A Taxonomy of American Barbecue Sauces
"Sometimes I eat ribs nekked, but if company's coming, I usually put on pants." Meathead
To most Americans, barbecue sauce is red and sweet and smoky and it comes from a shelf near the ketchup. To those who travel and would rather lunch in back of a rickety shack under a shade tree rather than under the golden arches, barbecue sauce comes in a rainbow of colors and flavors, and most tied to the area of origin and its ethnic roots. Indeed, barbecue sauce is a cultural phenomenon.
In the eastern half of North Carolina barbecue sauce is practically transparent with cayenne pepper flakes that flurry in it like a snow globe. In western half of the state it is practically pink going on garnet from ketchup. In much of South Carolina it is yellow from mustard, popular with German settlers. In many dingy brown joints of Texas it is close to brown from meat drippings with big chunks of green peppers and other flotsam in it. And in a corner of North Alabama it is white with black pepper flecks. In Memphis the "sauce" often comes from a shaker and is no more liquid than the paprika that is its backbone.
To the cook, barbecue sauce is alchemy. It is downright fun to make. Standing over the pot adding a dash of this, a pinch of that, taking a taste, adjusting, tasting, and adding something else makes one feel like a wizard. To add a personal flair to your next cookout, serve your homemade sauce from a jelly jar and be prepared to take a few bows. If you feel ambitious, serve your guests a choice of several sauces and repeat what you read here.
Below are the 13 classic American barbecue sauces with links to recipes.
Saucing strategies. Many sauces contain sugar and can burn quickly, so the secret is to hold off on the sauce until the last 10 to 15 minutes. Click here for more on saucing strategies.
The regional American barbecue sauces
American barbecue sauces owe their differences to their colonial histories and can be divided in three basic categories, vinegar based, tomato based, and mustard based. Then there are at least 11 distinct classic American regional barbecue sauce styles and infinite variations (if we stretch the definition of "sauce" to include Memphis dry rub). Click the links for my recipes if you want to make your own. If you want to taste examples of these styles but don't want to make them, click here for a list of my favorite commercial barbecue sauces.
1) Kansas City Sweet Sauce
The first Kansas City barbecue sauces were hot, probably mostly vinegar and pepper, like the sauces of the Carolinas (below). Evidence is that this was the case for Henry Perry's sauce, and he started it all in 1907 in the city that is best known for barbecue in the world.
The style has evolved to become the iconic classic rich red, tomato-based, sweet-tart sauce with molasses or brown sugar and balanced with the tartness of vinegar. Many have liquid smoke added to help create that outdoor flavor for folks who cannot cook outdoors. They are by far the most popular in the nation and imitated around the country. But beware: Most commercial sauces are waaaaaay too sweet. If you pick up a bottle in the grocery and sugar or high fructose corn syrup are the first ingredients on the label, put it down. KC sauces are, if you study their content lists, is really just amped up ketchup, and many of us love it on fries and burgers instead of ketchup.
KC sauces don't penetrate the meat well, and sit on top like frosting. But recipes like my KC Classic, while not the same as KC Masterpiece, is mighty tasty and caramelizes beautifully over a hot fire making a crisp coat. They also burn easily, so coat your meat no sooner than 10 minutes before serving. If this is your favorite sauce, make sure you read my article on saucing strategies.
Now that I've defined the genre, let me point out an important exception to the rule: Arthur Bryant's Original Barbeque Sauce. Arthur Bryant's has been one of the iconic barbecue joints since 1930, perhaps the most holy of them all in the city that means barbecue more than any other, and they have been making a tomato based sauce that is thick, intense, with a solid black pepper and garlic theme. No noticeable sweetness or liquid smoke flavor. Nada. This is probably because the Arthur and Charlie Bryant were disciples of Perry. Not sure why, but they keep a five gallon carboy of the stuff on display in their front window (above).
