For scores of Americans, the word barbecue translates into anything that can be cooked outside and on a grill. However, what many people consider a real American barbecue is actually just grilling. Technically, barbecued meat doesn't involve grilling at all. Travel the U.S. from east to west or north to south and you’ll find that the varieties of true barbecue involve a regionally inspired sauce. The sauce, it appears, is the ticket to barbecue distinction.
Over time, migration and countless debates, the art of barbecue has formed six types of sauces:
- Tomato and Vinegar
- Mustard and Vinegar
- Tomato, Vinegar and Sugar
- Whiskey Sauce
- Mayonnaise and Vinegar
Vinegar is how American barbecue started. The basic idea behind vinegar sauces is to complement slow-roasted whole hog and pork shoulder without overwhelming the delicate flavors of the meat. Often cited as the original American barbecue sauce, the eastern Carolina “mop sauce” had simple ingredients and an uncomplicated methodology: baste pork with vinegar, pepper and salt, then roast it slowly over low heat. This created a well-smoked meat that was preserved for a longer shelf-life without refrigeration
Prevalent in the Carolinas, the basic vinegar sauce has adapted and expanded into many more sauce recipes. The Piedmont Dip, also known as Lexington Style or Western Carolina Sauce, adds just a little tomato paste or ketchup to the vinegar and pepper concoction to lend a bit of sweetness to the flavor. This barbecue sauce is perfect for a pork shoulder or whole hog basting.
In the “Mustard Belt” of South Carolina, mustard dominates the basic vinegar sauce. This has been described as an edgier version of the tomato and vinegar sauces and in certain varieties the sauce is softened with a sweetener such as molasses or honey. Mustard sauce is excellent when served with pulled pork, but can be served well with a pork shoulder or whole hog roast.
Although Memphis barbecue is synonymous with dry rub seasoning, their sauce is not unlike the Piedmont Dip. Starting with the basic vinegar, pepper and salt recipe, and then adding just a little tomato and a pinch of sweetener, this sauce provides a sweet, spicy and tangy flavor without running too thick. Memphis-style BBQ sauce is often enjoyed as a caramelized basting sauce for smoked meats, coated over ribs or ladled onto pulled pork.
Another favorite Tennessee barbecue recipe is whiskey sauce. This barbecue sauce has a wide variation of recipes ranging from mustard to tomato based and with or without vinegar, but one thing is consistent, good old Tennessee whiskey is added in for an extra kick. When Jack Daniels, Tennessee-based distiller, hosted the first Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational in 1988, whiskey sauce gained national acclaim. The thickness and complex flavoring of whiskey sauce is perfect for making juicy fall-off-the-bone ribs.
Traveling farther south into Alabama, mayonnaise and lemon are added to the basic vinegar baste. Affectionately referred to as “white sauce” this barbecue sauce is popular on smoked chicken and pulled pork. The overall consistency of the sauce varies from thin and delicate to thick and creamy.
Heading west to Texas, a tomato-based sauce comes back on the scene. The difference in this region’s preferred recipe is the inclusion of the spicy flavors found in the Southwest. Texas-style barbecue sauce is a little thinner, lighter on the tomatoes and much less sweet than traditional tomato and vinegar sauces. Given the high population of cattle in the state, this barbecue sauce is intended for smothering cuts of beef, preferably brisket or ribs.
To find thick and sweet tomato-based barbecue sauces, look no further than Kansas City. Bottled brands available on grocers' shelves across America have adopted this style of barbecue sauce as it has been embraced by the masses. This rich sauce is often sweetened with honey, brown sugar or molasses and has only hints of vinegar and pepper added. The heavy nature of Kansas City sauce has been known to take over the flavor of a good smoked meat. For this reason, it is best served on pulled pork, spare ribs, or smoky brisket trimmings - called "burnt ends" in the BBQ world.
There is no denying barbecue sauce's popularity. Chefs of all backgrounds are tempted to experiment with classic, regional and exotic flavors in search of the next great recipe. For backyard enthusiasts and culinary masters alike, the evolution of a signature sauce remains a fluid art form that has seeped into every nook and cranny on both sides of the Mississippi.