History of American Barbecue

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The history of American barbecue is as old and diversified as America itself. According to Google the term barbecue means a meal of meat, fish or other foods, like vegetables, cooked out-of-doors over an open fire or on a portable grill.

For the purposes of this article barbecue means slow cooking meats from an indirect heat source (smoking) for a long period of time with a closed lid or an open pit. As opposed to grilling which is cooking meats at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time with the lid open or closed.

You could ask 100 different people the best way to barbecue meat and you would get 100 different answers. Various parts of the country that are known for there barbecue have different styles of smoking to produce their own unique flavor.

Other things to consider are the length of time to let the meat cook, which different types of meats work best and, last but not least, the best kind of barbecue sauce to use. These are all variations to be considered.

In this article we will go over-

– The origins of where barbecue began up to the present day.

– The many methods there are of cooking barbecue.

– The different types of meats used.

-The prevalence of barbecue and the different styles in the United States today.


The word barbecue in the Caribbean means barabicu. In Spanish the word barbecue means barbacoa. Starting in the late 1400’s or early 1500s the Taino Indians would smoke there meats, usually fish or some kind of seafood, in a wooden device built into the ground that went by the same name.

During the early 1500s Spanish explorers visiting the many islands in the Caribbean learned how to barbecue and took the practice with them back to Spain. This is where the term barbecue started to mean the food you were smoking and not just the wooden device used to cook it with.

Around the late 1600s to the early 1700s it had found its way to England where it became a very popular pastime and in 1755 it could be found in “The Dictionary of the English Language.”

Ba’rbecue: A term used in the West Indies for dressing a hog whole; which, being split to the backbone, is laid flat upon a large gridiron, raised about two feet above a charcoal fire, with which it is surrounded.

It is unclear whether barbecue arrived in the United States from the Caribbean in the 1500s or from England in the 1700s. My guess is that both are true. The East Coast probably got there barbecue from England and in the Southern States it probably arrived there from the Caribbean. From these points it naturally migrated westward.

During times of poverty, like during the Civil War or the Great Depression, smoking meat over an open pit with charcoal or wood became a great way to feed a lot of people for little cost.

In the early days of American history hogs ran wild and were very prevalent in all the rural parts of the country. As a fairly large animal with a very large population that roamed freely and somewhat easy to kill with a rifle it was the preferred meat for a barbecue and to some extent still is.

Back then before the invention of refrigeration smoking meats had more advantages than just flavorful cooked food. Smoking meats for a long period of time helps to preserve it and keep it from spoiling. It does this by removing excess moisture and bacteria.

Nowadays it is a way to prepare food that attains an unmistakable flavor that you can only reach by smoking your food.

Methods of Cooking Barbecue

Most people today use charcoal smokers to cook there meat in. They come in all shapes and sizes and are relatively inexpensive if you are a backyard BBQ enthusiast.

Charcoal smoking is done with an indirect heat source that is ideally 220F but no more than 250F. When you do it right this ensures that you will have flavorful delicious meat.

If you are using a regular round charcoal grill place the coals on one side of the grill and the meat on the other side. In other words When you put the lid on make sure the air vent is above the meat. This method in allows the heat to travel from the source to the vent passing through your food.

Also, on the market are bullet shaped charcoal smokers that are specifically designed for smoking meat. Most of them large enough to smoke a good sized brisket and they also come with a water pan and a built-in thermometer. This is the basic model that experienced BBQ smoker have used for decades to smoke meat and it is simplistic and easy to use.

Also, on the market are electric smokers which, while this may offend traditional BBQ smoking experts, to some extent is easier to use and takes the guesswork out of smoking meats.

Basically all you do is once the smoker has reached the proper temperature, 220F, place your meat or vegetables on the racks and let them smoke.

As explained below just like a regular charcoal smoker you can add wood chips or a pan of water to an electric smoker.

Electric smoker need to be cured before you can use them. This is done easily enough by coating all indoor surfaces, especially the racks, with cooking oil. This process removes oils, solvent, dust or any other harmful residue used in producing the electric smoker.

When you are done coating the surfaces turn the smoker on high heat for two hours. After this open the door and let it cool off and then you should thoroughly clean every part of the inside with a sponge and mild detergent.

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One more piece of equipment a homeowner might consider is a grill called an offset smoker. To use this type of grill as a smoker simply put your food on the larger grill portion and put your coals and wood chips in the smaller firebox.

With the lower vent being in the firebox and the higher vent being on the far side of the main grill it allows the heat and the smoke to travel across your food. The built in thermometer on the top lid lets you keep the grill at the proper temperature.

Just like the electric smoker the offset smoker should be cleaned and cured before its first use. You should rinse it down with soapy water and let it dry. Then put a light coating of vegetable oil on all the surfaces and light a fire in the firebox and burn for thirty minutes.

Other things to consider

Adding wood chips to the charcoals adds flavor to your food. Hardwoods like mesquite, hickory, oak, cherry and apple are the ones usually used and give your meat a unique flavor. Whatever you do not use a softwood, like pine or fir, they have a tendency to burn to fast and gives the food sooty taste.

Adding a pan of water helps when smoking meats by adding vapors to the hot air which aids in a more even cooking temperature and keeping the food moist.

Air ventilation is a key component when smoking meats. Always leave the bottom and top vents open to allow the air and the heat to circulate.

Regulating the amount of heat is done by opening or closing the lower vent. The upper vent regulates the amount of smoke in the barbecue.

Remember 220F is the optimal temperature to smoke meats at. This slow cooking method is very good at breaking down the tough fiber in the meat leaving succulent and mouth watering.

Depending on how large a cut of meat or how much meat you are cooking you may have to add more charcoal and or wood chips to maintain the proper temperature.

