A Guide to the Essential Regional American Barbecue Sauces

Every barbecue lover should know these barbecue sauces.

Guide to Regional Barbecue Sauces
Photo: Sarah Crowder

When Americans think of barbecue sauce, many unknowingly imagine the Kansas City version: dark as mahogany, thick as molasses, and twice as sweet. Popularized by the brand KC Masterpiece — founded there in 1977 — it has come to stand for barbecue in America and abroad.

Today, many store-bought sauces attempt to stand in for the process of barbecue itself: cooking food slowly over low, indirect heat. Liquid smoke evokes burning wood, while sugar fills some of the longing for deeply charred, caramelized meat. And sauces have gotten sweeter over the years to keep up with our cravings.

"There's a difference between barbecue sauce that tastes good and barbecue sauce that tastes good on meat," says Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly. "Some of my favorite barbecue sauces, you don't want to dip your fries into them. But when you dip a pork chop into them, it's delicious. If it's got a little bit more of that vinegar tang or a little bit of mustard, that's going to go really well with barbecue."

In fact, this is how American barbecue sauce originated: vinegary and hardly sweet. They were mostly butter at first, according to barbecue scholar Meathead Goldwyn. By the Civil War, they had evolved into luscious cocktails of butter and vinegar, perhaps with red or black pepper — not unlike the present-day sauces of the Eastern Carolinas. Tomato paste and ketchup came later, as evidenced by this 1913 recipe, one of the earliest Goldwyn has found. (After the Civil War, you see a proliferation in written recipes, as former slave owners were cooking for themselves or training hired help.)

As a rule, these sauces were used mostly for basting, with any leftovers being served alongside the cooked meat. The vinegar was likely the contribution of Spanish colonialists in Florida, and it made its way up the coast; the French brought butter and the Germans, mustard. Together, Goldwyn writes, these cultural influences melded to form what we now think of as barbecue sauce.

"Back in the 19th century, all American barbecue was essentially the same," Vaughn explains. "There were no identifiable styles until a decade or so after the Civil War, when barbecue was first made available for sale … Once it became restaurant food, it started to take on a style all its own, depending on the region."

Some regional styles of barbecue sauce are immediately recognizable: the playground-yellow mustard sauces of South Carolina or Big Bob Gibson's mayo-based Alabama white sauce. Others, less so. And sometimes this causes outsiders to conflate regional nuances or invent generalizations where they don't exist.

Barbecue, and the sauces that come with it, are a living, breathing world. As Vaughn points out, today it's harder than ever to establish the lineage of a recipe, style, or sauce.

"Just by the way that recipes are shared these days, it's no longer a system of learning from one cook for a few years at their restaurant and then moving on to open your own," he says. "Everybody's learning from all of the vast resources on the internet. So there's really no lineage or one sort of style of recipe that gets carried on in a specific region."

With this in mind, we've done our best to do justice to the complexity and richness of America's barbecue styles, without confusing them or simplifying them for journalistic convenience.

Kansas City-Style Barbecue Sauce

It's only fitting to start our list with arguably the most influential place in modern American barbecue, Kansas City.

What makes Kansas City barbecue sauce Kansas City barbecue sauce? Most people would talk about its sweetness, thickness, and smokiness. It's probably the thickest of all the regional sauces, sitting squarely on top of the meat without being absorbed, Goldwyn writes; its burnt red color makes it the darkest on this list. And, of course, its sticky sweetness is renowned. It'll often have molasses or brown sugar, maybe some Worcestershire, some mustard, and some type of acid.

Guide to Regional Barbecue Sauces
Sarah Crowder

Steven Raichlen, prolific barbecue author and TV host, tells us that copious liquid smoke is key. (If you're not familiar with liquid smoke, it's just what it sounds like: smoky flavor, captured in liquid form, usually with an alcohol base. Besides being a fixture in barbecue circles, it's also common in plant-based cuisine to evoke the smokiness associated with bacon, sausage, and grilled meat.)

Goldwyn points out in his recipe that the best Kansas City barbecue sauces are "big brass bands" of flavor, with multiple sources of sweetness and heat — molasses and brown sugar, vinegar and lemon juice, black pepper and red pepper, that sort of thing. He explains that before KC Masterpiece set the market standard starting in 1977, Kansas City barbecue sauces were far less sugary and more acidic — similar to their 1800s predecessors.

