Kentucky's Regional Barbecue Styles and Sauces

Shoulder, chip, dip, and burgoo: Parsing Kentucky's diverse barbecue styles

By Wes Berry

Sample platter at Old Hickory, Owensboro KY
Plenty of mutton on The Old Hickory sampler, plus a bowl of burgoo, at Old Hickory Barbecue, Owensboro KY (Wes Berry)

Wes Berry’s The Kentucky Barbecue Book remains the definitive guide to the Bluegrass State’s diverse and delicious styles of barbecue. Wes has eaten at more barbecue restaurants in the state of Kentucky than anyone else we know, and he was kind enough to give The BBQ Hub permission to reprint this excerpt from his book, which offers a concise overview of the state’s different barbecue styles and sauces.

In the western counties [of Kentucky], the preferred barbecue is pulled or chopped pork from whole pork shoulders or Boston butts. Traditionally, pork shoulders cooked on concrete block masonry pits for twelve to thirty hours, depending on the size of the shoulder, the type of wood used, the temperature inside the pits, the weather, and other factors like pit design. Pit masters burned down wood, mostly hickory, to coals and shoveled these underneath the meats every one to two hours, trying to keep a steady pit temperature. The most impressive pits have heavy thick insulated lids that are raised with the help of pulleys and cables. Many of the western counties are also fond of smoking cured hams (city hams) and pre-cooked turkey breasts, slicing them thinly to serve on sandwiches. Sauce styles vary county by county. The Hickman County sauce is mostly vinegar and cayenne pepper. Some McCracken County sauces taste strongly of vinegar and chili powder. Union and Henderson counties favor a savory Worcestershire-based dip, while over in Christian County to the east the sauces turn again to vinegar and cayenne. It's safe to say that although Kentucky is most famous for mutton, pork is still king, dominating barbecue menus throughout the state.

Mutton, however, is our most distinctive claim to barbecue fame, although only 18 out of 160 places I visited serve it. The "Mutton Tree," as I'll call it, is concentrated in western Kentucky, with Christian County and Hopkins County forming the trunk of the tree, branching out into Union, Henderson, and Daviess counties for the upper foliage. Owensboro is mutton central, with all four barbecue restaurants serving it. Mutton is usually basted while smoking over hickory coals and served with a savory Worcestershire sauce-based dip, a thin, black potion that also contains vinegar and spices like black pepper and allspice.

A big plate of mutton and a bowl of burgoo at Moonlight Inn, Owensboro, KY
A big plate of mutton and a bowl of burgoo at Moonlight Inn, Owensboro, KY (Robert F. Moss)

Another noteworthy regional tradition—called Monroe County style—dominates barbecue menus in five south-central counties: Monroe, Barren, Cumberland, Allen, and Warren. This is the stuff I grew up eating. Locals refer to it as "shoulder." Boston butts—the thick end of a pork shoulder—are frozen and then cut into thin slices, bone in, with a meat saw. Pit masters traditionally burned down hickory wood to coals and shoveled the coals underneath iron grates that held dozens of slices of shoulder. As the meats cooked over hot coals, the pit tenders flipped and basted the pieces periodically with a "dip" of vinegar, lard, butter, cayenne and black pepper, and salt. Because of the small surface area, pieces of shoulder soak up a lot of smoke in a short amount of time. Preferred length of cooking is around forty-five minutes, but on a hot fire you can grill a piece of shoulder in fifteen minutes.

Beyond these three major regional barbecue styles, I've noted some general taste preferences and peculiar methods of barbecue preparation that I'll label "microregional flavors." I've learned, for instance, that a few Louisville barbecue places really slather on the sauce, and that this trend continues in the northern and eastern counties. The sauciest pork sandwich I encountered during my journeys was the "Big Smokehouse BBQ" at the Smokehouse in Tollesboro, way up in Lewis County, not far south of the Ohio River. The sandwich was shredded meat blended with a thick tomato sauce, like a porky sloppy joe. The most famous rib place in northern Kentucky is the Montgomery Inn, a Cincinnati-based franchise with a restaurant in Ft. Mitchell. Their ribs are basted in a thick, tomato-based sauce—and like I say, they're beloved by locals. Furthermore, barbecue is hard to find in Appalachia, but at Pig in a Poke in Prestonsburg, the local preference is for sauced barbecue. And in the same counties serving "Monroe County-style" grilled sliced shoulder, you'll find a menu item called "shredded." Lovers of naked smoked meats—beware! "Shredded" usually comes from Boston butts, often boiled and then drowned in a tomato-based sauce.

Something I do like is the barbecue on toast tradition of a few counties in the far west of the state, preferred in McCracken, Livingston, Lyon, and Caldwell counties, although you can find it elsewhere, like in Graves County. Hickory-smoked pork or mutton is pulled or chopped and served on toasted bread with sliced raw onions and dill pickles.

I also like the "chipped" tradition of Union and Henderson counties, where the bark (the darkened and sometimes charred exterior pieces) of pork shoulders, hams, and mutton quarters are chopped and mixed with a thin, tangy sauce, which adds moisture back into the fire-dried meats. Because bark has so much smokiness, "chip" packs a wallop of flavor and is best eaten as a sandwich.

Chipped mutton on rye at Peak Bros. BBQ, Waverly, KY
Chipped mutton on rye at Peak Bros. BBQ, Waverly, KY

Burgoo, a stew made from many meats and vegetables, is found primarily in a funky triangle that runs from Owensboro (the burgoo capital) down to Madisonville, south to Hopkinsville, south to Guthrie, and back to Owensboro. You can find burgoo outside this region, but it's rare.

Finally, a note on Louisville and Lexington: I haven't detected any distinctive styles linking the barbecue places in these cities or their environs. Rather, they seem to be melting pots of barbecue styles, serving Texas brisket, Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs, and western Kentucky–style pork and mutton. Indeed, two of the oldest restaurants, Ole Hickory Pit in Louisville and Billy's Bar-B-Q in Lexington, and newer places like J. J. McBrewster's and Sarah's Corner Cafe in Lexington, bill themselves as "west Kentucky–style" establishments [and now, unfortunately, are no longer in business—Ed.] Two other urban upstarts, Hammerheads and Smoketown USA—both located in the appropriately named Smoketown area of old Louisville—blew my barbecued mind with their smoked lamb ribs, smoked duck, and smoked pork belly (masterminded by young chefs Adam Burress and Chase Mucerino of Hammerheads) and meaty Flintstone beef ribs (the creation of Smoke-town's "Jewish redneck"—his words, not mine—pit master, Eric Gould). With so many new places opening up in both cities in the past few years, I'd say the future looks promising for barbecue in the Commonwealth. Surprisingly, many of them are cooking on tank units with external fireboxes, using a lot of wood to create what Vince Staten and Greg Johnson call real barbecue.

Reprinted from The Kentucky Barbecue Book by Wes Berry with permission from the author.

The Kentucky Barbecue Book

Wes Berry

Wes Berry's essential guide to barbecue in Kentucky, from the banks of the Mississippi in the west to the hollows of the Appalachian Mountains in the east. This handy guide presents the most succulent menus and colorful personalities in Kentucky.

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About the Author

Wes Berry

Dr. Wes Berry, aka The Hungry Professor (@hungryprofessor), has feasted at 200+ Kentucky barbecue places and is hungry for more. Along with wife Elisa, he raises sheep & rabbits & pays the mortgage by teaching literature and writing at Western Kentucky University.