Barbecue is a method of cooking meat, poultry or fish over an open pit fire. This style of cooking foods goes back to the earliest days of man, when cooking was always done over a fire. Today, barbecue is a favorite among many Americans.

Just like each region of the country features people speaking with different accents, barbecue also varies by region. There are three basic qualities used to identify barbecue: the sauce, the type of meat and the type of wood used to smoke and cook the meat.

There are about five regions where barbecue is prepared differently. In the first area, comprised of North and South Carolina, pit-cooked pork is served with vinegar-based sauce. However, there are differences in barbecue from each of the Carolinas, and even within the same state. For example, the barbecue sauce in eastern North Carolina is vinegar-based and served with coleslaw that is colored with turmeric, giving the slaw a yellowish color. In the western North Carolina area, the sauce has a tomato and vinegar base and is served with coleslaw that is white, without turmeric.

The sauces originating from the Memphis, Tenn. area are tomato-based, giving them a spicy and sweet taste. Pork ribs are cooked with a dry rub. The sauce is added after the meat is cooked.

In Kansas City, Mo., sauces tend to have a tomato and molasses flavor. Pork and beef are seasoned with a dry rub or wet marinade and then cooked over hickory wood before adding extra sauce. Texas sauces are made with chilies and limes, influenced by Mexican ingredients. The sauces are used as marinades, which help to tenderize the meat. Beef, such as brisket, is cooked over a slow mesquite fire, and the sauce is added just before the meat is done.

In the Pacific Northwest, grilling is preferred to traditional barbecue. Grilling wild game and smoking fish and meats over planks of cedar is commonplace in that area of the country.

The remainder of the country offers a large variety of barbecue preparation and cooking techniques. This could be the reason why there are more than 750 different commercially bottled barbecue sauces, rubs and marinades available on the retail market. And, there are over 10,000 barbecue restaurants located throughout the U.S.

The Latest Barbecue Trends

Besides focusing on flavor variation and ingredient differences, some barbecue manufacturers have made cooking and technique usage their niche. For example,

Jersey Mary Barbeque Inc. (Chicago) launched its barbecue/baking sauce about two years ago, when president Roberta Trenbeth wanted to share her late mother's sauce with the world. One of the keys to the product's success is that the sauce, made with ketchup, vinegar, sugar, Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, salt, water and a mixture of spices, can be used for a variety of dishes--grilled barbecue ribs, baked chicken wings, meatloaf, turkey loaf, sauce for pasta dishes, pizza sauce and even a Bloody Mary cocktail. The retail jar is 24oz., not the typical 16oz. plastic bottle or barbecue jar used by many manufacturers. “Product demonstrations are always fun to do in the grocery stores--we cook our sauce around seasonal recipes. Shoppers are given a lot of ideas on how to use our sauce, even in the winter months, when barbecue sauce sales are usually soft,” says Trenbeth.

Home 1492 (Chicago), has introduced a line of authentic South American foods, under the Na Masa brand name. The line of empanadas is presented in four flavors: beef, chicken, corn, and guava and cheese. Soon, a fifth empanada flavor, barbecue chicken, will be introduced to the market. Empanadas are hand-held, filled savory or sweet pastries that can be either deep fried in oil or baked. They are considered appetizers in South America, usually made from 4- or 5-inch circles of dough, stuffed with a variety of fillings. The filling ingredients vary according to the regions in South America, such as beef in Argentina, seafood in Brazil, and hot and spicy meat and vegetable mixtures in Bolivia and Peru. Fanny Grinblat, president of Home 1492, says, “Empanadas can be stuffed with any kind of filling. Our barbecue chicken flavor will be very American--made with grilled shredded chicken and a nicely flavored barbecue sauce.”

