Some Of Our Favorite Classic Regional Styles Of Barbecue Sauces
It seems every ribjoint is bottling its signature sauce nowadays and grocery stores are bulging with them. Likewise, every serious home barbecuer's gotta have a signature sauce or three. One that your neighbor doesn't have. One that's not in every grocery store in town.
I prefer to make my own sauces and rubs from the recipes on this site, and I encourage you to try them and riff on them. Heckuva lot cheaper than storebought. Every grownup should have his or her own secret sauce, even if it is my recipe or if you "doctor" a commercial sauce and rebottle it in an unlabeled jelly jar. If your guests want to think you made it from scratch, well, you can't control what they think.
I taste a lot of commercial barbecue sauces and I even have a scorecard for rating them. Below are some of my favorites, gold medals all. Most of them are classic examples of their regional styles and I've grouped them by style. In other words, although there are some great sweet Kansas City stylesauces made in Texas, I have not included them. Click here to learn more about regional barbecue sauce styles, with my recipes so you can make your own. Click here for a deeper discussion of the classic American BBQ sauce styles. There's a trick to using barbecue sauce, especially if it's sweet. What's the trick? Click here.
Kansas City Style BBQ Sauce
The Slabs Kyle Style BBQ Sauce (Lone Jack, MO). Made in a suburb of Kansas City, this is a classic from one of the top teams on the competition circuit. Thick and brown with golden edges, there are black pepper chunks clearly visible, and it is grainy in the mouth, definite sweetness that is not enough to make it gooey, a hint of cumin, complex, with a long black pepper finish.
Three Little Pigs Competition BBQ Sauce (Independence, MO). Dark mahogany color, medium thickness. Molasses and smokiness jump to the nose followed quickly by garlic. There is a nice tomato base and distinct tartness followed by a mild lingering warmth.
East Carolina Mop & Sauce
Scott's Barbecue Sauce (Goldsboro, NC). Prototypical Eastern North Carolina mop and sauce with nothing but vinegar, salt, peppers, and a few other spices. Tangy from the vinegar, it does a great job of cutting the fat. Spicy, but not scorchin'. This is the kind of stuff that made North Carolina barbecue famous.
Lexington Mop & Sauce
George's Original Barbecue Sauce (Nashville, NC). A classic Lexington style sauce made in nearby Nashville, NC, George's is mostly vinegar laced with hot red pepper, black pepper, and a whisp of ketchup. A touch of apple juice rounds it out nicely, making it my favorite of this style. It's among my first choices for pulled pork. If you like vinegar, you'll love George's. Definitely not for everyone.
South Carolina Yellow Mustard BBQ Sauce
Shealy's Bar-B-Que Sauce (Leesville, SC). This is the prototypical South Carolina mustard sauce. Bright yellow, sweet and sour, with a loooonnng mustard finish. Some others have a lot of fancy herbs and spices, and that's nice, but Shealy has it right, a little ketchup, a little Worcestershire, and a little molasses. If you've never had a mustard sauce on barbecue pork, you don't know what you're missing. The combo is like peanut butter and jelly. It doesn't create a sheen like the sweeter sauces, but it really enhances flavor. And it's great on hot dogs, too.
Thomas Bessinger's Spicy Golden Recipe Bar-Be-Que Sauce (Charleston, SC). Golden with red and black flecks, this is a really good yellow mustard sauce amped up with hot pepper sauce. Not too sweet, not too tart, not too hot, but if you don't like a little heat, get another one. I think it is perfect for pulled pork.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Original White Sauce (Decatur, AL). This is not what everyone thinks of when they think of barbecue sauce. It is white, first of all. And it is not sweet. It almost like a salad dressing and it is especially formulated for smoked chicken. Mayonnaise dominates, followed by mustard, black pepper, and vinegar. Not everyone likes it. But it's a classic and worth a try if you love barbecue. If you don't like it on chicken, it's just fine on coleslaw.
Dreamland Bar-B-Que Sauce (Tuscaloosa, AL). In 1958, John "Big Daddy" Bishop opened the Dreamland Café in Tuscaloosa, AL, the same year legendary football Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa. The ribs ascended to legendary, cooked fast but cooled with their thin flavorful sauce. The base is mostly vinegar and water, rounded out with tomato paste and mustard so it is a pale runny orange color that penetrates the meat and doesn't just squat on it. The taste is tangy, tart, with a noticeable hot pepper spice that lingers looooonnng. It is more like a Lexington Dip than anything else. Not everyone will like this one, but I love it.
Dr. Dan's BBQ Sauce Magical Meat Elixir, Kentucky Bourbon (Springfield, OH). Dr. Dan has made this boozy brown, medium-thick elixir by starting with his very rich and nuanced "Original Formula" sauce and adding extract of Bourbon (sorry, there's no alcohol in it, so it's safe for the kiddies). Try it on beef brisket or venison.
