be harder to find than you might imagine - many grocery meat departments have decided that Americans don't like fat, so they trim everything to death. But when you're cooking something for a long time you absolutely need that layer of fat to keep the meat moist. You can always trim off what's left after the brisket is done."
Hill Country Brisket
Chris Hart and Andy Husbands, authors of Wicked Good Barbecue and members of team iQUE, the first group of Northerners in barbecue history to win a World Championship.
"Summer is prime striped bass fishing season in New England," explain Chris and Andy. "So, each year when chef Chris Schlesinger, our friend and fellow barbecue fanatic, throws a big Fourth of July party, a freshly caught 30-50 pound striper is usually one of the centerpieces. We like to slather it with a lemon and herb mixture and stuff the cavity with big bunches of basil, tarragon and thyme before setting it over hickory wood. If you're on the West Coast you could do the same with a Pacific salmon or a big black bass, or if you're down south, a redfish would work fine. But there's nothing better than smoky whole fish just off the fire."
Serve it with: A drizzling of green, spicy rocket pesto and grilled corn dressed with cheese and chili powder.
Pro tip: "It's actually easier to gauge freshness when you're buying a whole fish than it is with fillets," says Andy. "Just remember three things: The eyes should be clear, not cloudy; the gills should be bright red; and, of course, it should have zero odor."
Whole Smoke Roasted Striped Bass
Adam Perry Lang, chef, restaurateur and barbecue fanatic; founder of Daisy May's BBQ; and author of Serious Barbecue, BBQ25 and, most recently, Charred and Scruffed.
"Kansas City-style ribs are known for their sweet, sticky sauce, but my goal is always to build layers of flavor," says Adam. Here, those layers include a piquant garlic marinade, a tangy cider vinegar mop, and a deeply savory spice rub bolstered by brown sugar, paprika, mustard and even hints of ginger. Only then comes the signature sauce. But be careful: "Barbecue sauce can burn quickly," Adam explains. "I avoid that by mixing in equal amounts of water with it. Then I brush it onto the ribs for the last 30 minutes of cooking, until it becomes a nice shiny glaze." This recipe calls for tender baby back ribs (aka loin back ribs), but you may also substitute spareribs, as long as you remember to add an additional 2 hours to your cook time.
Serve it with: Onion rings and a tangy green apple, cabbage and caraway cole slaw.
Pro tip: "One of my tricks is to use an herb brush for basting. They're easy to make: Just tie a bundle of sprigs onto the handle of a wooden spoon or dowel. Rosemary, thyme and sage are all great. The herbs add flavor to everything and give meat a subtle herbaceous overtone, the work of basting engages you and eventually the herbs can be a garnish.
Kansas City-Style Baby Back Ribs
Green Apple, Cabbage and Caraway Slaw
Ardie Davis, founder of the American Royal International BBQ Sauce, Rub, and Baste Contest, and co-author of America's Best BBQ, The Kansas City Barbecue Society Cookbook and more.
"Chicago barbecue is known for two things: spicy rib tips and hot links," says Ardie. Two of the best places to eat them are both on the South Side: Lem's, where pitmaster James Lemon has been hard at work for 58 years, and Barbara Ann's, where an eye-popping homemade hot sauce keeps customers coming back for more. "Compared to the Texas version," explains Ardie, "Chicago hot links tend to be a bit bigger and milder. Rib tips are what's left over after you trim off the triangular part of a slab of ribs to even it out. Cut that into individual pieces and you've got rib tips," he says. "I prefer my sauce on the side; otherwise the meat gets smothered, and I don't want to cover up that taste."
Serve it with: French fries. At Barbara Ann's orders are piled atop mounds of fries, which act as perfect receptacles for juice from the meat and the hot sauce.
Pro tip: "You could easily spend thousands on a big barbecue rig," says Ardie, "But I always ask myself: How much meat could I have bought for what I spent on this cooker? Instead, my standby is a plain-old kettle grill. You can get one for less than 100 bucks, they last for years and you can cook everything but a whole hog in one."
