Regional BBQ 101 with Pork Ninjas Jason Rees

Meat and smoke are the two main building blocks of BBQ but the similarities between what they serve in.


Meat and smoke are the two main building blocks of BBQ but the similarities between what they serve in Raleigh, Lubbock or Lenexa pretty much ends there.

American pitmasters are intensely loyal to their local styles, each continuing a time-honoured tradition. Youll find tons of lamb and mutton in Kentucky, smoked chicken with white gravy in Alabama, and boiled ribs and curious aquarium-like smokers in Chicago.

Jason Rees, who runs the Pork Ninjas kitchen at Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, knows them all first-hand hes travelled extensively around the U.S., eating and cooking in competitions, and picked up on plenty of the local variations, a grab bag of which now make up his menu. He walks us through the finer points of the four main styles of American BBQ.

Where other regional styles might zero in on lamb, pork or beef, KC-style BBQ is what Rees calls a real awesome melting pot, pulling signature meats from other cities and throwing in mutton, fish or eastern European sausage to boot. Generally, theyll dry-rub and slow-smoke that meat, then hit it with a thick tomato-molasses sauce tableside.

Thanks to the widespread influence of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which holds over 500 BBQ competitions across North America, KC also has the greatest influence on what we non-Southerners think of as BBQ. It also gave the BBQ world one of its greatest creations: burnt ends, a fatty, crisped-up section of brisket that gets lopped off and put back in the smoker for maximum flavour.

Texas has the real estate to accommodate several regional sub-types of BBQ (including Mexican-influenced barbacoa in the south), but the best known is probably the dead-simple style found in Central Texas. Meat largely beef is seasoned simply with salt, pepper and garlic, then smoked over post oak.

There is no BBQ sauce in Central Texas. In some places if you ask them for it, theyll ask you to leave.

Rees notes that Central Texas-style BBQ is currently trending in a major way across North America, due in large part to Austin restaurateur Aaron Franklins becoming the first-ever BBQ pitmaster to win the prestigious James Beard Award last year.

In Greensboro you can drive 15 minutes in any direction and get three styles of barbecue, Rees says. Its all defined largely by one thing: pork, either chopped, shredded, sliced or pulled (plus a whole lot of ribs).

In Lexington, NC, theyre all about pork shoulder in a ketchup-based sauce (plus red slaw, which uses that same BBQ sauce as a dressing), while Eastern style uses the entire pig and relies on a vinegar-based sauce. Head down to South Carolina aka the mustard belt for whole-hog BBQ served with the yellow stuff.

Pork shoulder and ribs dominate in the pit smokers of Memphis, though beef and chicken are also common. Ribs, a local specialty, are done two ways: dry, with a salt and spice rub (no sauce), or wet, brushed with sauce before and after cooking. Also popular are BBQ sandwiches with pulled pork, thin vinegar-based BBQ sauce and coleslaw, but Memphians make a habit of putting pulled pork on everything. (Were not so different after all!)

Since Toronto didnt evolve a BBQ tradition the way the South did, we borrow wholesale from other cities. In short, were a lot like Kansas City, serving whatevers meaty and tasty.

If we had to pick a style for Ontario, it should go over applewood. Think of all the new cider houses that are popping up its because we have a huge abundance of apple. Its easily acquired, pesticide-free and plentiful.

The Toronto palate also craves plenty of heat Rees says he goes through hundreds of servings of hot sauce per week. And when he brings Pork Ninjas on the road to catering gigs, kimchee is one of his most popular toppings.

Don’t miss: Toronto’s best and newest BBQ.

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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