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What Is Kentucky Style BBQ?

Have you ever wondered what exactly makes Kentucky-style BBQ so unique? With its rich blend of smoky flavors and tangy sauces, Kentucky-style BBQ is a true culinary delight. This article will take you on a mouthwatering journey, exploring the origins and key characteristics of this beloved barbecue tradition.

From the slow-cooked meats to the secret ingredient in the sauce, you will discover what sets Kentucky-style BBQ apart from the rest. So, grab a napkin and get ready to learn all about the irresistible flavors of Kentucky-style BBQ. Kentucky-style BBQ refers to the unique and delicious barbecue tradition that has been developed and cherished in the state of Kentucky.

Known for its slow-smoked meats, distinctive sauces, and flavorful seasonings, Kentucky BBQ stands out as a culinary delight that is enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike.

In this article, we will explore the history and origins of Kentucky BBQ, the different types of meat used, the traditional techniques employed, the signature sauces that make it truly unique, the distinctive flavors and seasonings, regional variations, popular side dishes, renowned BBQ joints, annual BBQ festivals, and even offer some tips for recreating the Kentucky BBQ experience at home.

History of Kentucky Style BBQ

What Is Kentucky Style BBQ?

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Origins of BBQ in Kentucky

The origins of BBQ in Kentucky can be traced back to the early colonial days when settlers from across various regions brought their own unique cooking techniques and flavors to the area.

As Kentucky was settled by both Southerners and Northerners, it is believed that the BBQ traditions of Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas heavily influenced the development of Kentucky BBQ.

Over time, these various influences blended together, resulting in the creation of a distinctive BBQ style that is truly unique to the state.

Influence of Southern BBQ

The influence of Southern BBQ on the development of Kentucky BBQ cannot be overstated. With its roots in African, Native American, and European cooking traditions, Southern BBQ brought slow smoking, tangy vinegary sauces, and rich flavors to Kentucky.

The techniques and flavors of Southern BBQ were embraced and adapted by Kentuckians, resulting in a BBQ style that combines the best of both worlds.

Distinctive Features of Kentucky BBQ

What Is Kentucky Style BBQ?

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Kentucky BBQ is known for its distinctive features that set it apart from other regional BBQ styles. One of the most notable features is the use of a diverse range of meats, including pork, beef, chicken, and even lamb. This variety of meats allows for a wide range of flavors and textures in Kentucky BBQ.

Additionally, Kentucky BBQ is characterized by its slow smoking technique, dry rubs, and the use of traditional BBQ sauces such as black BBQ sauce, vinegar-based BBQ sauce, and mustard-based BBQ sauce.

Types of Meat Used in Kentucky BBQ


Pork is the most iconic meat used in Kentucky BBQ. From succulent pulled pork to mouthwatering pork ribs, pork is the star of many Kentucky BBQ dishes. Whether it’s smoked low and slow to achieve a tender and juicy texture or grilled to perfection with a smoky crust, pork is a staple in Kentucky BBQ.


While pork may be the king of Kentucky BBQ, beef also has its rightful place. Brisket, in particular, is a popular cut of beef used in Kentucky BBQ. Slow-smoked until it is melt-in-your-mouth tender, beef brisket is often served sliced or chopped, and is enjoyed with a drizzle of tangy BBQ sauce.


Chicken is another meat commonly found in Kentucky BBQ. Whether it’s barbecued whole, smoked chicken quarters, or tender and smoky chicken wings, the flavors and techniques used in Kentucky BBQ enhance the natural flavors of the chicken, resulting in a succulent and flavorful dish.


While less common than pork, beef, and chicken, lamb is also used in certain Kentucky BBQ dishes. Lamb shoulder, in particular, is often slow-smoked to perfection, resulting in tender and flavorful meat that pairs perfectly with the bold flavors of Kentucky BBQ.

Traditional Kentucky BBQ Techniques

Traditional Kentucky BBQ Techniques

Slow Smoking

One of the hallmarks of Kentucky BBQ is the slow smoking technique used to cook the meat. Slow smoking involves cooking the meat over low heat for an extended period of time, usually several hours or even overnight. This slow-cooking method allows the meat to become tender and infused with smoky flavors.

Dry Rubs

Dry rubs are another essential aspect of Kentucky BBQ. These spice mixtures, typically consisting of a blend of salt, pepper, paprika, and various other spices, are applied to the meat before cooking. The dry rub not only adds flavor but also helps to create a delicious crust on the outside of the meat.

Mopping and Basting

Mopping and basting are techniques used during the cooking process to keep the meat moist and add additional layers of flavor. A mop sauce or basting sauce, typically made from a combination of vinegar, spices, and sometimes beer or other liquids is brushed onto the meat periodically throughout the cooking process. This helps to infuse the meat with even more flavor and helps to keep it juicy.