Nestle (Solon, Ohio) has launched a line of New Grilled brand frozen entrees under the Stouffer's name. The meals feature hand-selected cuts of all-white chicken meat marinated and seared over an open flame for an authentic and grilled flavor. There are four entrée products under this new brand: grilled herb chicken (herb rubbed chicken breast with linguini tomato herb sauce with zucchini, carrots and red peppers), grilled lemon pepper chicken (chicken marinated in lemon pepper sauce with roasted potato wedges, broccoli florets and red peppers), grilled chicken teriyaki (chicken marinated in a tangy teriyaki sauce with white rice, carrots, green onions and chopped spinach) and grilled chicken portabella (chicken marinated in a savory mushroom sauce, roasted russet potato wedges and crisp green beans).

A new product line, Simply Grillin', has been launched by Birds Eye Foods (Rochester, N.Y.), and contains four items. The concept is frozen vegetables that can be heated on the barbecue to conveniently bring on-the-grill flavors to the consumer's table in one step.

Flavors include potatoes and onions (roasted red potatoes and onions, with butter and chive seasonings); garden herb vegetables (broccoli, carrots, roasted corn with green beans with garden herb seasoning); roasted corn, potatoes and vegetables (roasted corn, roasted red potatoes, onions, red and green peppers with butter seasoning); and roasted garlic (roasted red potatoes, broccoli, sweet peppers and onions with garlic and herb seasoning).

Additionally, Swift & Co. (Greeley, Colo.) launched a new line of freshly seasoned pork and beef products under the Grillers brand. The products are targeted to working Hispanic families with busy schedules. Grillers seasoned meats come in 12- and 32-oz. packages, ready to be grilled. They can be used as the main protein ingredients in traditional Mexican meals such as enchiladas, stews and braised dishes.

With such a large variety of foods and presentations, the barbecue category continues to grow. Consumer interest in foods that are hearty, with bold flavors, shows little sign of waning.

Plus: A Tip on Sweeteners

A glance at barbecue products launched this year shows that sugar is a ubiquitous sweetener. “Sugar enhances or brings out the flavors that are already in the barbecue sauce. It enhances the tomato, vinegar or lime flavors that may be present in the sauces. It also contributes to the browning process, which an artificial sweetener can't do,” states Melanie Miller, public relations director of the Sugar Association (Washington).

Sugar (a.k.a. sucrose) is a natural carbohydrate generally processed from sugar cane and sugar beets. Miller says sugar can be labeled as sucrose, sugar or brown sugar. “Sugar has an optimum taste between 100 degrees F and 125 degrees F and tastes better when heated,” she informs. Some artificial sweeteners cannot withstand higher temperatures; perhaps that is another reason why sugar is used in making barbecue products. Additionally, taste, consistency and performance are important factors in the decision to use sugar in barbecue sauce applications, explains Miller.

Since different sweeteners contribute different sweet sensations and costs, formulators may experience increased success when using a combination of sweeteners in a product. For example, according to Mintel's (Chicago) Global New Products Database, Cattlemen's (Reckitt Benckiser, Buenos Aires, Argentina) released three new barbecue flavors in the U.S. in March 2004: Hickory Smoke, Classic and Honey. The products rely on the sweeteners high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, molasses and sugar.

Trader Joe's (Monrovia, Calif.) Bold & Smoky Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce was launched stateside in summer 2004. Sold exclusively at the chain's locations, the ingredients include sugar and molasses, in addition to a variety of spices.

Montgomery Inn's (Cincinnati) Barbecue Sauce, launched in the U.S. in spring 2004, relies on a combination of sugar, corn syrup and tamarinds for its sweetness (tamarind pulp has high levels of both acid and sugar).

Introduced in the U.S. in August 2004, Lick's Sweet Bite! (Max Quality Exports Inc., Toronto) BBQ Sauce contains no saturated fat or trans fats and features sugar, glucose-fructose, blackstrap molasses and modified cornstarch as sweeteners.

Famous Dave's of America's (Eden Prairie, Minn.) Original Recipe Rich & Sassy BBQ Sauce hit U.S. stores this past summer. The sauce has won several Midwest contests and features a combination of sweeteners such as corn syrup, pineapple juice concentrate, molasses and honey.

--Julia M. Gallo-Torres, Managing Editor