Barbecuing originated in the New World. Upon their arrival in the Americas, Spanish explorers observed Native Americans (Cherokees and Creek Indians of the Carolinas) using crude wooden racks to smoke or dry fish, birds and meats. Later, the Spanish brought over cattle and pigs, which were also barbecued.

"Barbecue" is the English word adaptation from either the Spanish word "barbacoa" or the word "barabicoa" from the Taino Native American tribe of the Caribbean and Florida regions.

The early colonists learned to cook (barbecue) whole hogs from the Native Americans and the slaves. In colonial times, barbecue meant a big, festive community gathering. This custom was described by many, including George Washington, who noted he went to a barbecue in Alexandria, Va., that lasted three days. Furthermore, when workers laid the cornerstone for the nation's Capitol in 1793, the leaders of the new Republic celebrated with a huge barbecue.

During this time, barbecuing involved digging long, deep pits in the ground. Logs were added to the pits and were burned. When the logs burnt down to low-temperature coals, whole animals and fish were suspended above and slow-roasted over the wood smoke fire.

For many years, barbecue remained an East Coast and Southern tradition. Barbecue was spread across the U.S. as African Americans--knowledgeable in cooking the less meaty and less desirable cuts of meat--migrated to the northern and western states. Barbecuing became very prevalent in cattle and rail towns throughout the country.

Following World War II, outdoor barbecuing became part of the suburban "good life." The ground pits were replaced by 55-gallon drums, which were cut into barbecue grills. In addition, bagged charcoal became more widely used.

Commercial charcoal got its start from Henry Ford, who saw the opportunity to manufacture charcoal from the wooden pallets piling up in his factories. From this work, Ford established the Kingsford Charcoal Company.

Cookers, Equipment & Techniques

Cookers, the name used for the cooking equipment in barbecuing, are designed to allow the flow of heat to pass over the meat. The heat is directed from either the side or the bottom of the cooker and is never directly under the meat without a heat deflector.

Air intakes are located in various positions to adjust the temperature of the cooker. The cooker requires water pans to prevent drying of the meat. In addition, one or two thermometers are installed on the cooker.

Meat is generally laid on cooking racks. There are specially designed racks to hold ribs, hooks to hang meat and devices to stand poultry. The meat is usually seasoned with either a rub or a marinade before it is placed in the preheated cooker.

For barbecuing, the cooking temperature is typically between 175°F and 225°F. Once the cooking temperature rises above 275°F, it is considered grilling.

The heat for the cooker is derived from charcoal, wood or a combination of the two. Large, commercial cookers use propane with wood for the smoke flavor. For official barbecue competitions, propane cookers are not allowed.

The best charcoals to use are briquettes made from pure hardwood trees without any chemical fillers which can give an off-flavor to the meat. Lighter fluid is also not recommended to start the fire, due to its chemical residues. Propane torches or "chimney" starters are the preferred method to start the fire.

The outside temperature and humidity greatly effect the cooking process. By controlling the water pan and air ducts, a balance is created in the cooker for the proper cooking atmosphere.

In addition to providing moisture, the water pan can be used to flavor the meat by replacing the water with juices, beer, liquor or stocks. Herbs and spices can be added to these liquids to enhance the flavor. Since meats cook for many hours, the water pan is a crucial element to the barbecue process.

The key to barbecue cooking is low and slow--low temperature and slow time. For example, pork ribs can average three to five hours of cooking, pork shoulders can take about eight to 10 hours, and whole hogs require up to 24 hours.


Almost any hardwood makes very good embers for cooking. Normally, the denser the wood, the more Btu's per cubic volume.

Due to their prevalence in the South, oak and hickory are the woods of choice. For the same reason, oak and mesquite are used in most parts of Texas. In Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast, pecan is selected for the fire. Alder wood is used in the Northwest to smoke salmon.

Mesquite (burns very hot), hickory and pecan are powerful flavoring woods. Oak, the most commonly used wood, imparts an excellent flavor without becoming too strong.

With their gentle flavors, fruitwoods can be used for mild meats and vegetables. Herbs can be added to the fire for additional flavoring. Soaking the wood chips in a liquid brings out the smoke.

Rubs and Marinades

Although many elements comprise a good barbecue, the most important is the rub--a blend of sweet, salty, spice-heat, savory, bitter and sour ingredients. Typically, rubs or barbecue seasonings are dry ingredients that can be rubbed or sprinkled on foods before cooking to enhance their flavor. Most "pit masters" prefer rubs over marinades because the rubs develop a good crust on the meat.

Marinades are comprised of three basic elements: oil, vinegar and seasonings (spices and herbs). Acid in the marinade will soften or tenderize the meat. Unless the marinade is injected or vacuum tumbled into the meat, the acid normally penetrates the meat to a depth of only 1/8th to 1/4th of an inch.

Care should be taken when injecting marinade into meat. The acid may cause streaking and discolor the meat.

Basting and Barbecue Sauces

Referred to as mops and sops, basting sauces are comprised of a liquid (stock, wine, beer, juices, etc.), oil and seasonings. These sauces provide flavor and protect the meat from drying out during the cooking process.

Historically, the first barbecue sauce originated in China. It was called "ke-tsiap." Brought to America by English sailors, the original version was vinegar-based with fermented herbs and spices. Eventually, tomatoes--from Central and South America--were added.

Today, in each of the regions of the U.S., different flavorings define the preferred profile. In the East and Southeast, vinegar is prevalent. In Memphis, a Worcestershire and tomato sauce base is featured. Kansas City is known for its sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce.

Kraft markets the best-selling barbecue sauce in the world. Introduced in the 1950s, it was the first national brand of barbecue sauce in America. It is also the most popular sauce used as a "base."

True barbecuers use a barbecue sauce only as a finishing or dipping sauce. This means that it is not applied during a majority of the cooking process, but can be used towards the end. The high sugar content of barbecue sauce causes burning if applied too early. Traditionally, barbecue does not require a sauce because the rub is considered the main flavor agent. PF

If you love barbecue and want to become a true BBQ aficionado, then here's a whole-hog's worth of information.

  • Competition
    American Royal Kansas City International Barbecue Competition, October 5-6, 2001, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Cooking School
    The Culinary Institute of Smoke Cooking, Denver, Colo.
  • Organizations
    The Kansas City Barbecue Society, Kansas City, Mo.
    The National Barbecue Association. Kansas City, Mo.
  • The Complete Guide for Barbecue Lovers
    Nick Spinelli, Jr., is a Sr. Corporate Chef II, Certified Executive Chef at Kraft Foods. He has over 30 years of experience in hotels, country clubs, restaurants, and other facilities throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. His career has exposed him to the foods and cooking techniques from many cultures. Nick's role at Kraft Foods varies from consultant, gold standard identification and product formulation. He has been in his current position for over five years, working on projects in the Cheese, Meals, and Enhancers Divisions.