Barbecue itself is a hotly-contested term and one that any Southerner is happy to give a grammatical lesson on.
As a noun, barbecue refers to the actual food itself: pork that has been cooked with low heat and smoked for a long time at a low temperature with heat that radiates from hardwood and hardwood coal. Barbecue can also refer to the event where smoked pork is served, but be wary. Though the term has evolved over time to refer to refer to a specific cooking method, it never refers to the act of cooking just any meat over open flame. Don’t invite a Southerner to a barbecue and serve them a hamburger — in that case just invite them over to grill out.
There are plenty more hotly contested terms in the world of barbecue that anyone who enjoys smoked pork meals should know.
Smoking is a verb that describes how the pork is cooked. Smoke cooks, flavors and preserves the meat by exposing it indirectly to smoke and heat that comes from wood and coals. The indirect application of the heat is important because otherwise the exterior of the meat would quickly char and burn, while the inside would remain raw and uncooked. The ideal temperature for smoking pork is 126 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit and, depending on the cut and size of meat, it is often tended to for more than 12 hours. Creating barbecue is a lengthy process with varied approaches that differ from pitmaster to pitmaster.
Those unfamiliar with the bark of barbecue may think that someone went terribly wrong in the cooking process. Like a tree, barbecue’s bark is an exterior covering that protects the much softer interior. Bark is a good thing for barbecue, as it is for trees, though this version is much tastier. Bark is what happens when chemical reactions take place as the meat is exposed to heat and oxygen, and thanks to seasonings that many chefs add, it imparts an extra layer of flavor to the meat.
The pit is where the barbecue is cooked (and serves as the domain of the pitmaster). It can be as simple as a homemade above-ground pit where a constant source of fire is stoked to create smoke, or it can be as fancy as a several-thousand-dollar ceramic smoker with upgraded bells and whistles for cooking control. Commercial barbecue pits can be enormous walk-in style rooms that need to have coal shoveled in. Most people who make barbecue recreationally have mid-range smokers that you can find at a hardware stores.
Barbecue sauce is different in different parts of the country, even varying wildly within the same state. All barbecue sauces are generally a thin sauce, with most being a variation on a vinegar, tomato paste, or mayonnaise base, with mustard, peppers, molasses and spices as variants and add-ins. Specific regions have strong ties to their particular sauce, which can hail from original settlers to the area — such as the Midlands of South Carolina’s history of mustard-based yellow barbecue sauce, thanks to German settlers in the 18th century.
Now that you’re knowledgeable about common terms it’s time to get invited to a barbecue to eat some barbecue, and maybe let the host know that they aren’t barbecuing. If they are doing it right, they are smoking pork, in a pit, that will have a great bark and will be served with a variety of tasty barbecue sauces!