Signature Kentucky BBQ Sauces

What Is Kentucky Style BBQ?

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Black BBQ Sauce

Black BBQ sauce is a distinctive sauce that is native to Kentucky BBQ. It gets its unique black color from the addition of blackstrap molasses, which gives the sauce a rich and sweet flavor. Black BBQ sauce often features a combination of tangy, sweet, and spicy notes, making it a perfect complement to any type of meat.

Vinegar-based BBQ Sauce

Vinegar-based BBQ sauce is another popular sauce found in Kentucky BBQ. With its tangy and slightly acidic flavor, this type of sauce pairs particularly well with pork and adds a refreshing contrast to the rich and smoky flavors of the meat.

Mustard-based BBQ Sauce

Mustard-based BBQ sauce is a uniquely Kentucky creation. Made with a base of yellow mustard, this sauce is tangy, slightly spicy, and has a touch of sweetness. It is often used as a dipping sauce or basting sauce for pork and chicken, adding a vibrant and tangy flavor to the meat.

Distinctive Flavors and Seasonings

Mutton BBQ

A distinctive aspect of Kentucky BBQ is the use of mutton, which refers to mature sheep meat. Mutton is slow-smoked, resulting in rich and flavorful meat that is unique to the region. The smoky flavors of the slow-cooked mutton are enhanced by the traditional Kentucky BBQ seasonings and sauces, creating a truly distinctive BBQ experience.

Bourbon-infused Flavors

As the birthplace of bourbon, it is no surprise that Kentucky BBQ often incorporates this beloved spirit into its flavors. From marinades and sauces to glazes and seasonings, bourbon adds a rich and smoky depth of flavor to Kentucky BBQ dishes, enhancing the overall taste and creating a unique sensory experience.

Southern Spices

Kentucky’s Southern roots are reflected in the use of traditional Southern spices in its BBQ. Common spices used include paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, and various blends of herbs and spices. These flavors contribute to the bold and robust taste that is synonymous with Kentucky BBQ.

Regional Variations of Kentucky BBQ

Western Kentucky BBQ

In Western Kentucky, BBQ is typically characterized by its use of mutton. Mutton shoulders and racks are slow-smoked and basted with a tangy and slightly spicy sauce, resulting in a unique and flavorful BBQ experience. Western Kentucky BBQ is also known for its distinctive sides, such as burgoo (a hearty stew) and spoonbread.

Central Kentucky BBQ

Central Kentucky BBQ is known for its emphasis on pork, particularly pulled pork and ribs. These meats are slow-smoked and coated in a choice of sauces, ranging from tangy to sweet and spicy. Central Kentucky BBQ often features traditional sides such as cornbread and BBQ beans, which complement the flavors of the meat.

Eastern Kentucky BBQ

Eastern Kentucky BBQ is characterized by its use of beef, particularly beef brisket. Slow-smoked until it is tender and juicy, beef brisket is the star of the show in Eastern Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky BBQ also incorporates a variety of sauces, from tangy vinegar-based to sweet and smoky, creating a diverse range of flavors.

What Is Kentucky Style BBQ?

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Traditional Side Dishes


No Kentucky BBQ feast is complete without a side of cornbread. Whether it’s served in muffin form or as a slice, cornbread is a classic companion to BBQ. With its slightly sweet and buttery flavor, cornbread provides a comforting and savory contrast to the smoky and savory flavors of the meat.

BBQ Beans

BBQ beans are another staple side dish in Kentucky BBQ. Slow-cooked with a combination of seasonings, spices, and sometimes even bits of smoked meat, BBQ beans are the perfect complement to any BBQ meal. Their rich and smoky flavors add depth to the overall dining experience.

Potato Salad

Potato salad is a refreshing and creamy side dish often enjoyed alongside Kentucky BBQ. Made with boiled potatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, and various seasonings, this classic side dish provides a cool and tangy contrast to the warm and smoky flavors of the BBQ.


Coleslaw, with its crisp and refreshing cabbage and carrot base, is a must-have side dish in Kentucky BBQ. The creamy dressing, often made with mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar, adds a tangy and slightly sweet element to the meal, balancing out the richness of the meat.

Popular Kentucky BBQ Joints

What Is Kentucky Style BBQ?

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Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn

Located in Owensboro, Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn is an iconic BBQ joint that has been serving up mouthwatering Kentucky BBQ since 1963. Known for its buffet-style dining, Moonlite offers a wide range of smoked meats, including pork, beef, and chicken, as well as traditional sides and homemade desserts. With its welcoming atmosphere and commitment to quality, Moonlite is a must-visit destination for BBQ enthusiasts.

