12 Regional Barbecue Sauce Styles All Grill Masters Should Know
Some barbecue sauces are tangy and sweet, while others are thick and spicy. Here's what you need to know about regional barbecue sauce styles from across the country.
Barbecue Sauce Across the Country
Most barbecue sauces contain vinegar, tomato and mustard, but each regional barbecue sauce is distinct. What’s the difference between the sauces from Alabama and Texas? Kansas City or St. Louis? Memphis or Nashville? We break it down in this guide to the country’s most popular sauces.
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You’ll immediately notice what makes this regional barbecue sauce unique: It’s white! Big Bog Gibson is credited with creating this mayonnaise-based BBQ sauce in 1925 for his signature hickory-smoked chicken. In addition to slathering it on chicken, you can also use it as a dipping sauce, marinade or dressing for coleslaw.
East North Carolina
North Carolina is all about whole hog barbecue, and the traditional barbecue sauce in this region is bare bones and basic. It’s a pungent, thin sauce made from little more than cider vinegar, red pepper flakes and some salt. It’s perfect for cutting through fatty pork, but we think it tastes pretty good on chicken, too.
West North Carolina
If pure vinegar isn’t your jam, tame things down by adopting the Piedmont or Lexington version of Carolina barbecue sauce. It’s almost identical to the East Carolina sauce, except they add ketchup and brown sugar to mellow out that vinegar tang. This thicker, sweeter sauce is still great on pulled pork, especially if you’re serving it up as a sandwich.
If you’re a mustard-on-your-hot-dog kind of person, you’ll love SC barbecue sauce. It doesn’t contain any ketchup at all, and it’s almost always made with plain yellow mustard. It’s rich, spicy and tangy—without any semblance of sweetness—making it perfect for pork or chicken.
You might not think about Florida when it comes to barbecue, but they’re famous for their signature smoked mullet. Florida sauce combines Carolina’s heavy vinegar presence with Cuban citrus and Caribbean spicy and tropical elements. It’s usually basted on the meat or fish as it cooks.
Baltimore-style barbecue is different from anywhere else in the country. These Marylanders are famous for their pit beef sandwich, which is grilled rather than smoked. This sandwich is traditionally served up with a creamy horseradish sauce. The spicier the sauce, the better!
When you think of generic barbecue sauce, it’s probably Kansas City-style. This sweet and tangy sauce can contain more than a dozen ingredients, but it always starts with a tomato or ketchup base and includes brown sugar or molasses as a sweetener. It’s good on everything, but it’s especially tasty on a rack of ribs. Because of the high sugar content, you’ll want to use this sauce after cooking so it doesn’t burn.
St. Louis barbecue sauce is similar to Kansas City (hey, they’re both from Missouri), but its thinner because of the addition of vinegar, which also tames down the sweetness quite a bit. It has a sweet-and-sour flavor with a kick of spice, and its lower sugar content means it can be used while the meat cooks without fear of the sauce burning.
Take a peek at a map, and you won’t be surprised that Oklahoma barbecue combines Texas meats and Kansas City-style sauce! The sauce is heavy with ketchup, Worcestershire and sweet-and-tangy flavors, making it a perfect accompaniment to cut through the fat of a barbecued beef brisket.
Many people will tell you Memphis barbecue is served without a sauce: They use a dry rub on their ribs to give it plenty of flavor from the get-go. Others swear by “web” rubbed ribs, which uses a barbecue sauce that’s thinner than Kansas City but sweeter than St. Louis.
East Tennessee is split between two barbecue styles: the tangy, vinegar-forward sauce of the Carolinas and the sweet versions that come from Memphis and St. Louis. You’ll find a variety of sauces in Nashville, but they’re almost always a smokier version of the sauces from surrounding areas.
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Texas barbecue is all about the beef, and the sauce is usually used to baste or marinate rather than as a condiment. It’s thin but hearty, thanks to the use of meat drippings and other bold ingredients like smoky cumin, hot sauce, chili powder, garlic and Worcestershire.