Does Sauce Make It Barbecue?

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Some barbecue purists argue true barbecue doesn’t need sauce because the smoked meat and the herb and spice rub that is added before cooking provide more than enough flavor. Others say it is the sauce that makes barbecue great. One thing is for sure: There are as many barbecue sauces as there are backyard grill masters and each cook has his or her favorite concoction developed to bring out the best in their barbecue’s taste, texture and flavor.

In his comprehensive book Championship Barbecue Sauces (Harvard Common Press, 1998),author Paul Kirk, Ph.B., the Kansas City Baron of Barbecue and a seven-time world grand champion, gives excellent advice: “A good sauce seasons and enhances,” he says. “It is not intended to hide or overpower or dominate! A sauce can give contrasting or complementary flavors. It can also add moisture, texture and visual interest to your barbecue.”

Barbecue Sauces Have Amazing Variety
Most agree there are four major regional areas for barbecue–Kansas City, Texas, the Carolinas and Memphis–but even within those geographical areas, barbecue variations abound with different types of meat and sauces. There are also two varieties of barbecue sauces, sauces applied during the cooking (properly called mops or bastes) and those applied near the end of cooking or served at the table, known as finishing sauces.

“There are generally considered to be four types of barbecue in the country and they, by and large, are broken down by the type of sauce used in basting and also as a finish sauce,” explains Lake E. High Jr., a South Carolinian and barbecue historian. “Those four, in order of historical emergence, are vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato and heavy tomato. And while there is always disagreement on the varieties of preparation, such as whether one should use a dry rub or a wet rub and various other culinary arguments, all of the many sauces used in America generally will fall into one of those four basic groups.”


Barbecue Sauce by Region

Kansas City

A big pork rib and beef brisket town. Kansas City sauces are usually tomato-based with vinegar and are sweet, thick, spicy and commanding. Many believe Kansas City barbecue to be the best combination of all the regional styles.


Beef country! The sauce used is a tomato-based blend spiked with chili powder, paprika and cumin, limited only by what’s in the pantry.

Eastern North Carolina

Notable for whole hog cooked over oak or hickory wood then chopped and mixed with a vinegar-based sauce spiked with crushed red pepper flakes, black pepper, salt and sometimes granulated sugar.

Typical Eastern North Carolina Sauce
Western North Carolina

Specializes in Boston butt (shoulder) pulled and bathed with a thin tomato-based sauce with a strong vinegar taste. Sometimes Worcestershire sauce and molasses are added to the sauce.

South Carolina

Historically regarded as the birthplace of barbecue in America, this is where Spanish settlers met with South Carolina Native Americans in the 1500s. Again, “pulled” pork is the meat but the sauce can be one of four different types including a mustard-based variety with vinegar and honey or molasses.


Ribs and shredded pork dominate in Memphis. Memphis ribs come wet or dry–with or without sauce–but most come dry with a thick crust of dry rub. Western Tennessee shredded pork is mixed with a sweet tomato-based sauce, somewhat less spicy than a Texas-style sauce.


Sauces here include a mild tomato-based sauce, a peppery hot sauce, or a unique black sauce made of a basic vinegar sauce with molasses. During cooking, a combination of Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, lemon, salt, black pepper and water bastes the meat.


Barbecue in Alabama is traditional Southern-style, but what makes Alabama stand out is its barbecue sauce. Unlike others that are tomato-based, northern Alabama features a white barbecue sauce, similar to a classic French Béchamel. Made with mayonnaise, vinegar, salt and pepper the sauce adds a delicate flavor to barbecued meats.

Boutique Competes Against Mainstream
Although Southern cookbooks in the 1800s make mention of barbecue sauces, the sauce was usually just butter and spices applied to the meat while it was cooking. In the mid-1920s, the first commercially prepared barbecue sauce was manufactured by the Louis Maull Fish and Cheese Co. in St. Louis (the sauce is still made today) but it wasn’t until the mid-1940s, when Open Pit was introduced to the food service market, that a commercially available sauce was offered nationally. In 1953 Open Pit expanded into the retail market in Detroit.