2) South Carolina Mustard Sauce
Nowhere are there more regional sauce preferences than in the Carolinas where barbecue is not chicken, burgers, hot dogs, or even ribs. Barbecue is pork, often whole hog, cooked low and slow, chopped or pulled into succulent shards, mixed with sauce, and served either in a pile on a plate or on a bun, often crowned with cole slaw.
The most distinctive sauce, and by far my fave, is the mustard based sauce found in barbecue joints from Columbia to Charleston. Mustard and pork go together like peanut butter and jelly. Early German immigrants in South Carolina knew this and the names of many of the best barbecue joints that serve mustard sauce have German names, like Shealy, Sweatman, Meyer, and Zeigler. The classic SC mustard sauces are a runny mix of yellow mustard, vinegar, sugar, and spices. Simple but very effective. There are also pockets of Georgia where the mustard sauce has taken hold. They are especially good on pulled pork. I offer my South Carolina Mustard Sauce as my personal riff on the theme.
3) East Carolina Mop-Sauce
On the coast of North and South Carolina, a.k.a. "East Carolina" or the "Low Country", the philosophy is "Whole hog and keep the mustard for your hot dogs and the ketchup for your fries." The African slaves of the Scottish settlers in the region pioneered American barbecue and their simple sauces were plain a kiss of hot pepper flakes and ground black pepper in vinegar. And so they remain today, where the sauce is used both as a mop or baste on the meat while it is cooking, and then as a finishing sauce at tableside. Thin and piquant, they are designed to penetrate the meat, not just sit on top as thicker ketchup and mustard sauces do. They do a great job of cutting the fat in lipid-laced pork. There is little or no sugar in the mix, so your kids will hate it. Try my recipe for East Carolina Kiss & Vinegar on just a bit of your chopped pork before your pour it over the whole sandwich, and if don't like it, send the leftovers to me.
4) Lexington Dip (a.k.a. Western Carolina or Piedmont Dip)
In Lexington, NC, and in the "Piedmont" hilly areas of the western Carolinas, they prefer to make their barbecue from the pig's shoulder, a rich flavorful clod of meat. In North Carolina, otherwise kindly old men have been moved to fisticuffs over the question of whether barbecue is properly made from whole hog or shoulder. In Lexington and west, they often call their mop-sauce "dip". It is vinegar and pepper based, a lot like the East Carolina mop-sauce, but laced with a hint of tomato sauce or ketchup added, not a lot. The red stuff helps tame the fierceness of the vinegar a bit, and the hint of sweetness counterbalances the acidity. I prefer my recipe for Lexington Dip slightly to the East Carolina style.
There is one other popular style in the Carolinas. In western South Carolina on the Georgia border, the locals are partial to a ketchup based sauce similar to Kansas City sauce.
5) Texas Mop-Sauce
In Texas they barbecue pork and beef ribs, pulled pork, chicken, mutton, goat, and sausage they call "hot guts", but the star of the Lone Star State is beef brisket, an impossibly tough cut from the chest area that is magically converted to buttah-like tenderness with 12 to 18 hours of low and slow smoke roasting.
There are three important culinary influences on Texas barbecue:
1) European immigrants who brought expertise in smoking meats, especially Germans, Czechs, and Hungarians
2) freed slaves from the Southeast, and
3) Mexicans (Texas was, after all, a part of Mexico, and its cuisine leans heavily on Spanish, Mayan, and Aztec cultures).
The old-fashioned classic Texas sauces were fashioned to complement beef brisket first and they were not very sweet. Nowadays they have been influenced by the popularity of Kansas City sauces, and have gotten redder and sweeter.
Some traditional Texas pitmasters use their sauce as both a mop to cool and moisten the meat during direct cooking, and as an optional finishing sauce. Most common are thin, tart mops that are flavored with vinegar, American chili powder or ancho powder, lots of black pepper, cumin, hot sauce, fresh onion, and only a touch of ketchup.
