From burnt ends to the rich sauce unique to KC, find out about all the things that go into KC-style barbecue.
Historically a cow town, area pitmasters don’t discriminate when it comes to meat. For every sauce-heavy plate of beef burnt ends, there’s a dry-rub rack of pork ribs across town with a well-known reputation of its own, making “Kansas City style” a diverse melting pot of regional influences.
At any given location, diners may find pork, beef, chicken, salmon, lamb or even vegetarian options, such as jackfruit.
A traditional Kansas City sauce is a thick, molasses-based concoction of spicy and sweet flavors.
As with any definition, there are plenty of exceptions. The best advice? Disregarding diet and preference limitations, order the dish as-is—sauced or not—and see for yourself how the experts serve it.
Heat and Timing
When it comes to substance, Kansas City barbecue is surprisingly flexible. Old-school tendencies insist on the “low and slow” method, meaning low heat and long hours in the smoker.
A newer wave of chefs-turned-pitmasters tend to prefer the opposite, trending more towards higher heats and faster cooking times. Both methods result in delicious ‘cue and packed dining rooms.
Types of Wood
Barbecue woods add distinct flavor over long smoking sessions. In some cases, the wood a restaurant uses is determined by the geographic characteristics of the region (i.e. if pecan is native to your area, you may be more likely to use it).
Many KC pitmasters prefer hickory wood for its versatility—it pairs well with pork and beef—as well as the rich, mahogany hue it imparts on smoked meats.
With that in mind, it truly comes down to pitmaster preference. Fruit tree woods like apple and cherry typically yield sweeter notes—ideal for poultry and pork—while others, like oak, pair nicely with red meat.
Types of Smokers
Between long-running brick ovens and steel setups right behind the counter, it’s clear that no two KC smokers are alike. Some, like at Woodyard Bar-B-Que, reside outdoors while others, like those at Arthur Bryant’s and LC’s, are as photogenic as the food they cook. And if you’re the sisters behind Jones Bar-B-Q, a retrofitted smoker found at a thrift store is all you need.
Competition pitmasters tend to have custom-built smokers for contests such as The American Royal World Series of Barbecue. However, for those interested in taking up smoking as a hobby (or even getting into the circuit themselves), there’s an assortment of smoker styles available for consumer purchase.