The 6 Most Important Barbecue Sauce Styles in America
Regional barbecue sauces aren't as controversial as, say, the Texas brisket versus Carolina whole-hog barbecue debate, but it's wise to tread carefully when talking (or using) sauce. If you've spent 10+ hours babysitting a brisket or pork shoulder on a smoker, watching a dinner guest drown that fatty, meaty, smoky perfection with a sticky, cloying sauce is kind of like watching someone squirt ketchup on a Kobe ribeye. It hurts. A lot.
Fake barbecue joints tend to use sauce to hide all manner of meat abominations (which is why you should never trust a place that sauces your 'cue for you), but in great barbecue, sauce is secondary -- a condiment to be used sparingly to contrast the richness of smoked meat. These are the sauces worthy of great barbecue.
Alabama white sauce
No mention of this sauce is conceivable without crediting Alabama barbecue legend Big Bob Gibson, who created the mayo-based dip for the hickory-smoked chicken he started serving in 1925. It's a thin sauce made with a blend of mayonnaise, vinegar, apple juice, lemon, salt, and pepper. You'll also find ingredients like horseradish, garlic powder, and cayenne in variations of the sauce. Use it as a gateway sauce to lure the boneless, skinless chicken eaters over to the fatty dark side of barbecue.
Meat: Smoked chicken, turkey (P.S. It's also hell-yeah as a dressing on coleslaw.)
Eastern North Carolina sauce
Barbecue in this region is as bare-bones basic as it gets (whole pig + fire = dinner), and the regional sauce mirrors this meat ethic. Made with nothing more than cider vinegar, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar to take the edge off, this harsh, thin sauce cuts through the rich, fatty layers of slow-cooked pork, which enables you to eat even more without your tongue feeling like it's been cured in pig drippings. Think of it as barbecue's best palate cleanser, like a bright, bone-dry Riesling and a creamy French Camembert (only with big, manly-man balls, and please don't drink this sauce).
Meat: Whole hog
Western North Carolina sauce
We could oversimplify this barbecue sauce and say it's the same as Eastern NC's famous dip, only with ketchup, but it's so much more. There's brown sugar in there, too. The sauce is slightly thicker and sweeter than its Eastern brother, and the addition of ketchup makes it close to blasphemous for Eastern NC barbecue nerds who lose their ever-loving minds over such things.
Meat: Pork shoulder
South Carolina mustard sauce
All of the clamoring over East vs. West in Carolina sauces tends to overshadow this powerhouse. It's tangy, but not sweet, and it's a great counterpoint to the ketchup-/vinegar-based sauce contingent. The distinct yellow sauce is made with plain yellow mustard (no fancy Dijon), a smidge of tomato paste, cider vinegar, and other usual sauce suspects like hot sauce, garlic and onion powders, sugar, salt, and pepper. If you're asking, "Why mustard, why here?" (because you dork out on stuff like this), look to the region's German heritage for answers. Pork and mustard go hand in hand.
Meat: Pulled pork, chicken
Arthur Bryant's Original Barbecue Sauce
Like Big Bob Gibson's white sauce, Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City can stake its claim on a distinct, legendary sauce style. Only, it never crossed over into generic, non-proprietary labeling the way "Alabama white sauce" did. There's only one, and everything else is an attempt at the original. The number of hours and words that devotees have spent debating exactly what goes into the sauce is astounding. (Google "Arthur Bryant's sauce recipe" if you don't believe me.) Do ground celery seeds give the sauce its signature gritty texture? Or is it half-sharp paprika? Should you use double-strength pickle juice instead of vinegar? Did the formula change sometime around 2005 to make it more shelf-stable and mass-marketable? The answer to all of these questions is: who cares? It's tasty.
Meat: Burnt ends, ribs
Texas-style barbecue sauce
If you want to annoy a Texan who likes to talk barbecue, bring up the subject of your favorite barbecue sauce. Diehards will sputter about the indignity of putting anything other than your hands and mouth on brisket, smoked sausage, and any other barbecue in the Lone Star State. (Kreuz Market in Lockhart goes so far as to refuse sauce and forks to customers.) But there is a sauce that meets most Texans' standards, mainly because a huge hunk of the crispy, seasoned fat cap from a brisket is stirred in. It's a ketchup- and vinegar-based sauce, with standard ingredients like Worcestershire, garlic and onion powders, and hot sauce thrown in, but it's the chopped-up, rendered bits of brisket fat coated in rub that make it acceptable in some Texas barbecue circles.
Colleen Rush is a New Orleans-based food writer and co-author of Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons. She is currently writing a follow-up with Chicago pitmaster Gary Wiviott. Follow them at @FoodRush and @LowSlowBBQ.