Open Pit was acquired by General Foods Corp. in 1960 and became part of Kraft Foods in 1989, when the two companies merged. Today, Open Pit is still owned by Kraft in the food service market, while the retail division was sold to Vlasic in 1987. In 2001, Vlasic was acquired by Pinnacle Foods. Open Pit was the leading sauce Today, Open Pit offers six flavors of its “original” style sauce and three flavors of the “Thick & Tangy” sauce that it introduced in 1986.

As a limited-time promotion in 1957, Kraft began attaching spice packets to its all-purpose oil, inspiring another nationally available commercial barbecue sauce. Thus, Kraft barbecue sauce was introduced in 1958 and reached national distribution in 1960. It wasn’t until 1984, however, that one of the most popular barbecue sauces was introduced: Kraft Thick ‘N’ Spicy Original Barbecue Sauce. Kraft Foods also produces the premium Bull’s-Eye barbecue sauce line, introduced in 1985 to regional markets and nationally in 1987.

Not to be left out of the growing market for barbecue sauces, the Pennsylvania-based H.L. Heinz Co. entered the fray. Heinz now produces the Jack Daniel’s lines of sauces.

K.C. Masterpiece sauce, developed in 1978 by former child psychiatrist Dr. Rich Davis of Kansas City, is another major national brand. When K.C. Masterpiece was sold to a division of Clorox Co. in 1985, sales were more than $4 million annually. The company today produces nine different flavors of barbecue sauces.

Hunt’s, a division of ConAgra Foods, produces “Hunt’s Original Barbecue Sauce,” another popular national brand.

Another player entered the retail market two years ago when French’s introduced its Cattlemen’s sauce to the retail market. Available to the food service industry for nearly 30 years and the number one selling food service barbecue sauce, Cattlemen’s has been used by the grand champions at the prestigious Memphis In May World Barbecue Championship for the past 14 years.

Recently, World Harbors, Inc. of Auburn, Maine, a division of Trinidad-based Angostura Limited, released their Buccaneer Blends line of five all-natural barbecue sauces. Sticky Rum, Apple Maple, Fra Diavlo, Honey Mango and Mesquite barbecue sauces join the company’s line of 16 gourmet sauces and marinades. Founded in 1990, the company was sold to in 2000.

Adding further to the mix of commercial sauces is the plethora of “boutique,” or premium, sauces that are carving small niche markets throughout the country. Thanks to the Internet, these regional sauces that have existed for years in near obscurity are now competing against the mainstream sauces. A very popular specialty sauce is Bone Suckin’ Sauce produced by Ford’s Gourmet Foods ( in Raleigh, N.C. It’s a western North Carolina style sauce that is smoky with tomato and apple cider vinegar sweetened with honey and molasses. The sauce was developed by Phil Ford in 1987 and reached the retail market in 1992.

Create Your Own “Signature” Sauce

Many barbecue teams and backyard cooks create their own barbecue sauces, either from scratch or using a commercial product as a base. The components of any tomato-based sauce usually include tomato (paste, sauce, ketchup or chili sauce), aromatic vegetables (garlic, shallots, bell peppers or onions), a sweet taste (molasses, sugar, brown sugar, honey, corn syrup or maple syrup) and a sour flavor (vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, wine or Worcestershire sauce) while vinegar-based sauces usually just contain vinegar, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes and other spices.

“Keep good notes on what you did,” recommends Culinary Institute of America graduate Richard McPeake of Kansas City. “Test your final product and determine what you like or maybe don’t like. When going back to retest, only change one ingredient at a time.” Chef McPeake is the author of “Backyard BBQ,: The Art of Smokology” and a member of the Rib Stars barbecue team.

Here are a couple of recipes I developed for two classic barbecue sauces along with my take on Alabama White Sauce. You can use them as a starting point to create your own signature sauces.

Basic Barbecue Sauce

Don’t be intimidated by the number of the ingredients! This is a basic barbecue sauce that can be used on pork or beef. It will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to four weeks.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 jalapeño chiles, seeded and finely diced

2 tablespoons hot Hungarian paprika

2 cups ketchup

1 (12-ounce can beer

1 whole tomato, seeded and diced

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup dark molasses

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and jalapeños. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions wilt. Add the paprika and cook briefly. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well to incorporate. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer partially covered for one hour.