Cooking times will vary depending on the type of meat, the size of each cut and the quantity you are cooking.

You will have to check now and then to see if it is done and as you become more experienced you will know when it is time to take it out.

Other than this it is best to keep the lid or the door closed most of the time to keep the heat in and let the smoker do its thing. 4 hours is usually the minimum time required to smoke meats thoroughly. Depending what on what type of meats you are smoking.

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Different types of meats

Brisket: Sure it is possible to smoke any type of meat you have but the brisket stands alone as the oldest and most traditional smoked meat there is.

The best sized briskets to cook on a smoker are between eight and twelve p
ounds. This size will ensure that it is overcooked or under cooked.

All brisket will have fat on them which gives it their flavor but trimming the excess fat allows for a more even cooking. The next step is to add a marinade or dry rub of your choosing.

The reason briskets work best on smokers because of the slow grilling time. This is because a brisket is a very tough meat and the slow cooking method will break it down as mentioned above.

I have heard people say that a properly cooked brisket accompanied with the right spices and sauce is a life changing experience. I would like to know what you think?

Pork or beef ribs: Whether you prefer pork or beef ribs, or both, cooking them slowly in a smoker bring out the best flavor you can imagine.

Some people prefer a dry rub and some people prefer to make their own homemade glaze for ribs. Either way ribs are one of the most tastiest meats you can smoke.

The easiest way to tell when they are done is to pick them up in the middle with a pair of tongs and if they start to fall apart then you know they are ready to eat.

Sausage: Another great favorite for the smoker is sausage. Our ancestors would smoke sausage to help preserve them for a longer period of time but today we do it, because let’s face it, smoked sausage tastes really good.

One thing to remember is that store bought sausage is already smoked. You can still put them in your smoker to heat them up. In fact smoking them again adds more flavor.

The best types of sausage to use for smoking are Polish Kielbasa, Andouille, Italian, Bratwurst, Chorizo and Breakfast sausage. Sausages should be cooked at a little bit higher temperature, 250F, for 3 to 4 hours.

Chicken: A whole chicken works best but you can even smoke individual parts of the chicken. The cooking temperature will remain the same but the cooking time will be different.

Pork: Anything from pork chops to a pork tenderloin can be smoked. Again the cooking times will vary depending on the thickness of the cut. The use of which dry rubs are completely up to you.

Fish: The last type of meat I want to mention here is fish. Any type of fish you buy or catch can be smoked. In fact some people say that smoking fish brings an incredible taste to it.

Keep in mind that it is a tender meat with not a lot of fiber to it so grilling times will be shorter than other meats. As a general rule, all depending on the size and thickness of your cuts, you should smoke fish for 2 hours at 200 degrees.

The four Main Types of Barbecue

While there are many different ways to smoke meat there are mainly four different types in the United States. Each of them using different spices in dry rubs, different sauces and different methods of cooking.

Each place has a preffered type of meat they are known for but I am sure you can get any kind of smoked meat you want to.

Texas Barbecue:

The main thing Texas barbecue is known for is its brisket. In fact Texas is so big each section of this state has its own way of barbecuing it.

In each case it has to be smoked for long hours. Some like a sweet tomato sauce and some a thick molasses sauce and some just like a salt and pepper rub.

St. Louis-Style barbecue:

The St Louis style of barbecue is known for its spare ribs. You will find them grilled instead of smoked. They are usually marinated in a thick, sweet, tomato based sauce.

In fact St Louis is known for consuming more sauce on their barbecue than anywhere else in the nation.

Carolina-Style Barbecue:

Carolina barbecue has two different variations that it is known for. Both of them revolve around pork. The two different types are called the Lexington style and the Eastern style.

The Lexington-style of barbecue marinates pork shoulder in a mixture of pepper, vinegar and ketchup before smoking it.

The Eastern-style of barbecue prefers to use the whole pig for smoking. The sauce is usually a pepper and vinegar based without tomatoes.

Memphis-Style Barbecue:

Memphis style barbecue is also mostly known for pork ribs and shoulders. These are either smoked dry, with just a dry rub, or wet, with different types of sauces.

Each year Memphis holds the “World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.” This just happens to be the largest pork barbecue contest in the world.

Within these four categories are many sub-categories and each part of this country has their own style of barbecue they like. Different types of meats with different combinations of sauces and rubs are used all the time.

Barbecuing and smoking meats has been an American pastime for several hundred years. It has help sustain and feed this great nation during hard times and good times. It is constantly perfecting better combinations of sauces and dry rubs all the time.

Something else that is evolving are the cooking methods and the types of grills and smokers you can cook them in.

I would love to here your thoughts on how you like to barbecue and or smoke your food. Pleases leave your comments below.

4 thoughts on “History of American Barbecue

  1. This was a very detailed article that you wrote. Really went into the history of how BBQ got started, and the different methods certain cultures would use. I did not know it origin was started as a cheap source to feed many, but thinking about it makes sense. You really cannot go wrong with a great BBQ get together.

    1. You are so right. There is something about being in the backyard on a nice afternoon grilling and or smoking meat that is a pleasure all its own.

  2. I hate this article because it got me so hungry at 9 in the morning! Seriously though, I’m a guy who doesn’t know how to barbecue and I’m very ashamed of it. The only times I’ve tried to barbecue have led to uncooked meats. No good! I like how this article clarifies a lot of ways you can bbq. Plus, I’m glad you mentioned Texas BBQ on here. Texas has the best bbq hands down. There is no comparison. I think after reading this article, I have a little more confidence in attempting to BBQ. 220 degrees is the magic number!

    1. LOL, everybody has to start somewhere. Grilling and smoking is an art that takes practice. Keep at it you will get better.

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