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Where to find the best barbecue in the U.S.

Barbecue aficionados know that true barbecue means meat cooked "low" and "slow," and that wood smoke is not an optional ingredient. To get the scoop on this most contentious cooking style, Epicurious turned to grilling guru Steven Raichlen.
/ Source: Epicurious

Barbecue aficionados know that true barbecue means meat cooked "low" and "slow" (that's temperature and time, respectively) and that wood smoke is not an optional ingredient. But try getting a Texan and a North Carolinian to agree about anything beyond that: Everyone champions a different regional style or favorite recipe. To get the straight scoop on this most contentious cooking style, Epicurious turned to Steven Raichlen, whose updated and expanded tenth anniversary edition of the comprehensive cookbook and travelogue "The Barbecue! Bible," was just published. He shared quintessential recipes and favorite restaurants from the four major American barbecue hot spots: Texas, Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas City. Raichlen, who's constantly in the field checking out the latest equipment, ingredients, and techniques, also let us in on the hottest trends in the world of barbecue today.

Regions and recipes
Headed to Owensboro, Kentucky? You've got to try the local barbecue specialty: smoked mutton served with a black sauce made with Worcestershire sauce, melted butter, and lemon juice. "You have all of these little micro-regions in barbecue, and I like that notion," says Steven Raichlen, whose book "BBQ USA," has 425 recipes from across the U.S., including Southern California's Santa Maria oak-grilled tri-tip steak, marinated and grilled Cornell Chicken from upstate New York, and Northern Alabama's hickory-smoked chicken dressed with a white mayo-based barbecue sauce. Micro-regions aside, there are four major American barbecue hot spots and corresponding styles: Texas, the Carolinas (primarily North), Memphis, and Kansas City. Epicurious asked Raichlen to explain each regional style and share a corresponding quintessential recipe and restaurant suggestion.

  • Texas: In Texas, beef — primarily brisket — is king, which is smoked for up to 18 hours, generally with oak. The meat gets most of its flavor from the slow smoking, and most Texan pitmasters don't bother with rubs or mops, says Raichlen. The beef is usually served sliced with soft white bread. "Texan barbecue sauces tend to be based on tomatoes and chili powder and are rather thin, tart, and vinegary," writes Raichlen in "The Barbecue! Bible." Many barbecue joints in Texas also serve beef ribs, sausage, and other meats, but brisket is the star.
  • Best local recipe:
  • Best barbecue joint:
  • The Carolinas: In North and South Carolina, barbecue is all about pork: Whole hogs are sometimes barbecued for a "pig pickin'," but the most common cut is shoulder (also known as Boston Butt). The meat is left naked or rubbed with a mixture of paprika, salt, sugar, and other seasonings, and then smoked for six to eight hours over oak or hickory. During that time, some pitmasters keep the meat moist with a vinegar-based mop sauce. After cooking, the meat is "pulled" (hand-shredded) or chopped and doused with a spicy, vinegary sauce, nothing sticky or sweet! In northeastern North Carolina, the sauce is thin and clear, made with white or cider vinegar, with hot red pepper flakes, salt, and a bit of sugar; in the western part of the state, ketchup or tomato sauce is added. In South Carolina, as well as in southern North Carolina, the sauce is bright yellow and contains vinegar, ballpark mustard, and a sweetener such as sugar, molasses, or honey. Carolina barbecue is traditionally eaten on a bun with a mayo-less coleslaw that's made with the same sauce that goes on the pulled pork.
  • Best barbecue joint: Allen & Son Barbecue (6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill, NC; 919-942-7576)
  • Memphis: The host city for one of the world's largest barbecue contests, the , has all kinds of barbecue, including thinly sliced pork shoulder served with barbecue sauce. But the city is most famous for its pork ribs. Baby back or spare ribs are thickly coated with a spicy dry rub made with cayenne, black pepper, paprika, and a little brown sugar and left to soak up the flavors overnight. They're then smoked (some pitmasters keep the ribs moist during cooking with a vinegar and mustard-based mop sauce) and sprinkled with more rub before serving. You can add sauce, but Raichlen prefers his ribs "dry" like they're served at the legendary Rendezvous barbecue joint (listed below).
    • Kansas City: Kansas City has more than 90 barbecue joints, according to Raichlen: It rivals Memphis as the capital of American barbecue. Pork ribs are popular in Kansas City, too, but so are other cuts of pork, as well as chicken and beef. Here, many pitmasters use a dry rub (as in Memphis), but they don't tend to use mop sauces. "What characterizes Kansas City is the heavy smoke and the sweet, sticky barbecue sauce," Raichlen says. A typical Kansas City sauce contains ketchup or tomato sauce, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, onion, garlic, hot red pepper flakes, liquid smoke, and sometimes apple juice, Raichlen explains in "The Barbecue! Bible." The most famous supermarket brand in this classic Kansas City style is KC Masterpiece. However, it's not the only style here: One of Kansas's best and most famous barbecue joints, Arthur Bryant's, serves a tart vinegar and paprika sauce. If you're headed to Kansas City, you'll want to learn your barbecue terminology so you can order rib tips (the crusty trimmings of spareribs), short ends (the short, fat, meaty ends of spareribs), long ends (the other, leaner end), and burnt edges (the charred and crispy ends of smoked brisket).

      How to make great barbecueSteven Raichlen shared some golden barbecue rules, no matter what style of barbecue you're making.

