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.

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Barbecue Sauces 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 and St. Louis? Memphis and Nashville? We break it down in this guide to the country’s most popular sauces. (Be sure to check out the best barbecue recipes across America.)

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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 the mayonnaise-based Alabama 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.

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East North Carolina

North Carolina is all about whole hog barbecue, and the traditional east Carolina 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.

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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.

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South Carolina

If you’re a mustard-on-your-hot-dog kind of person, you’ll love South Carolina 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.

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You might not think about Florida when it comes to barbecue, but they’re famous for their signature smoked mullet. Florida barbecue 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.

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Roast beef sandwich with lettuce on an everything bagel with a side of blue corn chips
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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!

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Kansas City

When you think of traditional 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.

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St. Louis

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.

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Homemade Smoked Barbecue Beef Brisket with Sauce
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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.

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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.

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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. This Nashville barbecue sauce is the most authentic to the area.

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Texas barbecue is all about the beef, and the sauce is usually used to baste or marinate brisket rather than as a condiment. Texas barbecue sauce is thin but hearty, thanks to the use of meat drippings and other bold ingredients like smoky cumin, hot sauce, chili powder, garlic and Worcestershire.

Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially when she can highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.