Some of the best sauces have beef drippings, and therefore cannot be bottled. As a result, the stuff served in the traditional old restaurants is vastly different than the stuff sold in bottle. In hallowed joints like Cooper's, in Llano, they often resemble a thin tomato soup with a beef stock base. They penetrate the meat easily rather than sit on top. I prefer them on brisket, not pork. In this picture, the bottled sauce sold at Cooper's is poured into a large pot and is kept warm on the holding pit. Trimmings are tossed in the pot, and when you order, if you ask for sauce, the meat is dipped in the pot. It tastes a LOT different than the bottled sauce served on the tables.
Before the meat is cooked, it is seasoned with a Texas Dry Rub, formulated for brisket with little or no sugar, lots of black pepper, and so they are very different from Memphis and most other rubs. Try my Texas Mop-Sauce for a taste of a real old-fashioned hard to find anymore down on the ranch Texas barbecue mop and sauce.
6) Alabama White Sauce
Developed for chicken by Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, this mayonnaise and vinegar sauce has become so well known among barbecue fans that it has generated many admirers and a handful of imitators. I don't recommend it for pork, and not everyone likes it on chicken, but it is so popular in Alabama it must be considered a regional classic. Chris Lilly (above), of Big Bob's says my attempt to reverse engineer his Alabama White Sauce is "scary close".
7) Kentucky Black Barbecue Sauce and Dip
The most obscure of the regional sauces because it can be found in only a small area of Western Kentucky just east of Louisville around Owensboro, this fascinating blend is mostly distilled white vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. It is designed to go with the specialty of the region, slow smoked mutton (mature lamb), but it is also used on chicken and other meats. It is used as a baste on the pit, and then as a finishing sauce. Some places, like the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, the most famous of them all, have two slightly different recipes, one for basting, and one for serving. My Sunlite Kentucky Black Barbecue Sauce & Dip For Lamb And Mutton is both a baste and finishing sauce, and frankly, I think it is better than the Moonlite. Just sayin.
8) Tennessee Whiskey Sauce
The Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue is considered by many to be the most prestigious competition in the world. As do many competitions, they have a sauce tasting, but theirs has a twist: Jack Daniels whiskey must be in the blend. Well, just as they planned it, whiskey-laced sauces have spread across the nation.
There are so many that I think it must be considered a legitimate category of barbecue sauce. My recipe for Tennessee Hollerin' Whiskey Sauce is named after the hollow, a lowland by the creek in which it was invented, this rich sauce has a kick, and when you taste it you'll bend over and holler "Kick me!" The secret: Whiskey concentrate.
9) New Orleans Barbecue Sauce
In Louisiana anything that can be put on a grill is called barbecue, from fish to crawfish to nutria (kinda like a rat). The first bottled hot sauces came out of Louisiana, home of Tabasco Sauce and in Louisiana, hot sauce goes on everything. But the classic New Orleans Barbecue Shrimp is sereved in a buttery hot sauce that is used to pan cook shrimp. It is served on rice or reaches its peak in a traditional sandwich called a po-boy. But it can also be used on andouille or other sausages, pork chops, pulled pork, or chicken.
10) Memphis Dry Rub
Memphis is second only to Kansas City as a town of barbecue renown. Ribs and pulled pork are the stars, although their local special, perhaps best called their local oddity, is barbecue spaghetti. No, they don't put the pasta on the pit, it's just doused with barbecue sauce.
Alas, there is no distinctive indigenous Memphis sauce style. Around the nation a lot of pit stops call their sauce Memphis style, but they're kidding themselves and us. In fact, many Memphis purists prefer their ribs "dry" with only a spice rub. A restaurant's gotta have confidence in its meat to serve it with spices only and no sauce. Many Memphis restaurants have bowed to public demand and now offer a choice: Dry or wet, with wet usually meaning a Kansas City-style tomato-based sauce perhaps a bit thinner, more vinegary.
Memphis dry rubs are usually paprika based, and typical ingredients are salt, garlic, onion, black pepper, American chili powder, and oregano. Meathead's Memphis Dust is a very versatile recipe perfect for pork, but readers have told me they love it on everything from turkey to salmon.
