The Tastes of USA BBQ: Kentucky style BBQ

Barbecue is delicious no matter where it comes from, but what some people may not know is that where it comes from actually does make a difference in the taste. Different regions of the United States have their own techniques for preparing barbecued food, with different flavor profiles to go with them.

Today in our Tastes of USA BBQ series we'll be looking at some of the traditional barbecuing techniques found in the state of Kentucky, as well as providing a recipe for barbecued mutton (the state's specialty) you can make at home to experience the taste for yourself. What's the difference between Kentucky barbecue and other states? Let's get started to find out.

Barbecue in Kentucky

The barbecue techniques and flavors native to Kentucky vary by region, as do the kinds of meats popular for barbecuing.

Western Kentucky

Western Kentucky barbecue fans tend to eat pulled or chopped pork taken from shoulders or rumps. In terms of technique, hickory is the wood used most frequently, and smoking can take place over 12 hours to as long as 30 in deep pits. Cured ham and turkey are also popular, especially for sandwiches. Sauces can vary from county to county, but most are heavily vinegar-based and include spices, with Worcester-based dipping sauces as you move further north.

Western Kentucky is also the place where the majority of mutton is served in restaurants, usually with a Worcester-based sauce coating during the smoking. Additionally, "chipped" meat is a popular way to eat barbecue here, where the dry bark-like meat on the outside of smoked foods (usually mutton or pork) is chipped off into small pieces and rehydrated in a zesty sauce. These chips are often eaten as part of a sandwich in addition to as-is.

Southern Kentucky

Though known as "shoulder", the most popular kind of meat in southern Kentucky actually comes from the butt of the pork, sliced thinly with the bone in and smoked atop iron grates with hickory coals. What really sets this style of barbecue apart is the special "dip" that the slices are coated in as they cook, composed vinegar, butter, lard, black pepper, and cayenne that gives the pork an irresistibly spicy, tangy, and rich flavor. Burgoo is a popular dish further west, as well, composed of smoked meats (chicken, pork, and mutton being most common) and vegetables simmered together into a stew.

Eastern Kentucky

In eastern counties of Kentucky, the influences of the Carolinas and Tennessee are extremely prevalent, using a vinegar-based sauce more akin to those states than the simpler version found elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Pork shoulder is the meat of choice for those living in this area, served with a vinegar dipping sauce or otherwise coated in the sauce.

Northern Kentucky

Northern Kentucky meat preferences are similar to eastern Kentucky's, with a tomato-based sauce making up the bulk of the saucing options. Both sliced pork shoulder and shredded pork are popular here, typically coated in a large amount of sauce. Chipped meat is popular here, as well, using the tomato sauce mix that's more sweat than tangy rather than the western vinegar-based version.

Both Louisville and Lexington are almost "melting pots" of barbecue, combining different styles and dishes from around the state and country. Many restaurants offer Memphis-style dry pork ribs as well as western Kentucky mutton and pork, with some even providing beef ribs. It's not uncommon to see lamb and duck being smoked, as well, leading to an unmatched variety of tastes to try.

Materials needed For This BBQ Recipe:

In order to make authentic Kentucky mutton straight out of Owensboro, you'll need a few ingredients and supplies before you can begin cooking. Luckily, it's all easy to obtain, meaning you should be able to experience the taste of the Bluegrass State in your own backyard in no time.

Smoking the Meat

Once you've gathered your materials, you can begin the process of barbecuing your mutton.

Step 1: Prepping the Meat

Compared to other barbecue similarities, preparing mutton for smoking is relatively easy. Simply rub your meat with about 1 tablespoon each of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, making sure to coat all sides and rub the seasoning into every crevice. Set the meat aside as you continue prepping, letting it come to room temperature if it hasn't already.

Step 2: Warming Up the Grill

This recipe can be done with both a gas grill and dedicated charcoal smoker with some small adaptions, but was originally made using a charcoal grill. Keep this in mind from this point forward.

To start your grill, fill the bottom with chunks of charcoal and light them. When the fire catches, place chunks of chips of wood on top of the charcoal in the center (if using wood chips, you'll need to soak them in hot water for an hour first), covering with more charcoal. If you have one, place a heat diffuser over the charcoal now. Close the lid and allow smoke to build up until a temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit is reached. Place down your drip pan or aluminum pan, followed by the grill grate, and close the lid again until you're ready to smoke.

Step 3: Making the Sauces For The Meat

Owensboro barbecue is both basted during cooking and dipped in sauce when eating. To get those authentic flavors, you'll need two distinct sauces: A vinegar-based basting sauce and a thick Worcester-based dipping sauce. To make the most out of your time, put these sauces together as you wait for your grill to heat up. For both sauces, simply combine all the ingredients into a pan and simmer until boiling. For the dipping sauce, simmer slightly longer to reduce the sauce slightly and intensify the flavors.

Basting Sauce Recipe

  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 2/3 cup Worcester sauce
  • 5 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Dipping Sauce Recipe

  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup Worcester sauce
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 7 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper

Step 4: Smoking the Mutton

When the grill has reached optimum temperature and the sauces are ready, place your meat fat side up on the grates near the center of the grill and begin cooking. Try to keep the temperature within the same range for the entire length of cooking to avoid overcooking or burning (usually anywhere between 4 and 6 hours). If the meat does begin to burn, tent it with aluminum foil as you bring the heat down.

Monitor both the meat and the fire for the duration of cooking, adding more charcoal and wood as needed. Every half hour, baste the meat with the basting sauce. The mutton will be finished cooking when it's beginning to fall off the bone (around 190 degrees Fahrenheit in the thickest part).

Step 5: Resting the Mutton

When you've determined your meat is finished cooking, remove it from the heat and let it rest for five to ten minutes tented with foil. Once rested, remove the meat from the bone. You can do this in whatever way you prefer, though either cutting it across the grain or finely chopping it similar to pulled pork are the traditional cutting options.

Step 6: Serving the Mutton

Once the meat has been cut, cover it with some of the dipping sauce and mix well. Serve the rest of the sauce on the side to let everyone dip as much as they like for optimum sauciness. While the mutton is perfectly fine eaten on its own, many enjoy combining it with toasted hamburger buns or pieces of toast to make a sandwich. Whatever you choose, though, it's sure to be delicious.

Conclusion

With this recipe, you should now be able to make mutton as close to real Owensboro, Kentucky barbecue as you can get without visiting the city for yourself. Did you like the mutton? Have any tips on how best to recreate the pit barbecue experience at home? Leave a comment sharing your thoughts, and don't forget to tell a friend.

Frequently Asked Questions​

Where Can You Find Barbecued Mutton?

What Kind of Meat is Used in Kentucky Barbecue?

What is Burgoo?

What is the Difference between Lamb and Mutton?

What Does Hickory Smoke Taste Like?

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