Beef or Pork BBQ?

Chris Grove
"Nibble Me This"
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Beef Versus Pork
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Beef versus pork – which is the real BBQ?  Those are fightin’ words in some places.

Why do people in Texas consider BBQ to mean beef while folks in the Carolinas think BBQ means pork?  Do Texans have a special taste receptor for beef?  Do Carolinians have a grudge against pigs?  No, it is more simple than that – similar to how Hannibal Lecter explains coveting to Clarice Starling – we covet what we see.  When it comes to BBQ, we ate what was available.  Texas had plenty of beef and the Deep South was full o’ hogs. So it was only natural that when it came to BBQ, that those meats would be the primary meats in those regions.  But which was is the “real” BBQ?  That’s like asking me which child I love the best.

These days the beef vs pork camps aren’t as severely divided.  There are a lot of factors eroding the staunch regional lines of beef  vs pork:

  1. We are a much more mobile society now versus 1870.  As people move about, they take preferences and cooking techniques with them and also experience new culinary ideas. The Internet is making this change even more rapid.
  2. Modern production and distribution makes commodity beef and pork equally available regardless of geographic location.
  3. Third, while BBQ restaurants are traditionally single proprietor operations, 39 percent of them are now restaurant chains (Source:  NBBQA 2015 Conference: Driving Growth In Dynamic Times) and restaurant chains often cross regional lines.
  4. People are embracing healthier lifestyles and opting more often for leaner proteins, such as chicken, turkey and fish.
  5. Economic factors drive consumers away from pork and beef.  According to Nielsen Perishables Group, at the end of 2014 pork and beef were down in units sold while chicken was up in both dollars and units sold. Granted, economic factors are often cyclical but they do introduce new trends and practices that sometimes stick.

The proof that the lines between beef and pork are blurring shows up in menu options.  The Salt Lick is a famed Texas BBQ restaurant started just after the Civil War and they are famous for their beef brisket and sausage. But even in the heart of Hill Country, cattle territory, they sell over half a million pounds of pork a year (Source: Salt Lick Cookbook).  Likewise, brisket is showing up more and more on menus here in pork country.  All of my BBQ friends in Knoxville go to Dead End BBQ for their fantastic brisket.

So where do I stand on this issue of pork vs beef?  I’m from Florida but my BBQ roots are firmly planted in North Carolina because that is where I had my first bite of real BBQ.  I was 7, standing barefooted on my grandparents’ tobacco farm, when I was given some chopped pork shoulder in vinegar sauce on white bread. It was magic. Now I live in Tennessee (also pork country).  I never even tasted BBQ brisket until about 8 years ago but that first bite happened to be from a world champion BBQ pit master and I was instantly hooked.  I immediately dove in and learned how to perfect brisket and beef ribs. Now I feel like I love beef and pork BBQ equally (that’s the politically correct answer parents give about their kids, right?)

 Beef Brisket vs Pork Spare Ribs – Beef brisket is tender, slightly smoky and the simple seasonings let the meat shine.  It is one of my favorite cuts to cook or eat.  Pork spare ribs are good, but they are my least favorite BBQ meat, even behind chicken.  Brisket moves on to the second round.

Baby Back Ribs vs Beef Back Ribs – Baby or loin back pork ribs seemed to explode into popularity with the Chili’s jingle.  Their mild flavor works with a variety of flavor profiles.  Beef back ribs are the bones from the ribeye/prime rib.  While delicious when smoked, they can be skimpy on meat, making them too much work for too little reward.  Baby back ribs advance.

Pork Shoulder vs Burnt Ends – Ouch, tough match up!  Pork shoulder is where that delicious pulled pork comes from.  It is easy to cook, can be used many ways, and is relatively inexpensive.  Burnt ends are the brisket point – cubed and double smoked. Burnt ends can be a little fatty depending on the brisket, so pork shoulder wins a close one here.

Whole hog vs Beef Short Ribs – Whole hog is the most primal form of BBQ and cooking it is an art form unto itself.  Beef short ribs, aka Dino Bones, are succulent, peppery, smoky hunks of meat that Fred Flintstone would be proud of.  Another close one but I have to go with Beef Short Ribs.

Round 2

Beef Brisket vs Baby Back Ribs – Both are great but you can do so much more with leftover brisket – brisket tacos, brisket sloppy joes, brisket pot stickers and breakfast hash.  Brisket emerges victorious.

Pork Shoulder vs Beef Short Ribs – As much as I love short ribs, pork shoulder has the nostalgic edge and like brisket, has so many potential uses.

Final Round

Beef Brisket vs Pork Shoulder – Two heavyweights going at it toe to toe in a classic battle.  Sliced brisket is perfect with a peppery crust, that pink smoke ring, a hint of au jus and so tender that it bends perfectly over a finger without breaking. The ideal pork shoulder for me is soft chunks from the horn of the shoulder with a good piece of blackened bark on the end, dipped in a vinegar sauce.  How do you choose between those two?  The deciding factor is a bit of a cop out.  I cooked 80 pounds of pork shoulders last weekend but haven’t had brisket in two weeks so I pick beef brisket as the winner.

So it’s beef over pork then?  It is today.  Ask me again next week though and I might give you a different answer!

So which is it for you – beef or pork?

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