Texas Mop Sauces
Cooper's BBQ Sauce Llano, TX. The best Texas barbecue sauce is a puzzlement. It is made to complement beef brisket. It is at all not sweet, it is thin, more like a gravy or a thin tomato soup than a sauce, heavily spiked with vinegary tartness, a splash of hot sauce, and probably flavored with chili or ancho powder, black pepper, cumin, onion, and garlic. It easily penetrates the meat rather than sitting on top.
The problem is that the stuff in the bottle is nothing like the stuff you get served at the pit. The picture here shows the sauce bucket at Cooper's sitting on the pit where they hold meats for customers to select. They start by dumping their bottled sauce in the bucket in the morning, and as the day goes by, the trimmings go in, and if you want sauce on your meat, it is dunked in the bucket. Before long it tastes a LOT different than the bottled stuff. Doesn't that look good enough to jump in to? So don't expect bottled Texas sauces to taste at all like this because they don't have the trimmings and drippings. Now there are plenty of good sauces in Texas, among my faves are those by Texas Rib Rangers recommended elsewhere on this page, but they are really more Kansas City style than Texas style.
To come close to the real deal, you could blend a good beef stock with the bottled sauce, or perhaps some drippings from a roast beef. You can come close by starting from scratch with my Texas BBQ Juice recipe.
To make things worse, Cooper's has a minimum purchase on their website so you just can't order a bottle. If you're tempted, add a brisket onto your order.
Fruit Based Sauces
Ole Ray's Blackberry Wine Barbecue & Cooking Sauce (St. Augustine, FL). A thick dark brown glop whose fruity flavor from blackberry jelly and wine has multiple dimensions from smoke flavor, a mild pepper kick, and good crisp acidity from vinegar and lemon juice. This is not a novelty sauce. It has real richness and depth. I am also a big fan of the Ole Ray's Apple/Cinnamon Barbeque Sauce, a KC style red sauce with a distinct apple note and a long layered heat in the finish.
Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce (Perry, MO). In the past few years this sauce has become the single most popular taste profile on the competition barbecue circuit. A thoroughly creative and unusual sauce from the middle of nowhere in Perry, Missouri. Bill Arnold has crafted this intriguing sauce from practically every herb and spice on his rack. Garnet colored, runny at room temp and thick from the fridge, it is laden with flecks of black pepper, green herbs, mustard seeds, chile peppers, a generous hit of cumin, and all manner of edible grit. Actually more of a glaze, it varnishes your meat with a glossy sheen and deep sea complexity. A bit too sweet (brown sugar is the first item on the ingredients list), it is not unctuous because there are layers of red pepper heat, black pepper bite, nutty garlic, and grassy herbaceousness. It made my ribs sing, and try as I might, I have been unable to duplicate it. One word or warning: Because it is so sweet, use only one layer. Multiple coats is too much.
Pig Chaser BBQ Sauce with Real Bacon(Grayslake, IL). I'm really stretching it by saying there is a Chicago style because there really isn't. If anything, many of the best of the Chicago sauces are garlicy derivitives of the Kansas City Style. But in the town that Carl Sandburg called "Hog Butcher to the World" this one is perfectly appropriate. This is the first, and to my knowledge, the only sauce to be allowed by USDA to have real bacon in the recipe. A dark brownish, very thick sauce with many dark bacon chunks swimming in solution. When you open it you smell bacon instantly, and that follows through to the taste. The owner has spared no expense including honey, pineapple juice, red wine vinegar, molasses, butter, and even maple syrup.
Black Swan Sweet Cognac Sauce & Marinade (Dundee, IL). I was not only impressed with this sauce, I was impressed with the guy who made it, Max Good, so much that I hired him. Max is now the Director of the AmazingRibs.com Buyer's Guides.
This fine sauce has a nice garnet/orange color with small black flecks, probably black pepper. The Cognac is so well integrated into the complex flavor that it is not an obvious component. Garlic and an orange flavor do stand out a bit, and I like that. It is more from the Kansas City sauce style mold than anything else. Black Swan is distributed in the US, Brazil, and the EU. Take note: Max makes the same sauce with cane sugar instead of HFCS. They taste different and I prefer the HFCS version.
SFQ - The Original San Francisco Style Barbecue Sauce. First of all we need to make this clear: There is no such thing as a traditional California style barbecue sauce. While I have tried to focus this page on the classic sauce styles, I just could not resist adding this one because, if there is anything classic about California cooking and food, it is creativity, and this is one of the most creative, interesting, unique sauces I've ever tasted. But it has tried to remain true to its roots with a great blend of flavors that just shout "California".
Dark garnet in color, thick, and smooth, the first thing in the mouth is the chocolate and coffee (yes, they are in the blend) followed by a slow, steady march of chile heat, probably chipotle playing the horn with ancho on the base fiddle. The main ingredient is organic (of course) tomato paste, the sweetness is molasses (no high fructose corn syrup, the label proudly brags), and it is not syrupy sweet, and the acid is oak-aged wine vinegar (what else whould it be?). My only complaint is that it comes in an 8 ounce jelly jar, enough for a slab of ribs and not much more. 6 jars cost $29.95 plus $12.50 shipping.