Our great nation's spectrum of barbecue sauce varies regionally from the Carolinas to Kansas City and down to Texas. Tomato-based is the most common—usually in the form of ketchup. Other bases used in this continental condiment include vinegar, mustard, and even mayonnaise (don't knock it 'til you try it).
Like anything else, homemade barbecue sauce tastes fresher than store-bought, plus you get to control how much kick or sweetness goes into it. Making your own sauce is also a good way to guarantee it is gluten-free.
Keep in mind, barbecue is meant to be cooked low and slow—think 225 degrees F for eight hours or more. If there's sugar in the sauce, it will burn when subjected to the high heat of grilling. So if you are grilling, you may want to add the sauce after the meat is cooked. Many of these recipes go great over pulled pork. Just remember to warm the sauce before adding to cooked chicken, pork, or even grilled veggies.
Read on for our favorite variations of barbecue sauce from across the country.
Kansas City, Missouri is known for its sweet, tangy, syrupy sauce. Molasses gives this ketchup-based sauce a sweeter, heavier consistency. Add some brown sugar and various other spices, then reduce and you've got yourself some KC barbecue sauce, baby! Serious Eats' five-star Kansas City-Style Barbecue Sauce Recipe starts with sauteed onion and garlic before adding ketchup, molasses, brown sugar, vinegar, mustard, chili powder, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to simmer for about half an hour until thickened. A spin in the blender ensures a smooth sauce that will keep in the fridge for up to a month.
Eastern North Carolina's pork-centric style of barbecuing is known for using every part of the hog except the squeal. Thin and spicy, Carolina-style barbecue sauce is vinegar-based. Not only does vinegar's astringent flavor helps balance out the fattier pork, but it also acts as a great acid for slow cooking. The eastern and western side of North Carolina have different opinions when it comes to ketchup—Eastern North Carolina believes barbecue sauce should be tomato-free, while the other side of the state falls on the other side of the subject. However, both can agree to use a rub and mop the sauce on as it slow-cooks over wood.
To make Eastern North Carolina Barbeque Sauce, mix salt, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, and light brown sugar with hot pepper sauce and apple cider vinegar, stirring until sugar and salt have dissolved. Prep this sauce a few hours before basting or serving on meat so the flavors have time to marry.
Barbecue sauce from the center of North Carolina, also known as the Piedmont, does contain some ketchup. Lexington-style focuses on the pork shoulder. Also known as a "dip" or "mop sauce," it's still thin, penetrating, peppery, and full of vinegar, just slightly pinker than it's Eastern counterpart. This Lexington Dip BBQ Sauce Recipe comes from a man named Meathead at AmazingRibs.com. He adds apple juice to this tangy sauce, which is a trick he picked up from George's in Nashville, NC, which was named “Best in the Carolinas” by Rachael Ray magazine.
Pork is also the popular preference in South Carolina, where the sauce tends to be mustard-based, thanks to an early crop of German settlers. This thin, spicy, stringent Spicy Mustard BBQ Sauce is perfectly paired with pulled pork sandwiches.
Mayo-based barbecue sauce? Shut the front door. Made famous by Decatur's own Big Bob Gibson, Alabama white sauce is erved thick and creamy or thin and drizzly. Mayonnaise is thinned out with vinegar and lemon juice, plus a kick of pepper. Horseradish gives Hey Grill Hey's Alabama White Sauce recipe a kick in the pants. Instead of pork, try it over smoked chicken.
Beefy barbecue cuts like brisket reign supreme in the great state of Texas, where savory sauce gets mopped onto the meat as it cooks. Thin and spicy, the consistency is similar to tomato soup which can penetrate the meat, not unlike a glaze. Beef stock is often included in mop sauces, like this Texas Barbecue Juice Recipe, which also calls for a cup of the state's beloved Lone Star beer (but any lager will do). Green bell pepper is a unique ingredient in this recipe, as is fat. Unlike the rest of the recipes on this list, this mop sauce uses rendered fat or butter. For a sugar-free, keto version, check out Bon Appeteach's BBQ Texas Mop Sauce!
Memphis is a rib city. Dry ribs are rubbed with oil and spices, while "wet" ribs are doused in a vinegar and tomato-based sauce before, during, and after cooking. Also popular in St. Louis, this runny sauce has a sweet-and-sour profile with an added pop of pepper. Robyn Stone from Add a Pinch uses her special Stone House Seasoning—a mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic—to make her Tangy Memphis BBQ Sauce.
A little more versatile than it's American counterparts, Asian BBQ sauce is as delish served on shrimp or swordfish as it is pork or chicken. This Asian Barbecue Sauce recipe from Epicurious calls for some specialty ingredients, including hoisin sauce, Asian fish sauce, rice vinegar, fresh ginger, and Chinese five-spice powder.