"Low and slow." It's become an accepted, almost-romanticized definition of American barbecue, but it's not the only one. Not by a long shot. Barbecue, as an American concept, can be contentious. Some purists will say barbecue is meat, smoked, with the finished product burnished on the outside, boasting a thick, salty, savory crust and a tender, somewhat rosy interior. Others defend a method of cooking meat over a fire in an open pit — once done cooking, this meat should be hot and not taste smoky, but will have a crackling skin and tender interior. Some insist American barbecue be served with some sort of sauce, others say it needs only a sprinkling of salt.
But for everyone else, barbecue can be a thing, an adjective, and a process. It’s (usually) meat, what you do to that meat, and what you use to do that to the meat.
Origins of the word "barbecue"
Culinary historians tend to agree that the origins of the word barbecue come from the word barbacoa, which is a rough translation of a Caribbean dialect (possibly Haitian) meaning "framework of sticks set upon posts." The trouble with this definition is that it could mean a pit, a spit, or a grill, and today, all over the world, it means at least one of these things.
And that doesn't even take into consideration the meat involved. In the Carolinas barbecue is whole hog; in Texas, it's beef brisket and sausage; in Memphis, it's ribs and pulled pork; on California's central coast, it's tri-tip. In Mexico, there's carne asada, which is beef rubbed and grilled, but there's also barbacoa, which is stewed meat wrapped in leaves and buried in the earth with hot coals or roasted on a grill. In most of the rest of the world, what is referred to as "barbecue" is categorized as "grilling" by people who defend American barbecue in the South as smoked meat.
In Korea, it's (sometimes marinated) beef or pork cut up and grilled at the table, and it's called bulgogi, which literally means "fire meat." In Japan it's yakiniku, which evolved from Korean barbecue. In South Africa this is called braai; in Hong Kong, siu mei. In Russia, throughout the Caucasus and in the Middle East meat, cheese, or vegetables are skewered and cooked over coals or an open flame. Northern Europe grills sausages; South America grills whole steaks or marinated strips of meat doused in chimichurri sauce.
But regardless of what "barbecue" definition you're operating with, the act of cooking meat with with heat from a flame likely involves one of these apparatuses — they're the tools that help impart the flavor associated with great barbecue.
American barbecue in the South uses the heat from smoking wood or coals to cook the food, and does not use a grill. Barbecue is cooked at far lower temperatures than grilled food. While grills can reach temperatures above 600ºF, barbecue is usually cooked at a temperature between 200 and 300ºF. Pit and spit cooking varies more than enclosed smoker cooking and can rise above 500ºF, depending upon method, pitmaster, region, type of wood, and type of food.
Smoke is a key variable in many different types of barbecue. Smoking food both preserves and flavors it. Slow-smoked meat's burnished color and texture (and the corresponding flavors) are a result of the chemicals imparted by the wood's smoke and how they interact — over a long period of time — with the proteins in the meat and any seasonings added before or during the smoking and cooking process. Any sugars are caramelized; collagen, or muscle fibers that hold meat together, are broken down; and fat is rendered, yielding a slightly sweet, smoky, unmistakably meaty flavor and dense but tender texture.
There are two main types of smoking: Cold smoking and hot smoking. The barbecue of the American South almost exclusively uses hot smoking, which ranges in temperature but is at least above 170ºF and often above 250ºF. Different types of wood produce different types of smoke. Some pitmasters look for white smoke, others for the hotter, blue smoke.
Smoke comes from wood set aflame, and different types of wood create different flavors in the meat. Mesquite, a hard wood often used in furniture, burns too hot for most pitmasters (it's often used in flavoring agents that are meant to impart smoky flavor). Applewood is said to offer more mild flavors and can be almost sweet. Cherry wood burns dark, and is sometimes balanced out with oak. Hickory or pecan are popular among pitmasters that specialize in brisket or beef ribs because of their deeper flavors and long burning times.
The wood can be utilized in log form (usually cut into two-foot-long logs) or as chips. When logs are used, as in Carolina whole-hog barbecue, pitmasters burn it down until it's in charcoal form, then add the burning coals to the bottom of a smoker. Once the smoker is evenly heated through, the whole hog is laid on top. Elsewhere, pitmasters throw logs into a firebox, light them, then use the resulting smoke to cook the meat. Chips, which burn quickly, are often used solely to add flavor during gas grilling. Of note: The charcoal briquettes that come in bags and are used in backyard barbecues or cookouts are not entirely made of wood, and are not a substitute for the traditional barbecue of the American south.
There are cold smokers and smoke houses (for things like fish, chicken, and cheese) and there are hot smokers (generally used to both flavor, preserve, and cook meat). Most professional pitmasters use a long, submarine-like metal cylinder with space on either end or the bottom for wood chips or logs. This is either stood upright or laid on its side. The fire goes in one end and the smoke is gradually released out the other side.
There are some notable exceptions to the enclosed hot smoker. One evolved out of pit smoking in the mid-19th century on California's central coast: Santa Maria-style barbecue is cooked and smoked on a standing iron structure. A metal grill is laid atop smoldering red oak charcoal. A wheel atop the smoker allows the pitmaster to control how close the food gets to the smoking embers. Smoke both cooks the meat and flavors it. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, pit beef is similarly smoked on a grill over an open pit.
A pit operates much in the same way as a commercial smoker, and is still a popular method of cooking meats and seafood from the East coast to Hawaii. A hole is dug in the ground and lined with stones, bricks, sand, and/or leaves. This adds a layer of insulation, helps retain heat, and avoids any messy interaction between the earth and food. Wood is piled high and burned in the pit until it burns down into hot embers. More stones or leaves are added atop the hot wood coals. Then the food — clams, lobsters, a whole pig, a side of beef, potatoes, corn — is piled on top and buried or covered and left to cook in the hot, smoky pit. A commercial smoker allows for more control than pit cooking.
The image of a whole hog skewered on a spit springs to mind when talking about spit and pit barbecue. A pit is dug, filled with wood, and set aflame. Then a (usually iron) spit is erected over it. Any type of meat can be skewered onto the spit, but whole lambs, pigs, goats, and sides of beef are the usual suspects. The spit is rotated by the pitmaster, who also controls the heat, which may come from actual flames or smoking wood coals.
Photoillustration credits: Pit chimneys, Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images; ribs, Cathleen A Clapper/Shutterstock; smoker, Arina P Habich/Shutterstock; wood chips, Louella89/Shutterstock
Daniela Galarza is Eater's news editor. Elise Furlan is a designer and illustrator in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus