What's New in Barbecue: Pitmasters Share Top Trends
Full-service barbecue menus balance long-established roots with creativity in an effort to honor history while also staying relevant. Plates still represent traditional methods, but pitmasters are experimenting with what can be smoked while attending to diners’ changing desires.
“There’s a balance of traditional and progressive on barbecue menus, and even restaurants who’ve been around for years want to be more innovative,” says Aaron Siegel, chief operating partner at Home Team BBQ in Charleston and Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, and Aspen, Colorado.
Delicacies like brisket, beef and pork ribs, whole hog, sausage, and pork shoulder stay forever favorites, as do coleslaw, beans, collard greens, and potato salad. “You’ll never see whole hog, pork shoulder, brisket, or sausages disappear,” Siegel says. “It’s transcendent cuisine, and people treat barbecue like their favorite sports team; it’s an alliance.”
But menus are busting out of the box with reinterpretations of classics like smoked pies, vegetables, chicken wings, and lamb, and through cultural influences like Mexican and Korean.
“Doing the same thing every day, pitmasters get the urge to step outside the box and apply traditional techniques to new recipes, and we want to see what twists can be put on classics,” says Cuatro Kowalski, owner of Freedmen’s in Austin and Texas 46 BBQ in Spring Branch, Texas.
Pitmasters agree when it comes to trends: Elevated sides, cultural influences, a fine dining approach, and interesting cuts are thriving.
“We built our menu around the smoker including smoking nontraditional items like vegetables, hams, pastrami, and charcuterie,” Siegel says.
Josh Rutherford, co-owner of 4 Star Restaurant Group in Chicago, which includes Smoke Daddy among other concepts, thinks barbecue guests aren’t coming only for meats anymore, but also excellent sides, sauces, and appetizers.
“Barbecue restaurants are putting more thought into sides, like smoked vegetables and homemade over canned,” says Elliott Moss, pitmaster and partner at Asheville, North Carolina’s Buxton Hall Barbecue. His seasonal menu features sophisticated salads, desserts, sauces, and local produce. Additionally, Moss’ green beans and Brussels sprouts are cooked underneath their smoking whole hog to allow fat and smoke to boost flavor.
Sides are no longer an afterthought, and, as William Weisiger, managing partner at Ten50 BBQ in Richardson, Texas, says: “It’s not just meat getting smoked anymore; it’s anything you can think of.” Kowalski smokes pecan and buttermilk chess pies, pork belly, and pork cheeks, and serves creamed corn with leeks, and potato salad.
Moss says barbecue restaurants need to change to stay relevant and appeal to the masses through variety. “I can’t expect everyone to want barbecue sandwiches, but I want everyone to find something they like on our menu that’s related to barbecue,” he says.
Alon Ravid, owner of Smokeyard BBQ and Chop Shop in Mammoth Lakes and San Diego, California, offers unsmoked chicken and salads to attract other demographics.
“Chefs are looking at what’s made in the oven and using the smoker instead,” Siegel says. “Prime rib is in an oven for a long time at a low temperature. Why not add the next layer of flavor by smoking it?” Pitmasters are smoking duck, goose, lamb, and tri-tip, plus making pastrami from beef ribs and beef tongue.
Moss and Rutherford say lamb sausages and lamb ribs are popping up, and Weisiger smokes higher grades like pork chops, tenderloin, and prime rib occasionally. For Ravid in California, experimenting with smoked tri-tip has turned out delicious and popular.
The combination of traditional barbecue and other cultures is getting trendier, says Kowalski, who sees Mexican and Korean influences. Weisiger says the same: Multicultural barbecue has bloomed, with Mexican taquerias highlighting brisket tacos, plus Korean barbecue’s Asian-spiced ribs trending up.
Regions are embracing one another as well, like pork shoulder jumping state lines to Texas, and brisket road-tripping to the Carolinas. The essentials stay ingrained, but interest in playing with new-to-them elements is growing.
To highlight this creativity, chefs are turning to composed plates. “The future of barbecue is in fine dining; it’s an avenue that hasn’t been explored heavily,” Kowalski says.
Quality, however, is most important, Siegel stresses. “Don’t throw on something without thinking about ingredients or how it works with the menu,” he says. “Ensure it’s a quality item.”
- The classics, whole hog, pork shoulder, brisket, sausage, beef and pork ribs, and barbecued chicken will always sell well and continue to be prime choices for customers.
- Pitmasters pay more attention to sides by composing dishes, smoking ingredients, and moving from canned to housemade.
Mixing It Up
- Diners with changing tastes expect more, and barbecue restaurants gain variety through seasonality, specials, quality ingredients, and reenvisioning how components work with their menu.
- Pitmasters utilize their smoker for prime rib, duck, goose, tridip, pork chops, and tenderloin, plus make pastrami from beef ribs and beef tongue.
- Traditional barbecue gains an uptick in influences from Mexico and Korea in brisket tacos and Asianspiced ribs.
- Barbecue heads toward composed plates, variations in sauces, and meats that are more expensive and more obscure cuts.