Smoke flavors, sweeteners, tangy acidifiers and regionally characteristic seasonings make barbecue one of America’s favorite flavoring systems. This article, from The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), explains the “mystery” of barbecue.

 August 2011/Prepared Foods -- Barbecuing has a strong tradition in many regions of both North and South America. It reflects the meats and cooking fuels that are widely available in a given area. To this day, controversy surrounds the traditions and the “mystery” of barbecue. While traditionalists from every barbecue style have their own criteria and standards for what constitutes “true” barbecue, most would agree barbecuing is the long, slow, gentle cooking of meat, at low temperature, with smoke, in order to produce tender and extremely flavorful meats.

What is a Barbecue?

You need only mention the word barbecue or search for specific information on the Internet to discover that there are intense debates about what barbecue truly is. And, while there may be very little about barbecue that is commonly agreed upon by all its many practitioners and fans, there are some basic facts to which most would agree:
* Barbecue is not the same as grilling, even if one grills foods with a barbecue sauce.
* Barbecuing requires smoke to properly flavor and color the food.
* Barbecued foods are cooked at low temperatures for long periods, in order to develop the best flavor and an extremely tender texture, often referred to as “slow-and-low cooking.”
Beyond that, controversy reigns. Some believe pork is the only real barbecue, but beef, mutton and even goat (kid) are traditional choices for others. Some argue in favor of a thick, tomato-based sauce, others for a thin, vinegar-based sauce with no tomatoes at all.  Some prefer hickory for fuel, while others tend toward pecan, maple or oak.
In addition to being a style of cooking, barbecue is also widely understood to be a social gathering, especially in the open air at which barbecued foods are eaten. Throughout the country, barbecues are the foundations of church suppers, political fundraisers, and community or neighborhood gatherings. These gatherings have given rise to the repertoire of side dishes served along with the meat, including such classics as coleslaw, corn bread, boiled potatoes and beans.

The Basic Elements of Barbecue
There are some fundamental elements to barbecued food that involve both ingredients and cooking. The first element involves meat, fish, poultry or vegetables. The tradition and history of barbecue show this technique evolved as a way to make tough, well-exercised meats very tender. But, the exact type of meat that is associated with an area has a great deal to do with local availability. Seafood and fish do not need long, slow cooking to become tender, but in areas where seafood is widely available, it becomes “meat” for the barbecue, as well. Throughout the South, with the exception of Texas, one is more likely to find pork than beef. In some areas, mutton is barbecued.
Wood or charcoal for smoke is also basic. Hardwoods, including oak, hickory, pecan, maple, beech, butternut and ash are among the common choices for barbecue. Other options include mesquite, grapevine, citrus wood, and apple or pear.  Each wood has a specific flavor. Some barbecue cooks blend the woods, especially when they use very strongly flavored woods and vines, such as mesquite. Softwoods (pine, spruce and other evergreens) should never be used; they produce a resinous and bitter flavor.
The presence of a smoke ring is a sign that foods have been smoked, rather than merely grilled or roasted, and brushed with a sauce. The smoke ring is reddish in color and may be about ¼- to ½-inch (8-12mm) deep, extending from the exterior toward the center.
Barbecue equipment is a hugely influential element. Barbecues are sometimes referred to as “pits,” a reminder of an earlier time, when a pit dug in the ground was common.  A barbecue, regardless of its size, has a place to hold hot coals, racks to hold meats and a tight cover to capture the smoke. Some barbecues have a separate chamber for building and maintaining the fire.
Barbecuing temperatures are intentionally kept low, in order to give the meat plenty of time to cook, become tender and develop a rich color and aroma. There are two common ways to apply the heat and smoke:
• Indirect heat (where the fire is maintained in a separate chamber, and the heat and smoke are vented into a closed portion of the barbecue). The fire is maintained between 225-250°F (107-121°C), a temperature that is hot enough to generate smoke and that cooks meat slowly.
• Direct heat (the food cooks directly over the coals in a closed barbecue). This style of barbecue cooks meat at 300-350°F (149-176°C) and is often used for smaller and more tender cuts that cook more quickly (seafood or poultry, for instance).
In addition to a barbecue (not, of course, to be confused with a regular grill), barbecuing requires additional tools, including containers to hold meats as they brine or marinade; brushes or mops to apply basting and finishing sauces; cutting boards; pots to keep basting and barbecue sauces at a simmer; and knives to slice or chop meats (or gloved hands to pull meats apart into strips).

Methods for seasoning barbecue vary from region to region, as well as from chef to chef.  Each of the following techniques can be used, either singly or in combination.  The exact ingredients in a specific rub, sop, mop or sauce are highly individualized mixtures--kept as closely guarded secrets. 
Rubs are a mixture of spices, salt and sugar. Dry rubs contain no moisture and are applied in a layer and left on the meat for several hours (or even days), before the meat is cooked. Wet rubs contain enough moisture to hold the ingredients together as a paste; jerk seasoning is an example of a wet rub.
Marinades and brines are liquid mixtures used to season meats, before they are cooked.  Marinades typically contain an oil, an acid (such as vinegar), and various spices and seasonings. A brine, at its simplest, is a mixture of salt and water, though it may also contain acids and spices. Brines may be used to submerge foods, or they may be injected directly into the meat. The primary purpose of both marinades and brines is to add flavor to the meat. Contrary to what some have claimed, they do not actually add moisture to the meat.
Basting sauces (also known as mops or sops) are applied to barbecued foods as they cook. The basting sauce may be the same marinade or brine used to season the meat or a separate preparation. These sauces do not contain sugar, since sugar tends to brown and burn too soon.
Barbecue sauces are used in some regions as a finishing sauce or glaze. Some barbecue styles call for the sauce to be served as a condiment, if it is served at all. The ingredients in a barbecue sauce range from the vinegar-and-seasoning mixtures favored in the Carolinas to the tomato-based sauces of Kansas and Texas. Mustard– and mayonnaise-based sauces (known as white barbecue sauce) are also found.

Barbecue Styles
The U.S., while not the only part of the world to barbecue foods, has four distinct styles of barbecue, augmented by several specialty or regionally popular types of barbecue.  The following descriptions of barbecue styles in the U.S. are generally accepted, but, as with any traditional food, there are plenty of variations. Even in areas where a particular type of meat predominates, there are always numerous options, including variety meats, sausages, and game or poultry.
In the Carolina-style, pork is typically the meat, including the whole hog and pork shoulder. The meat is often cooked until tender enough to shred, then chopped or sliced and served as a sandwich. The sauce varies, depending upon the part of the Carolinas. For example, in the eastern part of the Carolinas, the sauce is traditionally based upon vinegar and seasoned with salt, black pepper, crushed or ground cayenne, and other spices--and nothing else. This is a very thin, acidic sauce that penetrates deeply into the meat. In the western part of the Carolinas, small amounts of ketchup, molasses or Worcestershire sauce and, perhaps, some spices are added to the same basic vinegar sauce. However, the area around Columbia, S. C., favors a mustard-based sauce.
In the Memphis-style, pork is also popular. Pulled pork is a common presentation.  Ribs, however, remain the most popular meat in Memphis barbecue. Sauces are typically tomato-based and sweet, often from the addition of molasses. They may also include mustard, making this barbecue sauce a mixture of all the major components of barbecue sauce.
In Texas-style barbecue, beef is featured. Beef brisket is considered the most traditional.  It is often served as chopped beef sandwiches. Ribs, sausage and, especially in south Texas, cabrito (barbecued kid) are also popular. Long, slow cooking gives the meat a smoke ring, a naturally occurring band of color in the meat (as previously discussed).
Sauces in Texas are generally not as sweet as Kansas City-style barbecue sauces. Some sauces are thin and made primarily from vinegar and spices, especially chiles and pepper, while others are somewhat thicker (though also not as thick as Kansas City-style sauces). Barbecue sauce may be optional; some consider it appropriate to serve the sauce as a condiment, rather than brushing it on the meat, as it cooks.
In Kansas City-style barbecue, although pork is commonly associated with this region, there is also a strong tradition of barbecuing other meats, including beef--no doubt, the result of Kansas City’s important role as a meat-packing center. The thick, “tomatoey” style of Kansas City barbecue sauce has become the prototype for commercial sauces sold nationwide.
There are many other barbecue traditions. As one might suspect, because barbecuing is such a good way to handle tougher cuts of meat, it has been practiced under different names throughout the world, as well as in parts of the country outside of Texas, the Carolinas, Memphis and Kansas City.
For example, luaus, common in Hawaii, are also a form of long, slow roasting that can resemble other types of barbecue. In South America, especially Argentina and Peru, meats prepared by gauchos (cowboys) are a type of barbecue known as asada, cooked over a grill known as a parilla.  Large cuts of beef are cooked very slowly, while more tender cuts, as well as sweetbreads, kidneys and other organ meats, are cooked very quickly. In the Caribbean, jerk is common, especially Jamaica. A variety of approaches can be taken. A wet or dry rub that contains scallions, chiles, allspice and a number of other seasonings is applied to the meat, before it is cooked in a drum or pit cooker.
It is likely discussion will continue over what constitutes authentic barbecue and what are the optional ingredients and procedures. What is more certain is that it will continue to be one of America’s favorite food styles. pf

Website Resources:
For more information on barbecued food/Southern-style cooking, type “Classic Southern Cuisine,” “Banking on Barbecue,” “Barbecue’s Regional Roots” or the word “barbecue” into the search field at

Founded in 1946, The Culinary Institute of America is an independent, not-for-profit college offering bachelor’s and associate degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts, as well as certificate programs in culinary arts and wine and beverage studies. A network of more than 40,000 alumni has helped the CIA earn its reputation as the world’s premier culinary college. The CIA, which also offers courses for professionals and food enthusiasts, as well as consulting services for the foodservice and hospitality industry, has campuses in Hyde Park, N.Y.; St. Helena, Calif.; San Antonio, Texas; and Singapore.