Let’s start this off with a fight. Kansas City has the best BBQ in the world. Apologies to Texas, South Carolina, and Memphis, but it’s true.

What makes Kansas City BBQ so great? Some people may say it’s the sauce, others may claim it’s the variety of meat served. People on the competition circuit may make note of its lively competition scene, while locals may note that it’s because we have more restaurants per-capita than anywhere else in the world, meaning that great BBQ is always a short walk or drive away. Whatever the reason, Kansas City has earned its place as the BBQ capital of the world.

So let’s talk about what makes it unique. Like other regional foods, BBQ has distinct characteristics based on what part of the country you are in. The Carolinas specialize in pork, which is usually accompanied by a tangy sauce. Memphis style is characterized by dry rub and heavy smoking, usually with ribs. Texas BBQ focuses on beef, and they may shoot you if you try to put sauce on it. Kansas City, because of its centralized location, became a melting pot of all these different styles, mixing different influences to create something new and unique.

The Sauce is Boss…

At its most basic, Kansas City Style BBQ is typically characterized by a sweeter tomato-based sauce and an open-mind about what meats can be used in BBQ.

When people think of Kansas City BBQ Sauce, they often think of a thick, sweet sauce, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, like most aspects of Kansas City BBQ, you will find plenty of variations on this theme. In fact, two of Kansas City’s most famous BBQ restaurants, Arthur Bryant’s and Gates’, use sauces that are far more savory than sweet. As you travel from restaurant to restaurant in Kansas City, you will find that no two BBQ sauces taste quite the same, each displaying varying degrees of sweetness, savoriness and spiciness.

…But Meat is King

Because of its history as a railway hub and its location, Kansas City has never lacked for livestock from which to source its BBQ. As a result, Kansas City does not specialize in any one type of meat like the other major three BBQ regions of the country. When you visit a BBQ restaurant in Kansas City, it’s common to see beef, chicken, pork, turkey and sometimes even more unique meats like fish or lamb on the menu.

Of course, no discussion about Kansas City BBQ would be complete without its crowning jewel – the burnt end. These little morsels of (usually) beef are perhaps Kansas City’s greatest contribution to the BBQ world.

So what are they? Burnt Ends have a storied history in Kansas City BBQ cooking. Their popularity can be traced back to an article legendary food-writer Calvin Trillin wrote for Playboy magazine in 1972. In the article he named Arthur Bryant’s the “the single-best restaurant in the world” and lovingly described the “burned edges of the brisket”. He wrote

“The counterman just pushes them over to the side and anyone who wants them helps himself. I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I’m in some awful, overpriced restaurant in some strange town, trying to choke down some three-dollar hamburger that tastes like a burned sponge, a blank look comes over me: I have just realized that at that very moment, someone in Kansas City is being given those burned edges free.”

Originally thought to be too burnt and fatty to eat, these were traditionally set aside as a snack for the cooks or given out to customers waiting in line. However, after Trillin’s article the demand for these “burnt ends” skyrocketed. Since a brisket can only produce so many of these “true” burnt ends described by Trillin, restaurants had to innovate in order to meet demand. Today, the majority of burnt ends are made by cubing the point muscle of a brisket (although some use the flat muscle) and turning those into burnt ends. There are several methods, but it’s almost always delicious.

There is some measure of controversy over what type of meat constitutes a burnt end. Although some claim that a burnt end can be made with ham or sausage, most Kansas Citians call that an abomination and maintain that burnt ends can only come from beef brisket. No matter how you make them, burnt ends remain a staple of Kansas City BBQ and one of the hallmarks of the style.

In the end

So after all that, what defines Kansas City BBQ? At its core, Kansas City BBQ is characterized by the usage of multiple different meats (including burnt ends) and is typically served with a sweet, slightly thicker sauce. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but, in general, this is what defines and sets apart Kansas City BBQ.