Secrets of the Barbecue King


Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

The Rib Doctor explains how smoke and sauce combine to make distinctive regional flavors.

Like your barbecue sweet with a kick of spice? Fruity tasting with a subtle aroma? Hayward Harris Jr. ’74 can point you to the correct combinations of smoke and sauce that give regional barbecues their unique flavors. Midwest – Hickory is in ample supply and is the dominant wood. It gives meat a rich, deep, heavy smoke taste much like bacon and matches well with sweeter sauces. Be careful, too much hickory will over-power your meats. Hickory/oak, and hickory/cherry/oak also provide excellent flavor profiles.

South (general)

Pecan is used in combination with other woods. Pecan produces a lighter smoke than hickory; but it too is rich in flavor. The flavors match well with sauces that tend to be sweet with a little spice and a vinegary edge.


Hickory smoke is used to cook whole hogs and pork shoulders. North Carolina sauces range from a combination of vinegar, salt, and chili peppers on the East Coast to tomato based in the western part of the state. South Carolinians are partial to “Carolina Gold,” a mustard based sauce that robust in flavor.


Pecan, hickory and cherry are the woods of choice. Peach wood has become a crowd favorite. As in other southern regions, sauces are sweet with a little kick from spice and vinegar, but they also can include orange juice, which gives them a sweeter flavor and an orange hue to the sauce.


Hickory is king of wood in Alabama. Sauces are tomato-based and combine lemon juice with vinegar to give them more tang. Mayonnaise-based barbecue is unique to the region, and is used exclusively on poultry.


Hickory smoke is used to cook ribs and shoulders. Sauces are dark, tomato based; flavor is best described as robust.


Mesquite is the dominant wood. Post oak (white oak) is also popular. A mesquite/post oak combination creates a unique and wonderful flavor. Meats are served naked (no sauce) or with a thin tomato-based near-spicy sauce on the side.

West Coast

Apple, cherry and other fruitier woods are mixed with white oak, which adds a good heat factor. The combination creates a subtle aroma and a good blend that doesn’t overpower the flavor. Add a piece of hickory or pecan for that “extra bite.” Red oak is used in smoking tri-tips Santa Maria-style. Sauces run the full gamut of flavors; however, the majority of folk like a sweet tomato-based sauce that may include honeys, fruit purees or jelly for added sweetness. Asian influences in the form of soy and teriyaki can be found in California sauces.

Pacific Northwest

Smoked fish is wildly popular, especially salmon smoked over alder wood. Beef, pork and poultry are prepared over a blend of fruit wood and oak. Like California, sauces run the full gamut of flavor of tomato based sauces that have a sweet edge.

Finally, as you experiment with flavors to suit your tastes, always avoid blending hickory and mesquite together, the combination can overpower the flavor.



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