Barbecue: The word alone summons the rich, enticing scents of sweet and savory smoke and slow-cooking meat. Barbecue is also a casual, fun, friendly, and delicious way to bring people together. Yet while many regions have barbecue traditions, each has a distinct style of sauce—and maybe not the ones on your supermarket shelf.
There’s evidence that people have been barbecuing meat since 700 BC. In the U.S., the origins of barbecue span from North Carolina to Florida and the islands of the Caribbean, where indigenous peoples such as the Arawak had a tradition of “babacots,” or cooking meat low and slow over wood. Spanish colonists interpreted the word as “barbacoa,” which became the “barbecue” we know and love.
You can find variants of the rich, dark, ketchup-and-molasses-based Kansas City-style barbecue sauce in just about any grocery store. While this is the most commonly known variety nationwide, barbecue sauces come in four main categories:
- Vinegar and pepper
- Light tomato
- Heavy tomato
These styles, plus some unique regional varieties, make up the diverse sauce bowl of BBQ America. So grab some wet wipes and a cold beverage, and let’s go on a chow-down tour of some of the most distinct regional barbecue sauce styles.
Eastern North Carolina-style vinegar sauce
Vinegar sauce’s tangy, spicy flavor profile has roots in Africa and whole-hog cooking in eastern North Carolina. In terms of barbecue as we know it today, vinegar sauce started it all.
This is barbecue like barbecue connoisseur George Washington would’ve enjoyed it. Instead of tomato, cider vinegar brings a snap of acidity that cuts through the meat’s richness, along with a mild touch of sweetness and browning from sugar. Combinations of cayenne, black pepper, red pepper, hot sauce, and salt bring heat and complexity. For a regional variant, folks in western North Carolina add a bit of ketchup to what remains a thin, tart sauce in which vinegar and pepper take the spotlight. Cooks soak the pork with the sauce throughout its long, slow cook.
South Carolina-style mustard sauce
South Carolinians take assertive pride in their tangy, yellow-orange, mustard-based sauce. While similar in overall ingredients to their northern neighbor’s vinegar sauce, South Carolina’s sauce went its own way when German immigrants mixed in the mustards of their homeland.
Mustard sauce is not sweet, but instead focuses on the spice, tang, and mineral qualities of the mustard (usually a plain yellow ballpark style). Sometimes a little tomato paste bumps up savory or umami notes, as do onion powder and garlic powder. Occasionally you might find a touch of brown sugar, honey, or molasses. The sauce is equally loved with pulled pork as it is with chicken.
St. Louis-style barbecue sauce
Though tasty and popular in its own right, Missouri’s Kansas City-style barbecue sauce can be like the loud kid that overshadows a quieter sibling. But less than 250 miles east of KC, St. Louis has its own distinctive style of barbecue sauce that’s worth checking out.
Often called Maull’s after the iconic brand of the same name, St. Louis-style barbecue sauce is thinner and less sweet than KC style. Since it’s less prone to burning, more can be used during cooking, which adds deeper layers of flavor.
St. Louis barbecue also stands out for the variety of its cuts of meat. Instead of focusing on whole-hog barbecue like North Carolina, St. Louis works in pork cuts from the cheek and nose, Boston butt “pork steaks,” plus a unique rectangular spare rib where the cartilage, tips, and sternum have been cut away.
Texas barbecue mop sauce
It’s called “mop sauce” for a reason.
Texans’ taste for beef barbecue has led to a sauce that becomes a glaze on the meat, usually brisket, that adds moisture, flavor, and aroma during smoking. Throughout the long, slow cook, the thin sauce, also known as basting sauce, is applied regularly with a good-ole-fashioned rag mop.
Mop sauce uses vinegar like North Carolina-style, but also incorporates Worcestershire, a foundational ingredient in Kentucky’s black barbecue sauce for mutton. Garlic, pepper, and salt—and sometimes cumin, chili powder, or hot sauce—round out the flavor profile. A unique key component? Beef stock and drippings.
Alabama-style White Sauce
We’ve covered a range of bases for America’s favorite barbecue sauces, including vinegar, ketchup, and mustard.
But there’s one popular condiment missing from this cookout: mayonnaise.
Decatur, Alabama, was Bob Gibson’s epicenter for the dip he created in 1925. Since then, Alabama white sauce has gained a dedicated fan base. They love the unique flavor and texture of the thin, mayo-based white barbecue sauce, which is punched up with pepper, lemon, and vinegar, plus sweetness from apple juice.
Used primarily with chicken (but also with turkey or pork), the white sauce’s oil and egg richness add texture while vinegar balances out the fat and enhances the flavor. The thickness can also vary from thick to milky for a curious sauce that, while unique in the barbecue sauce pantheon, is certainly worth a try.
Many sauces, but the same love of good barbecue
Across the country, barbecue fans swear by their particular region’s sauce or have their own variant they claim as their own. Whether mayo or vinegar, mustard or ketchup, one fact remains: Americans everywhere love good barbecue with its own distinctive sauce.