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American Regional Barbecue Variations

Updated on December 30, 2009

First let's get one thing straight: Grilling is not barbecuing, and most people don't know the difference. Grilling over charcoal or gas generates temperatures up to 750 degrees F, sears meat, and cooks it quickly. True barbecuing is long, and slow and low. Temperatures range from 200 to 250 degrees F or thereabouts. Meat is cooked indirectly by wood and/or charcoal that is arranged around, beside or far, far beneath it in a variety of pits, kettles and smokers. And the smoke that circulates and permeates the meat is essential to the flavor.

At America's 500 some-odd annual barbecue contests which an estimated 6 million Americans attend every year, you can see every manner of barbecue equipment from state-of-the-art commercial smokers, and custom-designed grills in the shape of jet planes, pickup trucks or locomotives, to jerrybuilt 50-gallon oil drums. But the cooking process which is long, slow and low, is always the same.

When it comes to barbecue, individuality rules. Take ribs, Memphis, Tennessee-style. Here in the epicenter of one of America's major barbecue regions, there are two ways of doing ribs: wet and dry. Dry means pork ribs (spare, baby back or country-style) cooked over a grill then sprinkled with a dry spice mixture, giving the cooked ribs their spicy, tasty crust.

The Memphis secret is to use loin back ribs as there's a lot more meat in that cut and it's leaner. It's off the back of the hog, not the belly. Conventional wisdom calls for the cooking of ribs very slow at low temperatures. But in Memphis they cook them and serve them as fast as they can. With the demand for Memphis BBQ, there's not enough hours in the day for the best restaurants to cook them slow. They cook them about 18 inches over pure hardwood charcoal with the fire as hot as it can go. First bone side down, then they flip them over with the meat side down. Just before they come out they're basted with hot vinegar and water and then sprinkled the locally preferred seasoning to create that scrumptious crust.

So much for long and slow. However, the Memphis wet style ribs are traditionally slow-cooked in a smoker over hickory and oak for about eight hours. Right before being served, the wet ribs are slathered with a regional favorite spicy-sweet sauce.

Up Midwest in Kansas City they traditionally slow hot-smoke over oak and hickory 15-pound pork shoulders (for sliced pork) for six to eight hours, beef brisket for eight hours and ribs for four to six. Then they slather on that famous KC tomato-red, thick, spicy-hot and not too sweet BBQ sauce.

It seems every part of the country has their own twist on BBQ. Some areas like them one way and others like it another. The perfect BBQ you'll get in Atlanta is a galaxy away from the one you'll enjoy in Houston. Different regions of the country have developed their own BBQ traditions and you'll always be able to find evangelists who swear that their local version is the world's finest and all the others are cheap imitations. But the truth is that they're all equally scrumptious and finger licking delicious!

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