What Is Barbecue?

Barbecue isn't food cooked over wood or charcoal (or a gas flame) on a barbecue grill — that's grilling. Barbecue is slow-cooked and smoked over indirect heat, often in a barbacue pit, with the flavor of wood smoke an essential component (each cook decides what wood to use to give his or her 'cue a signature smoky flair).

Though barbecue is best known today as the comfort food of the South, the term apparently comes from the native Haitian Arawakan word barbakoa, meaning a framework of sticks — on which meat was traditionally placed to be cooked — adapted by the Spanish as "barbacoa." (Photo courtesy of Istock/Stephanie Fray)

Perhaps because of the abundance of large social and religious gatherings there, this smoky technique became particularly popular in the South. From Tennessee to Texas and Missouri to North Carolina, barbecue made its mark across the that portion of the country. But what makes each smoky style so different? The type of meat, the cut, and the sauce (or lack of sauce) — often including that tangy spicy-sweet barbecue sauce we all love.

Go to Texas for barbecued beef, above all moist brisket, often flavored with nothing more than smoke and salt. In Tennessee, pit aficionados can enjoy helpings of tender and delicious barbecue doused in a traditional sweet tomato-based sauce; spareribs are a Memphis specialty, as is pulled pork, enjoyed on its own or heaped onto a toasted warm bun. For more pork, North Carolina, where hogs are roasted whole and "picked" of their meat, and a simple vinegar-based sauce gives a lighter taste to the 'cue — or to South Carolina, where the barbecue sauce is mustard-based. Kansas City offers barbecue-lovers a little of everything. (Photo courtesy of The Daily Meal/Roberto Santibañez)