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A Quick Guide to North Carolina Barbecue

Throughout the United States, barbecue is a uniquely regional food. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another dish that brings so many distinct changes from state to state (or even city to city). North Carolina is home to many of these different barbecue flavors, and while we may start a war with Texas, or Memphis, or Kansas City by saying this, we feel that good ole’ Carolina BBQ holds the crown for the tastiest of these flavors. 

But even within the great state of North Carolina, opinions are divided between regions as to which stands as the true king of barbecue. So, here’s a quick breakdown of the two strongest competitors in the clash of North Carolina barbecues.

Eastern North Carolina

These two styles of North Carolina barbecue are usually most quickly distinguished by the sauce, but the method for cooking meat is also distinct between the two styles.

A photo of a whole hog being smoked on a smoker

The meat: 

Eastern North Carolina barbecue is most commonly whole-hog style. In fact, it’s been said of Eastern style that they “use every part of the pig except the squeal.”Often, the entire pig is barbecued and the cooked meat is then prepared, chopped, and mixed to be served. 

A photo of classic Eastern North Carolina Barbecue sauce

The sauce:

Eastern NC barbecue sauce is completely vinegar-based. You won’t typically find any ketchup or tomato in this style of sauce. Rather, this thin sauce is comprised of vinegar and peppers or spices (which vary based on the preparer). It’s typically sharp, tangy, with a little spice, and used either to baste and keep the hog moist while it’s cooking, or as a topper to the finely chopped barbecue when it’s served up. 

Western North Carolina (Lexington-Style)

Western North Carolina (or Lexington or Piedmont-Style), is a bit more complex. This is often referred to as Lexington-style because of the region that is most famous for it. Lexington, North Carolina is the original stomping ground for this style, and is home to the Lexington Barbecue Festival, an event that draws over 200,000 visitors each year to try the various forms of this classic North Carolina barbecue.

A smoking pork shoulder (or Boston Butt)

The meat: 

Typically, Western NC style uses the shoulder of the pig. This is mainly dark meat, smoked and often more coarsely chopped, and dressed with the thicker Lexington or Western North Carolina style barbecue sauce.

Image of western north Carolina barbecue sauce

The sauce:

The nuances of these Lexington-style recipes can differ significantly, with different flavor palettes and varying spice levels. The ingredients that remain universal across this style, however, are vinegar and tomato / ketchup. This sauce (also referred to as “dip”) is tangy, spicy, and sweet. 

Over here at McMasters’ Hawg Sauce…

We like to think we’re the middle ground in the North Carolina barbecue sauce feud. You get the sweetness from the ketchup and sugar like a Lexington-style Western NC barbecue sauce, but you still get a kick from the vinegar and Texas Pete. We call it the everything sauce because it’s good on…everything!

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