Barbecue Basics, Sauces, and Rubs

Pork belly burnt ends being prepared for service at Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

BBQ 101

From its origins around the caveman’s campfire to today’s Sunday cookout in the backyard, barbecuing has always been a communal and festive activity. However, not all barbecuing is the same. In fact, there are different ways to achieve that unforgettable fired flavor. With options from Kansas City-style barbecue to Texas style, open-flame grilling to slow-cooking smokers, and rubs to sauces, how does a home cook know where to start? We turned to some local pros to find out.

Trademarks of Four American Barbecue Styles

Across the United States, barbecuing styles vary from the Pacific to the Atlantic. But most barbecue experts agree the four most popular styles are Texas, Memphis, Carolina, and Kansas City. Although each method generally employs cooking “low and slow” — at low heat for a long period of time — over wood, each style features distinctly different rubs, sauces, and flavors.

Black pepper and salt are the base of a Texas-barbecue-style rub. Some cooks add other ingredients such as coffee, chili powder, or brown sugar. According to Greg Desmangles, culinary director at Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse, “Texas style favors beef, usually a brisket, smoked low and slow. And sausage is also always on a Texas-style menu.”

O.Z. Kamara, co-owner and smokeologist at Daddy O’s Smokehouse, employs a different twist on Texas-style barbecue. He calls it “Cali-cue” because his Texas-style menu also includes tri-tip, a cut of meat that originated in California.

O.Z. Kamara, co-owner and “smokeologist” for Daddy O’s Smokehouse in Rancho Cordova, puts a 14-pound prime brisket on his smoker, which he’s named “Bigg Shirley.” Photo by Rachel Valley

Memphis style also involves smoking meats, preferably pork ribs and pork shoulder, in a brick oven commonly called a pit. A Memphis-style dry rub typically contains garlic and paprika but sometimes also salt, pepper, chili powder, mustard powder, brown sugar, and more. Wet, or saucy, ribs call for a thin, vinegar-and-tomato-based sauce brushed on before, during, and after cooking.

Carolina barbecue varies from north to south, with two distinct styles in North Carolina and three in South Carolina. But all of these regions favor pork as the preferred meat for barbecue. A thin, vinegar-based sauce dominates most of the styles and commonly includes cayenne pepper, mustard, and/or brown sugar.

Kansas City differs from other styles of barbecue in that a wide variety of meats, including beef, pork, chicken, and turkey, are used. Meats are treated with a dry rub and served with a thick, sweet, spicy, tomato-based sauce. Low and slow is the preferred method of cooking, but grilled chicken is common, too. Burnt ends — the crispy, delicious tips of brisket or pork —originated in Kansas City.

Slicing a moist brisket fresh out of the smoker at Urban Roots. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Grill It or Smoke It?

What is the difference between grilling and smoking? Kamara says, “When you’re grilling, the fire touches the meat. But when you’re smoking, the fire never touches the meat.”

An Urban Roots cook grills a house-ground brisket burger. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Smoking is an ancient technique that was used to preserve food as well as meat throughout the ages. But now, in the age of refrigeration, we add smoke for flavor, not for safety. Smoking calls for adding hardwoods (such as hickory, oak, mesquite, pecan, apple, or cherry) to create smoke that flavors meat on the grill. The technique is simple, but you need to pay attention to the temperature in the barbecue.

At Urban Roots, Desmangles uses a combination of woods, including white oak, cherry, apple, and almond.

“For beef, the favorite is mesquite wood,” Kamara says. “But for pork, I prefer cherry wood. It creates a nice mahogany color on the meat.” He adds that pecan wood also works for all types of meat.

Both chefs say the ideal smoking temperature is 225 to 275 degrees F. They control the temperature by adjusting the amount of air they allow in.

“Keep the lid closed,” Kamara cautions about letting out the heat, “because when you’re looking, you’re not cooking.”

For home cooks who don’t have smokers, Kamara says, “You can offset your meat on one side of the grill and add wood on the other side. Wood chips, chunks, or logs all work.”

The snake charcoal method, which refers to the linear arrangement of briquettes along the outer edges combined with wood, will also turn your grill into a smoker.

