There’s no other style of food quite like barbecue.
When a piece of meat spends hours upon hours inside a smoker, something magical happens, and the resulting product has inspired more fierce and passionate devotion than just about any other type of food on earth. But whether you’re a connoisseur or just an occasional rib-eater, we bet that there are some things you didn’t know about this wonderful style of cuisine.
Barbecue has many different definitions around the world; in Britain, for example, to barbecue is to cook directly over high heat (what Americans call grilling), and even in America, barbecuing and grilling are occasionally (and incorrectly) used as synonymous. But for today’s purposes, we’re talking about real barbecue: the process of hot-smoking meat low and slow.
There are different regional barbecue styles all across the country, and for a barbecue lover, one of the great joys of traveling across the country is sampling as many as possible. While there are plenty of nuances and micro-regional styles, there are four styles that anyone who claims to be a barbecue lover should know about.
So loosen your belt, get your favorite bottle of barbecue sauce ready, and prepare yourself to be in the mood for some smoked meat, because you’ll most likely be craving some by the time you’re done reading. You can go your whole life competing in barbecue competitions and still not know everything there is to know about this legendary style of cuisine, but we’ll give you a head start.
1. Nobody Really Knows Where the Word Comes From
The word barbecue evolved from the Spanish word barbacoa; that much we know. But where the word actually originated is still hotly debated. The leading theory is that its etymology lies in barabicu, a word the Taino people of the Caribbean and the Timucua people of Florida used to mean “a framework of sticks upon posts.” (Another theory maintains that it comes from the French words barbe à queue, or "beard to tail," referring to the way a whole animal would be skewered on a rotisserie, but this is widely dismissed as folk etymology.)
2. George Washington Wrote of Attending a “Barbicue” in 1769
Barbecue in America dates back to the Colonial era; even Washington himself attended barbecues. In 1769, the notoriously bad speller wrote of attending a "barbicue" in Alexandria, Virginia.
3. The Type of Wood Used Plays a Crucial Role
If you want to make truly great barbecue, you can’t just chop down any old tree and use the wood for smoke. Hard woods like hickory, mesquite, oak, and pecan are usually used for pork and beef because they impart a strong smoky flavor, and fruit woods like apple, cherry, and pear impart a sweeter, milder taste and are better for smoking fish and poultry.
4. The “Smoke Ring” Comes From a Carbon Monoxide-Based Chemical Reaction
You know you’re eating real barbecue when the meat has a faint reddish “smoke ring” around its perimeter. This is formed by a chemical reaction between myoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein in the muscle tissue, and the carbon monoxide in the smoke.
5. More than 500 Teams Compete in the Largest Barbecue Competition
The American Royal World Championship is the largest barbecue competition in the country, with more than 500 teams competing, on average.
See more amazing facts about barbecue.
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