      • Meaty matters: When making pork barbecue, it's worth looking for succulent full-flavored heritage breeds, such as "fantastic-tasting" Kurobuta pork (also known as Berkshire pork). Raichlen says he also tries to buy organic meat and prefers dry-aged over wet-aged beef and prime over choice, whenever possible. "In general with beef, you get what you pay for," he says. But he cautions against wasting your money on American Kobe, which is not regulated and is inconsistent in quality.
      • Take your time and temperature: "Low and slow" is a barbecue catchphrase for a reason. The long, slow cooking allows the tough cuts of meat that are typically used for barbecue to become tender and soak up the flavors of the smoke, rubs, and mops. Raichlen says using an instant-read meat thermometer is the best way to check for doneness.
      • Too much is too much: Raichlen jokes about men's "Y Chromosome Syndrome," which is "the belief we harbor as a gender that if some is good, more is better." This is a common problem with wood chunks, and he strongly cautions against oversmoking (using too much wood throughout the cooking process), which creates "unbearably bitter" barbecue.
      • Backyard tricks: With backyard barbecues, it's good to remember that you're not working with the same equipment and cuts of meat as a professional pitmaster. So, for example, because home chefs are usually cooking much smaller, leaner briskets than professionals, Raichlen recommends wrapping the brisket after about five hours of barbecuing to keep it moist and tender. Just ignore the "few dyspeptic people who call it the Texas crutch."
      • Your friend fat: Speaking of moistness, fat is critical in keeping your meat juicy during the long, dry barbecuing process. Raichlen says he always recommends buying cuts with at least a quarter to a half inch "sheath of fat."

      The ancient art of barbecueThe roots of barbecue can be traced to the beginning of civilization, when our prehistoric ancestors learned that meat tastes a whole lot better when roasted over a fire.

      "Perhaps the first barbecue was the result of a forest fire, which roasted venison, bison, and other game on the hoof in a natural conflagration," writes Steven Raichlen in the "Barbecue! Bible," first published in 1998, and just updated, expanded, and re-released. "Perhaps a haunch of meat fell into a campfire. Perhaps lightning struck a tree and transformed it into charcoal. In any case, archeological evidence suggests that by 125,000 B.C. man was using live fire to cook his meat...the following millennia brought countless refinements to the art of cooking, from the invention of pottery and pots and pans to the bread machine and microwave oven. But when it comes to bringing out the primal flavor of food, nothing can rival grilling over a live fire."

      The changing definition of barbecueSo if barbecuing is so darn old, why the new version of the book? How much could have changed in the past ten years? Quite a bit, says Raichlen, starting with the word "barbecue" itself. "When I wrote "The Barbecue! Bible," it was a catchall term that included a piece of equipment, a meal outdoors, a steak grilled over high heat, a pork shoulder smoked over low heat," he says. "Today barbecue has become much more specific, when people talk about barbecue they really are talking about ribs or brisket or pork shoulder that is smoked 'low and slow' for a period of time measured in half days, not hours."

      Twenty years ago barbecue to most people meant hot dogs and hamburgers; these days people are grilling whole hogs. "More and more people are attempting whole animals, which is very cool," says Raichlen. "It's a mark of growing sophistication."

      More savvy and sophisticated pitmasters
      Americans have also become "much more grill-savvy" about equipment, ingredients, and techniques. Today 35 percent of American families own more than one grill, according to Raichlen. "That was certainly not the case 'way back then,'" he says. We're also cooking much more on the grill. "When I wrote "Barbecue! Bible" one, the concept of dessert on the grill or an appetizer on the grill was pretty radical; the concept of a whole meal on the grill was very radical." Smoking meats is also on the rise, as is rotisserie grilling that's going way beyond chickens. "I seem to be getting a lot of buzz about rotisserie grilling lately, and not just the obvious, but people putting fish on the rotisserie in a flat basket," he says.

      New ingredients
      We're also more familiar with exotic ingredients and how to use them. "In the original "Barbecue! Bible," I had to suggest to people how to substitute for lemongrass, for example, or how to substitute for galangal, or how to make coconut milk. Those are all very commonplace now."

      Cuts of meat have changed as well. For example, a "baby back" in the grocery store used to refer to a tiny rack of ribs that weighed about a pound. Now, the term is used for a two-and-a-half-pound top loin rack, so Raichlen had to update the "Bible" recipes and cooking times to accommodate these new larger ribs. (Raichlen says the change in size is partly due to the "Supersize Me" phenomenon, but also reflects changing trade agreements with Denmark, where most of the smaller ribs in the U.S. were from.) Fortunately, it's not just bigger cuts we have access to, but better ones as well, such as heritage pork and organic and grass-fed beef. (For more on meat, go to the regions and recipes tab.)

      More and better barbecue joints
      Even Americans who have no desire to grill at home have greater access to all kinds of barbecue these days, with places like New York City bursting with smoked-meat sanctuaries, some of them almost as good as you'll find in Texas or North Carolina. "I venture to say you can find Carolina pulled pork in any city in America now," says Raichlen. "You couldn't have 20 years ago. People didn't even know what it was 20 years ago."

      The threat of homogeneityWhile Raichlen takes no issue with the growing popularity and availability of Carolina barbecue, he's wary of a chain-restaurant-like effect: "What will make me sadder is if eventually I go to North Carolina and I start to see Texas-style brisket and Kansas City–style ribs...everything [in America] is homogenized. Starbucks on every corner, P.F. Chang's in every mall. Barbecue used to be kind of the last bastion of regional taste; it still is to some extent, but the social forces that make everything one are definitely at play."

      Fired up over fuelRaichlen is also saddened to see some professional pitmasters switching from wood smoke to gas and electric cooking. "True barbecue is 'low and slow' and a lot of wood smoke. So that's why what's going on in North Carolina is so discouraging for me right now. So many people in North Carolina are switching from wood burning and charcoal burning to gas and electric. That's many things. It may even be edible, it may even be tasty, but it's not barbecue."