Perhaps the most revered dry ribs are served at Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (called "The Vous" by some of the locals). There are a lot of recipes on the internet that the owners have palmed off on gullible media. They aren't close. I've reversed engineered Rendezvous-style Memphis Dry Rub (that's the Vous above), and my recipe is a LOT closer to the real deal.
11) Tartar Sauce For Florida Smoked Mullet And Grilled Fish
Indigenous Barbecue in Florida is heavily influenced by the original Caribbean Indian barbacoa: Smoked and grilled fish. Mullet, a vegan fish that can only be caught by net in the Gulf of Mexico is the most traditional. It is not a great tasting fish for grilling or other conventional preps, but it soars when smoked. The skin turns an irridescent gold, the loin meat on the back alongside the spine, is delicate and creamy if it is not oversmoked. There are only a handful of places, mostly on the Gulf Coast, that still smoke mullet the old fashioned way, butterflied and seasoned with a flavorful rub, often Old Bay Seasoning straight from the can, often the same seasoning mix they use in crab boils.
Also popular is the smoked mullet spread, sometimes called fish salad, as in tuna salad, made from flaked smoked mullet mixed with mayo or cream cheese or both. It is served on crackers and sandwiches. They smoke other fish in Florida, but they are wise enough to know that fresh local fish don't need smoke, they are best when simply grilled with salt, pepper, and maybe some butter or olive oil.
Both smoked and grilled fish in Florida are served with lemon wedges and perhaps tartar sauce, based on mayo, pickle relish, and other goodies (naturally mine has the other goodies in it). Many folks eat the mullet like they eat ribs in Memphis, with rub only, no sauce. At right, that's Mark Gullet smoking mullet at the wonderful Star Fish Company Seafood Market in Cortez, FL, between St. Pete and Bradenton. The sign in his smokehouse says Mullet by Gullet.
12) Sweet Glazes
A lot of great sauces are just a mix of sweetener, vinegar, and spices. The sweetener is usually brown sugar and/or molasses, and occasionally maple syrup, which, although wonderful, is too expensive for most commercial sauces. Glazes are shiny so they make the meat glisten, and they are sweet/sour so they complement the pork and cut the fat. In New Mexico there's a legendary pit stop where diners come out glazed over with Danny Gaulden's Legendary Glaze and he has been generous enough to publish the recipe. Jazzy Hog Competition Barbecue Glaze is inspired by the most popular sauce on the competition barbecue circuit, Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce. Another fave is Chris Lilly's Spiced Apricot Sauce, a killer glaze for ham created by the Executive Chef of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur Alabama, and one of the best barbecue cooks I've ever known. He too, has shared his recipe.
13) Hawaiian Huli-Huli Teriyaki Sauce
Huli-Huli Sauce was originally a teriyaki sauce, which, in Japan, is a simple blend of soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine), and a little sugar reduced to a glaze. It was always popular with Hawaiians, and then in the 1950s a grillmaster with a head for marketing renamed it Huli-Huli Sauce, and everyone stole his name. Although Huli-Huli was designed for chicken, it is common to see it on ribs, pork chops, whatever. It had become a signature dish beloved throughout Hawaii, served mostly by shade tree cooks from roadside stands, parking lots, and parks at fundraisers. Drive around Oahu and if you see smoke rising and smell something sweet, it is likely Huli-Huli chicken. The locals keep napkins in their glove compartment just in case. Every vendor on the islands has his or her own secret recipe, so here's my interpretation.
14) Flavored Sauces
Modern chefs are nothing if not creative, and just about anything you can imagine is used to make barbecue sauces. These sauces rarely have regional logic. There are a number of wonderful sauces that start out as start out as basic tomato based barbecue sauces and then are amped up with fruits, jams, and jellies as flavorizers and sweeteners. Raspberry, cherry, and apple are common. The work great with ribs. Eve's KC Pig Paint is a recipe of mine, a rich, sweet, Kansas City-style tomato-based sauce, with a secret ingredient from the Garden of Eden. Long ago I remember tasting a barbecue sauce tinged with cocoa, so I created my own Chocolate Chile Barbecue Sauce recipe.
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