Anatomy of BBQ
BBQ is a method of cooking that is used around the world. Whether it’s at a tailgate in Georgia, on a smoke pit in the heart of Texas, a street cart on the streets of Bangkok in Thailand, a family reunion at a braai in South Africa, or at a European market, people share a love for cooking many different types of food on the grill.
Where did this idea of barbecue start? Why does it mean different things depending on who you ask? What are the different animals and body parts that are actually used to make BBQ? The following information will help paint a picture of this wonderful way of cooking and eating.
History of BBQ
The term “barbecue” refers to cooking food while using smoke, burning wood and charcoal as the primary sources of heat. There is some debate over the difference between “grilling” and “barbecue,” but grilling is typically done with high heat in a quick period of time, while a barbecue is usually done with a lower amount of heat for an extended amount of time. This is where we get the term “low & slow.”
I come from a part of the country (The South) where BBQ is a type of food. You don't "have a BBQ." You eat BBQ. But alas, we're here to educate the rest of you kind folks. Bless your hearts.
It appears the concept of cooking meat slowly with smoking wood has been around for centuries, but the idea of barbecue the way it’s known in popular American culture today originated with the Indians teaching the European settlers to use smoke to cook when they arrived on the American continent. The Europeans brought the meat and the natives taught them the proper way to cook it.
The idea was passed down through generations and different types of meat were used based on the livestock that was in abundance in the different regions around the country. The southeastern United States became the region most commonly identified with BBQ and pig was the primary animal used for the process. Eventually, beef became a popular meat for smoking and now chefs and pitmasters experiment with a variety of smoked meats.
Common Types of BBQ
Pulled Pork: Commonly found in the southeastern United States. Pulled pork is also occasionally referred to as “boston butt” and this cut of meat comes from the upper part of the shoulder on the front leg of a pig. Many pork shoulders will often contain the blade bone, which is removed during cooking. After the pork is cooked, the meat becomes tender and easy to handle and is often pulled into pieces before serving. This is also the type of meat used for carnitas, pig pickin’, and cochinita pibil.
- Baby Ribs: Baby back ribs come from the top of the rib cage in a pig between the spine and spare ribs. They are known as “baby back ribs” because the meat is taken from hogs that are smaller than typical hogs, according to market measurements. This section of the pig often produces ribs that are shorter, more curved and meatier than other ribs.
- Spare Ribs: The spare ribs come from the belly side of the rib cage in a pig, which is between the back of ribs and sternum. Spare ribs contain more bone than meat, but they also have a tendency to provide more tender meat if the pig has enough fat.
Considered by many to be the gold standard of BBQ, brisket comes from the lower chest of a cow. Typically, this cut of meat has a fat cap, which is left attached during the smoking process to keep the meat from drying out and help tenderize the connective tissues. Some BBQ restaurants offer the option of ordering brisket either "moist" or "lean" - moist is from the fattier cut, while lean will not have as much fat, which can also often mean less flavor.
- Spare Ribs: A cheaper and smaller cut - beef spare ribs are used in barbecue cooking and offer meat between both sides of the bones. The meat is taken from the lower portion of the rib cage between the belly and breast bone.
- Short Ribs: Short ribs are taken from the rib and plate sections of cattle and often include a small section of the chuck. These are considered to be a bigger and meatier cut of meat than spare ribs and they are a popular style of rib for those who prefer beef BBQ. It’s also a commonly used cut around the world, especially in Asian cuisine.
Chicken: Barbecue chicken can involve any portion of chicken meat that is used through the barbecue method of cooking. The chicken is often coated in some type of rub or sauce prior to cooking and various marinates also add tenderness and unique flavors.
Types of BBQ Sauce
Eastern Carolina - vinegar based sauces that are primarily liquid. The vinegar offers a sharp flavor that cuts some of the smokiness of the meat.
Western Carolina - tomato based sauce that is occasionally made with ketchup and is often a thicker, sweeter sauce than its counterpart from the eastern part of the state of North Carolina.
Kansas City - a tomato based sauce that is thicker than typical Western Carolina sauce and is often added after meat has been prepared to sit on the surface of the meat.
Memphis - tomato based sauce with a similar texture of Kansas City sauce, but it also incorporates vinegar and molasses for more distinct flavors
Texas - many Texas-style BBQ sauces feature various spices as well as meat drippings that are taken from smoked meat and added into the sauce that’s later used. The idea of the sauce is to penetrate and marinate in the meat as opposed to sitting on top of the meat.
Alabama - Alabama’s unique white sauce is a mayo-based sauce that is mixed with vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper and is often used to top barbecue chicken and pork.