8 ways to tell if your favorite BBQ joint is authentic (from pitmasters and experts)


It’s summertime and you’re sure to be hungering for some delicious BBQ, but how do you know what you’re eating is authentic, and what does authentic BBQ even mean?

We turned to the following professionals to enlighten us as to what real BBQ is: Chris Prieto, author, contest judge, professional circuit cooker and PRIME Barbecue proprietor in Wendell, NC; Matt Alexander, owner of Georgia Boys BBQ in Longmont and Frederick, CO; and John Erwin Sr., founder of Jon Jon’s BBQ in San Jose, CA.

8. The Smoke Ring

The reaction the amino acids have in the protein to the nitrates in the wood cause what’s called a “smoke ring.” A pink hue on the outside crust means it’s been smoked, explains self-proclaimed “BBQ gangster” Chris Prieto. That’s BBQ. But smoke rings can be faked; Tender Quick powder made by Morton (the salt company) can be rubbed on the meat. It looks like baking soda and it can sit on the meat for two minutes and create that same smoke ring. You can tell because it doesn’t have that same deep, rich smokiness.

7. The Bark

The crust or bark on the meat is comprised of sugars and salts that have reached the proteins, Chris explains. When the protein releases its natural juices and the collagen breaks down during the low and slow cooking process it binds with the salts and spices and sugars which caramelize and create a flavorful crust. This is an indicator of true BBQ. You can tell if this is not authentic, again, by the taste. Also, if it’s all one color, charred all the way through its been cooked in an oven, but if there’s colors of mahogany and not just black and burnt colors you can tell that it’s been in the more dynamic heat environment of the smoker.

6. The Smell

Smoking a piece of meat is the soul of BBQ unto itself. A piece of meat that came off the pit will smell up an entire house, but when putting a piece of meat that has been treated with liquid smoke or cooked in an oven, only the area directly around the meat will smell like smoke. Smoky and peppery notes indicate the smells of authentic BBQ. If you’re getting it in a restaurant you should smell it just as you’re getting out of the car – you shouldn’t even have to open the door to the restaurant. This is true 100% of the time.

5. The Saucing

bbq smoke

A piece of meat being cooked over coals is cooked to a certain tenderness and juiciness. Chris is a purist, and though he wouldn’t turn down sauced ‘cue, he believes that BBQ is the smoking process – not a sauce.

4. The Bones

When ribs are broiled, steamed or oven-baked and then taken out, put on the grill and sauced in the last 30 minutes is not authentic BBQ, explains Georgia native, John “Jon-Jon” Erwin, Sr. You can tell it hasn’t been smoked when the meat recedes, and the bones stick out a lot and look bleached.

3. The Seasoning

Matt Alexander notes that an authentic BBQ joint or pit master should also be using their own rubs and sauces rather than store bought ones. This is where they can really put their own spin on the flavors.

Authentic BBQ is seasoned to the bone, adds Jon-Jon.

2. The Tenderness

Matt mentions that he looks for brisket that is just tender enough to snap apart when pulled on and ribs with meat that will still hold to the bone after smoking, but bite off cleanly during consumption.

Jon Jon’s take on tenderness involves putting meat on a BBQ grill from start to finish cooking it low, slow and tender so when it’s pulled off it has the proper consistency and is ready to eat – sauce or no sauce.

1. The Wood


Matt Alexander is serious about every last piece of the BBQ puzzle. The variety of cooking woods that are used to smoke meats say a lot about BBQ as well. Texas uses a lot of oak and mesquite wood while other parts of the South use a lot of hickory or fruity woods. Georgia Boys BBQ uses a mixture of hickory and apple, and customers can tell because of the incredible scent they exude, and flavor they impart on the finished product.


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BBQ image by Shutterstock
BBQ smoke image by Shutterstock
Mesquite chips image by Shutterstock

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