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Barbecue Wisdom from the Man Behind Savory Spice

After seven thousand miles on the road in pursuit of understanding regional barbecue, the Savory Spice's Mike Johnston shares his wisdom.

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In what may rank as one of the coolest work trips ever, Mike Johnston, owner of Savory Spice, embarked on a barbecue pilgrimage last summer. His goal: to do hands-on research on regional differences in barbecue. After 43 days of driving, logging 7,000 miles across 14 states, and visiting 88 barbecue joints, Johnston won’t spill on his favorite, but he’s working components from each of the distinct regions into a new line of sauces and rubs that will launch at Savory this month. Here’s what he learned, with tips from the pros themselves.

Central Texas

The Meat: All things beef—brisket, sausage, ribs

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Barbecuing Method: Low and slow

Fuel: Post oak, live, or white variety

Spices/Sauce: Salt-and-pepper blends; sauces might not even be on the table

At-Home Tip: Mix mustard and pickle juice together, a 60 to 40 ratio, and lather your protein before applying a spice rub. This locks in moisture.

—Dustin Amariah Blackwell, pit master and co-owner of Hutchins BBQ and Catfish (McKinney)

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Kansas City

The Meat: Pulled pork, ribs, burnt ends

Barbecuing Method: Low and slow

Fuel: Hickory, pecan, and apple

Spices/Sauce: Heavy sugar-based (usually brown sugar) rubs and sweeter tomato-based sauces

At-Home Tip: Few have time to cook for 20 hours these days. Instead, heat the smoker to 275 to 300 degrees. It’ll result in a better bark, and it’ll speed up cook time.

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—Mike Pearce, co-owner and pit master of Slap’s BBQ (Kansas City)


Memphis

The Meat: Ribs, rib tips, pulled pork, smoked encased meats such as bologna and summer sausage

Barbecuing Method: Low and slow

Fuel: Hickory, pecan, apple, and briquette charcoals

Spices/Sauce: Sugar-based rubs offer heat; sweet, tangy ketchup-based sauces

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At-Home Tip: With a pair of tongs, pick up your rack of ribs from the middle. If the meat starts to break away, it’s done.

—Bobby Bradley, co-owner of Cozy Corner Restaurant (Memphis)


Alabama

The Meat: Ribs, pork, and chicken

Barbecuing Method: Pork ribs cooked hot and fast at 700 to 800 degrees

Fuel: Hickory, pecan, and fruitwoods

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Spices/Sauce: Chicken slathered with a mayo-and-vinegar-based white sauce; ribs come with a sweet, tangy red sauce

At-Home Tip: Barbecue at a consistent temperature. Invest in a thermometer…and stop opening the darn lid.

—Ken Hess, pit master of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q (Decatur)


South Carolina

The Meat: Whole hog for chopped or pulled pork

Barbecuing Method: Low and slow

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Fuel: Hickory, pecan, and fruitwoods

Spices/Sauce: Mustard-based sauces on the western side of the state; peppery vinegar-based sauces on the eastern side

At-Home Tip: Know your smoke. If it’s not white, then there’s sap in the wood. So wait for the white, then you’re ready to cook.

—Jeff Little, owner and pit master of Mike & Jeff’s BBQ (Greenville)


North Carolina

The Meat: Whole hog for chopped or pulled pork

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Barbecuing Method: Low and slow

Fuel: Hickory, pecan, and fruitwoods

Spices/Sauce: Vinegar-based sauce in the east; ketchup-tinted vinegar sauce in the central and western parts of the state

At-Home Tip: Take field notes. Write down each spice combo, sauce blend, and cooking method. Even note the weather.

—Sam Jones, owner and pit master of Skylight Inn BBQ (Ayden)

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