It’s also easy to turn your gas grill into a smoker whether it comes with a built-in smoker box, or you purchase one separately. Alternatively, a DIY smoker box made with aluminum foil, or metal pan covered with aluminum foil, with holes poked in the foil to allow smoke to escape, works. Simply add soaked (for 30 minutes) and drained wood chips to the smoker box, and place it on the burners. Be sure to offset the meat for indirect cooking.

Some meats lend themselves well to smoking, such as brisket, shoulder, and ribs. That’s because the low-and-slow method of cooking not only adds flavor to the meat, but it also tenderizes what can be a tougher cut. Others work best with grilling, such as steaks, burgers, seafood, and fish. According to Kamara, “Steaks are best cooked on a hot grill to sear them. This keeps the juices locked in.” Chicken lends itself to both grilling and smoking.

Kamara sears steak on a hot grill. Photo by Rachel Valley

At home, Desmangles likes to grill chicken leg quarters. “Cooking the chicken to the point where the skin is crispy but it’s still moist is an underrated art form,” he says.

When it’s done, he likes to toss it in an Alabama white sauce, a savory dressing comprised of mayonnaise, vinegar, spices, and Worcestershire sauce.

Pick Your Preference – Sauce, Rub, Or Both

This is where things can get interesting — combining flavors to make your perfect sauce or rub. These blends vary widely from one cook to another.

Common ingredients for a tasty barbecue sauce are vinegar, tomato paste, molasses, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and various spices.

Dry rubs make grilling easy and the end product delicious. These savory mixes of salt, ground peppers, spices, dried herbs, and sugar flavor and lightly cure meat before grilling. But despite the term “rub,” Desmangles says, “You don’t actually rub the meat; you sprinkle it on. Otherwise, rubbing the mixture in plugs up the pores. The meat needs to sweat to tenderize by rendering out the fat and collagen, and blocking the pores prevents it from happening.”

Kamara seasons a 14-pound brisket before smoking it. Photo by Rachel Valley

Both Desmangles and Kamara make their own rubs and sauces, though when asked about the ingredients, both say the recipes are “top secret.” Kamara only uses rubs on his meats and serves the sauce on the side. For his ribs, Desmangles starts with a rub, then adds an apple cider vinegar mop to keep them moist. He finishes with a sauce cut with vinegar to give the ribs a tantalizing mahogany red lacquer.

Barbecue is rustic in execution and audacious in flavor, a perfect foundation on which home cooks can expand their repertoires. Flame-fired and smoked meats, with rubs and sauces to match, create mouthwatering taste sensations. So bask in the summer sun of our creative chefs’ suggestions as they lead any brave, new backyard chefs to the joy of barbecuing.

Tips and Tricks

Increase your chances of successful grilling with some of these pro tips:

  • White meat should always be cooked well done. Cook pork to 145 degrees F, and poultry to 165 degrees F. Use an instant-read thermometer to check doneness by pushing it into the thickest part of the meat.
  • Some grill masters spray their ribs with apple cider to keep them moist during cooking. At Urban Roots, Desmangles uses leftover juice from the restaurant’s homemade pickles mixed with mustard. When the brisket and ribs are done, he wraps the meat in butcher paper to lock in the moisture and then places them back in the smoker.
  • Take an experimental approach. Kamara says, “If you’re just starting out, get a kettle-type grill. Start off with something easy, like hot links. Once you master that, move up to chicken.”
A just-unwrapped brisket fresh out of the smoker at Urban Roots. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

“Have fun, because a whole lot of barbecuing is about socializing,” Desmangles says. “And don’t be afraid to try something new.”

Want to sample some barbecue prepared by our pros?

Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse

Daddy O’s Smokehouse


Epic Grilled Steak
Alabama White Sauce

The Finger Test for Checking the Doneness of Meat

Rather than cutting into your meat, which releases juices prematurely and can affect juiciness, try this trick chefs use to check the doneness of meat without using a knife: the finger test.

Open one hand and relax it. With the other hand, use a finger to press the fleshy area between the thumb and base of your palm. This is what raw meat feels like. Now, take that same open hand and alternately touch each finger to the thumb; you’ll notice that the fleshy area you’re touching increases in firmness. Think of this change in firmness as equivalent to the feeling of doneness in your meat. Touch your index finger to the thumb. This is the feeling of rare meat. Then keep going — the middle finger to thumb is for medium-rare, the ring finger to thumb is medium, and pinky to thumb is well done.