Later this week, the International Bar-B-Q Festival will take over the streets of Owensboro, Kentucky. The Bluegrass State’s culinary fame may have been built on bourbon and fried chicken, but the Commonwealth has much to offer the barbecue thrill-seeker. Luckily, Wes Berry (author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book) is here to help you prepare for this notable culinary event, explain Kentucky’s distinctive ‘cue styles, and serve up some recipes from around the state:
Kentucky’s Regional Barbecue Styles and Sauces
by Wes Berry
In the western counties, 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 precooked 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 [in writing my book] 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.
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.
- 4 cups distilled vinegar
- 5 cups sugar
- Pinch of salt and pepper
- 2 heads large cabbage, chopped
- 1 carrot stick, chopped
- ½ medium onion, chopped
- ¼ green pepper, chopped
Heat vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper. Set aside and let cool. Add 7 cups cabbage mix to the cooled vinegar. Stir well and refrigerate. Makes 10-12 servings.
Brothers Barbecue’s Red Potato Salad
- ¼ cup white vinegar
- ½ cup sweet pickle juice
- ½ cup yellow mustard
- 3 cups mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons dill weed
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon celery salt
- ½ cup white sugar
- 5 pounds red potatoes, chopped and boiled
- 8‒10 sweet gherkin pickles, chopped
Whisk first 9 ingredients together for the dressing. Add cooked potatoes and chopped pickles and mix well. Refrigerate a few hours for flavors to blend.
Sarah’s Corner Cafe BBQ’s Smoked Shrimp with Pineapple and Vidalia Onions
- 3 pounds shrimp, peeled or unpeeled (both ways work well)
- 10 medium-sized Vidalia onions, quartered
- 6-7 pounds pineapple chunks, with juice
- Spicy dry rub (with cayenne, black pepper, paprika, etc.) to suit your taste
Spray large foil pan with cooking spray. Add onions and dry rub to pan and place on smoker at 250°F for 1 hour. Add pineapple and shrimp, shaking on additional dry-rub spices. Smoke for about 20 minutes or until shrimp is pink. Serve with barbecue sauce.
- 1 gallon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 gallon water
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 1 cup lemon juice
- 2 pounds brown sugar
- 5 pounds tomato paste
In a large pot, cook all ingredients until paste dissolves. Use it to baste meats, preferably mutton, periodically throughout the many hours of cooking required to tenderize the muscle tissues. When serving mutton, offer this dip in a bowl on the side for the dipping of individual pieces. Yields about 2½ gallons.
Ruby Faye’s Sweet Shoppe Chocolate Torte
- 1 large box (14 ounces) graham crackers
- 3 cups whole milk
- 2 packages (3.4 oz.each) vanilla instant pudding and pie filling
- 8 ounces Cool Whip
- 15-ounce can of milk chocolate frosting
Combine milk, pudding mix, and Cool Whip. Mix until smooth. Line bottom of 9 x 13-inch pan with graham crackers. Don’t crush. Add half of pudding mixture, and then cover with another layer of graham crackers. Add rest of pudding mixture. Cover this layer with graham crackers. Cover with milk chocolate frosting, thinning frosting with milk to make it spread easier. Refrigerate until pudding is set, 1-2 hours.