Smoked Hot Links
Zak Pelaccio, award-winning chef and owner of the Fatty Crab and Fatty 'Cue restaurants and author of the new cookbook Eat With Your Hands.
"A whole smoked pig is an opportunity to seriously party," says Zak. "That's what I love about barbecue - it's the most social way to cook, with everyone outside having a good time. I crave that relaxed atmosphere." Though it has similarities to a Hawaiian kalua pig, Zak's barbecue - shot through with dashes of chile, lime, ginger and fish sauce - is most inspired by the flavors of Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia. "In Asia, cooking outside over fire is not new," Zak explains. "But at Fatty 'Cue we try and play around and bring those flavors to barbecue made in the traditional offset-smoke American style. The goal is to just get the natural flavors out of the meat."
Serve it with: Go for something that counterbalances the rich fattiness of the pig. Zak suggests drizzling the chopped pork with a sauce made from fish sauce, palm sugar, rice vinegar and chopped chiles, and serving with kimchi, corn dressed with butter and lime, salad from the garden and big stacks of white bread.
Pro tip: When I'm making a whole hog, I look for an animal that is well marbled and has a good fat cap to it. I've cooked a large variety of breeds - Tamworth, Red Wattle, you name it. But I've never cooked a standard white conventional pig. Most people live close enough to farms these days that its possible to get it fairly locally. And if you're cooking a whole pig, it means you're dedicated - so don't skimp out on the sourcing, or you're shooting yourself in the foot before you even start.
Whole Smoked Hog
Steven Raichlen, host of the PBS series Barbecue University and author of Ribs, The Barbecue Bible, BBQ USA and more than 25 other books on barbecue and grilling.
"Barbecue is democratic food with a lowercase "d" - every kind of person in America does it and there's something for everyone. I especially love Kentucky barbecue because it is still so localized," says Steven. "Today you can go anywhere and find pulled pork and brisket, but barbecued mutton - I'm not even talking lamb - is pure uniqueness. You find it within only maybe a 40-mile radius of Owensboro. And there really is a magic that happens when you smoke big stinky mutton for 12 to 15 hours - it loses its gamy flavor and all you're left with is this rich, satisfying meat."
Serve it with: "Kentucky's 'dip' is the only black barbecue sauce I know of in the world," says Steven. "It gets that color from a hefty dose of Worcestershire sauce, which is blended with salt, garlic, lemon, allspice and brown sugar."
Pro tip: "True Kentucky-style mutton can be hard to source and isn't to everyone's taste, but it's easy enough to cook a leg of lamb the same way," explains Steven. "The only thing you'll need to adjust is the cooking time: Tender lamb takes closer to 4 hours to cook instead of 6."
Owensboro BBQ Mutton or Lamb With "Dip"
Ed Mitchell, winner of the title #1 Pitmaster in North Carolina from the Southern Foodways Alliance and founding pitmaster of the annual Big Apple Barbecue.
"I was lucky enough to be taught how to cook a whole hog at an early age, when I was just 15. It was a tradition handed down from my grandfather, my father and my uncles," says Ed. "In those days the women cooked the sides and then men did the barbecue. It was a chance to get outside and socialize and have a sip of homemade moonshine." True Carolina barbecue is served with a vinegar sauce and is always whole hog, he explains. "It is an art. You need to know where to place the coal cinders and where to place certain sections of the pig to have it cook to the best doneness without burning. Of course you can barbecue in smaller cuts and sections for smaller groups, but you've got to realize that each part tastes different and it's that mix from the whole animal that gives authentic Carolina barbecue its true flavor."
Serve it with: Ed likes to keep to tradition with a simple coleslaw of cabbage, carrots, mayonnaise, olive oil, celery seeds and "maybe just a tablespoon of mustard."
Pro tip: "The only thing I can't barbecue without is my big heat-resistant rubber gloves," says Ed. "You really have to be able to grab the meat and handle it in order to get the flavor that you're looking for, to turn it and season it while it's hot. If you miss spots it just won't be consistent."
Carolina Barbecue Sauce