Article contributed by Stella Van Lane
The US of A has a long and proud grilling heritage, particularly in the southern regions where barbecuing has become a cultural thing more than anything else. To say that American BBQ is one of a kind would be an oversimplification because the truth is that there are numerous BBQ styles every region proudly upholds and passes down through the generations.
All the grilling techniques aside, what is the one thing that gives the meat its signature flavor? The sauce, of course, and you can bet that every region has its own beloved signature dip and dressing. With that in mind, let’s take a tour of the American grilling scene and define the sauces that have made every BBQ style unique in its own right.
Memphis vinegar-based sauce
Opulence is the term that best describes the richness of the flavor and the aroma that make the Memphis-style sauce. This sauce is something of a middle ground between all other sauces, as it balances the sweetness with the distinctly tang-ish aftertaste, and adds just the right amount of heat to the palate.
Memphis-style BBQ meat enjoys a rich vinegar-based dressing mixed with fresh tomato juice, but the broad palate comes from other ingredients such as brown sugar, onion powder, a dash of mustard, and a pinch of black and red ground peppers. Mixed together, these ingredients create a sticky, irresistible dressing for every pork-based dish.
- Sauce style: vinegar base, complemented by fresh tomatoes and spices.
- Signature specialties: slathered pork ribs, wet.
- The place to try: Leonard’s Pit Barbecue, Memphis, TN.
Texan basting sauce
Texas is a unique grilling region by all accounts – they have a unique sauce, and they have a unique BBQ scene hailing from the long-gone days of Czech and German immigration when these European nations brought their culinary arts to the American south. So naturally, you can expect to find sausages and beef briskets here more than you would ribs or Hanger steaks.
The mouth-watering dishes here wouldn’t be so famous though if it weren’t for the Texan basting sauce. Also known as the “mop” sauce, the quirky name actually represents a thin glaze that should be applied during the smoking process. This unique recipe will include tomato sauce, Worcestershire, vinegar, beef stock, and various spices such as garlic, black and red peppers, and plenty of salt.
- Sauce style: thin glaze made of tomatoes, beef drippings, peppers, and spices.
- Signature specialties: link sausage and beef briskets.
- The place to try: Tyler’s Barbeque, Amarillo, TX.
North Carolina – Eastern and Lexington-style sauce
As if the individual BBQ regions weren’t unique enough in their grilling and sauce-prepping methods, North Carolina had to go and divide its sauce preference into Lexington-style and Eastern-style. They are not all that different, frankly, but you shouldn’t say that out loud if you find yourself in NC.
Unlike Lexington-style that uses ketchup to redden the vinegar-based sauce, Eastern North Carolinians are proud of their no-tomato heritage. Other than that, both styles use vinegar, various spices such as cayenne and black and red peppers, and salt.
- Sauce style: vinegar and pepper sauce in the East, vinegar and ketchup sauce in Lexington.
- Signature specialties: the whole dang hog.
- The place to try: Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Shelby, NC.
South Carolina mustard-based sauce
South Carolina BBQ sauce differs greatly from its northern brethren. Also known as the Carolina Gold sauce, instead of a vinegar base, the meat is dressed in a mustard-based concoction made of yellow mustard, apple cider vinegar, various spices such as chili peppers and black ground peppers, brown sugar, ketchup, and honey. The result is a thin golden sauce you should pour over the meat while it’s being smoked.
- Sauce style: mustard-based Carolina Gold.
- Signature specialties: pulled pork and pork ribs.
- The place to try: Home Team BBQ, Charleston, SC.
Kansas City molasses-based goodness
Last but not least, we have the cultural phenomenon every Kansas-born is proud of – the Kansas City BBQ sauce. This one is the most popular and most widely-used commercial sauce on the planet, made popular by its thickness, irresistible sweetness, and just the right amount of tang. Instead of trying it off the shelf, you want to dip your fingers into the real deal in some faraway BBQ joint in Kansas City itself.
The base of this gooey goodness is made of molasses and ketchup that give it its unique sweetness, but it’s the other ingredients such as liquid smoke, Worcestershire, brown sugar, peppers, and vinegar that give it the punch it’s known for.
- Sauce style: sweet tomato, molasses-based.
- Signature specialties: BBQ chicken, pork and beef ribs.
- The place to try: Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, KS.
Americans love their barbecue, that’s for sure. However, oftentimes, credit is not given where it’s due, and even though the meat itself is the foundation, it’s the sauce that makes a dish so irresistible and unique. Now that you know where the best BBQ sauces hail from, go ahead and embark on your own exploration tour of the all-American barbecue scene.