Yield: About 4 cups

Heat Scale: Mild


South Carolina Mustard Sauce

Thanks to the German immigrants that populated South Carolina in the 18th century, mustard became a popular condiment and the base for this unique barbecue sauce. One of the more popular commercial mustard-based sauces is Maurice’s Carolina Gold BBQ Sauce. This is my version on the traditional South Carolina sauce.

1 1/2 cups prepared yellow mustard

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

In a medium saucepan over medium heat combine all of the ingredients. Stir and simmer for five minutes to dissolve the sugar.

Yield: About 2 cups

Heat Scale: Mild

Alabama White Sauce
“Big Bob” Gibson of Decatur, Ala., is credited with creating this sauce in 1925. Although this is not his recipe, this sauce is good on any barbecue, whether chicken, pork or beef. It’s also great on fish, potato salad and cole slaw. Because it is mayonnaise-based, it should be used as a finishing sauce and applied at the end of cooking or served at the table. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
1 cup good-quality mayonnaise

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons prepared horseradish

1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and whisk well to combine.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups

Heat Scale: Mild

Remus Powers’ Kansas City Sauce

Remus Powers Ph.B., known in real life as Ardie Davis of Kansas City, is one of the premier barbecue experts in the country and the author of several barbecue books including The Great Barbecue Sauce Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999). This is his recipe for a classic Kansas City style sauce.

4 1/2 tablespoons black pepper

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon mace

1/4 cup white vinegar

1 cup ketchup

1/3 cup dark molasses

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

Place all of the dry ingredients into a bowl. Add the vinegar and stir. Add remaining ingredients and stir until mixture is thoroughly blended. This sauce may be served at room temperature or heated.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups

Heat Scale: Mild


Presidential Barbecue Sauce

Although President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas native, was known to host barbecues for visiting dignitaries at both the White House and his Texas ranch, he was not the first president to enjoy barbecue. The Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas, the presidential library of Texas-born President Dwight D. Eisenhower, has this recipe archived from the 34th president’s personal collection.

4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) butter

2 cups drained whole tomatoes

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon paprika

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce or more to taste

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Use for basting meat or chicken and serve as a table sauce.

Yield: Enough for 5 pounds of meat

Heat Scale: Mild


Dave Klose’s Texas Sauce

Dave Klose of Houston has been a world-renowned manufacturer of custom barbecue smokers since 1986 ( Here’s his recipe for a Texas-style barbecue sauce.

2 cups water

2 cups ketchup

1 cup cider vinegar

1 cup minced yellow onion

1 cup Worcestershire sauce

Juice of 4 lemons (about 1/2 cup)

1 stick butter (1/2 cup)

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons honey

4 cloves garlic, pressed (about 4 teaspoons) 2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon ground cayenne

1 dash Tabasco sauce

Combine the ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 12 minutes.

Yield: about six cups

Heat Scale: Mild to medium


Lake High’s Vinegar and Pepper BBQ Basting Sauce

This sauce is a basting sauce used when cooking a whole hog or shoulder. “It’s so simple that almost no one makes it for commercial sale,” Lake High explains. “If they do they always add some ‘secret ingredient’ that just is their favorite spice. Northerners and Westerners like chile and cumin but Southerners seldom add it and I certainly don’t. If you like it hotter, add more red pepper. If you want it less hot, use less next time.”
1 gallon white vinegar (use a good brand not store brand)

1/2 cup kosher or sea salt (not the kind in the round blue box)

1/3 cup red pepper flakes

1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sugar or 1/2 cup of molasses (to give it good “mouth feel” and take the edge off the vinegar)

Combine all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate.

Yield: About 1 gallon

Heat scale: Mild to medium

Barbecue editor Mike Stines is the author of the critically acclaimed Mastering Barbecue [Ten Speed Press, 2005]. He has been conferred a doctorate in barbeque philosophy (Ph.B.) by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and is one of 26 persons in the world to hold the Greasehouse University degree. His website is

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