Owensboro BBQ

Owensboro, Kentucky is known as the BBQ capital of the world, and for good reason. With its rich BBQ heritage, Owensboro is home to numerous BBQ joints that specialize in the unique style of Western Kentucky BBQ. One such place is Owensboro BBQ, which has been serving up mutton and other BBQ delights since 1988. Known for its tender and flavorful mutton, Owensboro BBQ is a favorite among locals and visitors alike.

Old Hickory Bar-B-Q

Old Hickory Bar-B-Q, located in Owensboro, is another renowned BBQ joint that has been delighting patrons since 1918. With its long history and commitment to traditional Kentucky BBQ, Old Hickory continues to attract BBQ lovers from near and far. From their famous mutton sandwiches to their mouthwatering ribs, Old Hickory is a true institution of Kentucky BBQ.

Kentucky BBQ Festivals

International Bar-B-Q Festival

The International Bar-B-Q Festival, held annually in Owensboro, is a celebration of all things BBQ. Featuring an array of barbecued meats, live music, cooking competitions, and more, this festival showcases the rich BBQ heritage of Kentucky.

Whether you’re a BBQ enthusiast or simply a fan of delicious food, the International Bar-B-Q Festival is a must-visit event.

Bluegrass BBQ Festival

Bluegrass BBQ Festival

The Bluegrass BBQ Festival, held in Lexington, Kentucky, is another popular BBQ festival that draws in crowds from both near and far. With its focus on showcasing the best of Kentucky BBQ, this festival offers a variety of mouthwatering BBQ dishes, live entertainment, and family-friendly activities.

From sampling different flavors of BBQ to learning about the art of smoking meats, the Bluegrass BBQ Festival is a fantastic experience for BBQ enthusiasts of all ages.

Kentucky State BBQ Festival

The Kentucky State BBQ Festival, held in Danville, is a three-day event that celebrates the flavors and traditions of Kentucky BBQ. Featuring nationally recognized pitmasters, cooking demonstrations, live music, and a variety of BBQ vendors, this festival offers a unique opportunity to taste some of the best BBQs in the state. Whether you’re a seasoned BBQ aficionado or simply looking for a fun-filled weekend, the Kentucky State BBQ Festival is a must-attend event.

Tips for BBQ at Home

Choosing the Right BBQ Equipment

When it comes to BBQ at home, choosing the right equipment is essential. Whether you prefer a charcoal grill, a gas grill, or a smoker, make sure it suits your needs and allows for precise temperature control. Invest in quality grilling tools, such as long-handled tongs and a meat thermometer, to ensure a successful BBQ experience.

Marinades and Rubs

Marinades and rubs are the secret to achieving flavorful and tender BBQ meat. Experiment with different marinades, such as bourbon-based or vinegar-based, to infuse your meat with unique tastes. Try different dry rubs and apply them generously to your meat, allowing the flavors to penetrate and develop as it cooks.

Temperature Control and Smoking

Maintaining the right temperature is crucial when smoking meat for BBQ. Keep an eye on your grill’s temperature and adjust accordingly to ensure a slow and even cooking process. Use a mix of hardwood chips, such as hickory or apple, to create flavorful smoke that permeates the meat and adds that signature BBQ taste.

Serving and Pairing Suggestions

When serving your Kentucky BBQ feast, consider offering a variety of sauces to cater to different preferences. Provide options like black BBQ sauce, vinegar-based sauce, and mustard-based sauce to allow guests to customize their meals. Pair your BBQ meats with traditional sides such as cornbread, BBQ beans, potato salad, and coleslaw to create a well-rounded and satisfying dining experience.

In conclusion, Kentucky-style BBQ is a rich and flavorful tradition that has deep roots in the state’s history and culture. With its slow smoking techniques, distinctive sauces, and diverse range of meats, Kentucky BBQ offers a unique culinary experience that embodies the true essence of Southern hospitality.

Whether you’re exploring the regional variations of Kentucky BBQ or attending one of the many BBQ festivals, you’re sure to be delighted by the mouthwatering flavors and warm atmosphere that Kentucky BBQ has to offer. So grab a plate, dig in, and savor the delicious taste of Kentucky BBQ. You won’t be disappointed.

Grill Crafted

Hi there, I'm Draha, the author behind Grill Crafted | Your Guide to Grill Mastery. As a passionate grilling enthusiast, I dedicate myself to providing you with the best insights and knowledge on everything related to Cabinet Gas Grills, Portable Gas Grills, portable grill tables, and portable charcoal grills. Through in-depth reviews and comprehensive guides, I aim to help you make informed decisions when it comes to finding the best options in the market. Whether you're looking for the best portable charcoal grills or the top-rated Cabinet Gas Grills, I've got you covered. Join me on this grilling journey and let's master the art of grilling together.