Goldwyn touts the legendary Arthur Bryant's Original Sauce as a good example of an older style Kansas City barbecue sauce: tomato-based but super vinegary, strongly spiced, almost savory, and hardly sweet. It doesn't fit many people's definitions of what barbecue sauce should be, resulting in divisive Amazon reviews.

Interestingly enough, Arthur Bryant's sauce used to be even less sweet than it is today. Bryant added molasses to the recipe when he inherited it from Henry Perry, widely considered to be the father of Kansas City 'cue. Both men were foundational Black entrepreneurs who migrated to the city in the early 1900s, when it boasted bustling railroads and beef stockyards. They followed the wave of barbecue restaurants that started opening up in the 1890s, as barbecue scholar Adrian Miller explained in a piece for Food & Wine on the death of restaurateur David McAtee. It's then that barbecue started being sold in public, instead of being prepared at home. As Vaughn has written, this entrance of barbecue into the commercial domain was really when it started to diversify into regional styles.

Today, Arthur Bryant's is a required pilgrimage for anyone fancying themselves a pitmaster. And the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), co-founded by the indomitable Carolyn Wells, is the most populous in the country.

Alabama White Sauce

Along with Carolina mustard sauce, Alabama white sauce is probably the most distinctive on this list. Created in the 1920s by the legendary Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama — just south of the Tennessee border — it's bloomed into a regional style that has inspired imitations on both sides of the state line.

Guide to Regional Barbecue Sauces
Sarah Crowder

As a rule, Alabama white sauce is mayonnaise-based but not gluggy; the creamy mayo is cut with a good splash of vinegar. While it's typically used on chicken, it's also seen on just about anything else you can think of: coleslaw, potato salad, even macaroni salad. While no one outside the restaurant truly knows the secret formula, Goldwyn has attempted to reverse engineer it, like many others. And Chris Lilly, who today runs Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, has admitted that it's pretty close. Goldwyn's recipe uses apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, apple juice, and horseradish.

Lilly, who married into the family, is a barbecue legend and pitmaster in his own right, racking up several wins in the competition circuit. Though his restaurant has made its name on chicken and white sauce, Lilly is best known for his pork shoulder; he's won the category 11 times at Memphis in May.

Today, Big Bob Bar-B-Q also offers a tomato-based sauce (which also won at Memphis in May), as well as turkey breast for more "health-conscious customers."

Eastern Carolina-Style Vinegar Sauce

Found in the eastern half of both North and South Carolina, Eastern-style vinegar sauce has the unique honor of being the oldest barbecue sauce in the country. Given its origin in the 13 colonies, it's literally where American barbecue was born, at the hands of enslaved chefs.

Here, barbecue sauce is a visceral concoction of vinegar and red pepper flakes — no tomato, not ever. It is blankly tart and refuses to conform to mainstream notions of barbecue sauce.

"It's a great contrast to the rich, more fatty nature of whole hog barbecue," says pitmaster Rodney Scott. "And really, because whole hog is traditional in the eastern Carolinas, that is why that sauce is preferred." He's one of the few pitmasters to ever take home a James Beard Award, named the 2018 Best Chef: Southeast. In doing so, he brought institutional acclaim to the Eastern-style barbecue with which he grew up.

Thick, sugary sauces typically aren't used for basting because they would cause the meat to burn. By contrast, Eastern-style sauce is traditionally used both as a tableside condiment and a "mop sauce" — thus called because pitmasters will literally use a mop to baste their barbecuing hogs. At Scott's Charleston restaurant, hogs are mopped during the last half hour, and extra sauce is left on the table. While he prefers the vinegary tonic he grew up with, he acknowledges that it's not for everyone.

Guide to Regional Barbecue Sauces
Sarah Crowder

"Barbecue used to be hyper-regional and you would have to travel to taste different things," he says. "We opened with just our vinegar-based [sauce] but that didn't stop people from wanting more tomato and a little sweeter, so we added a sauce that accommodates that. We mastered the traditional way to cook our barbecue — the sauce is a condiment."

Memphis-Style Barbecue Sauce

To some, Memphis barbecue sauce is oxymoronic. After all, the city is known for its dry rub pork ribs. Slathered in spices before cooking, sauce is optional if you choose to order them "wet." (Or, as many do, help yourself to an extra shaking of rub before you dig in.) However, this doesn't mean that sauce isn't important in Memphis.

"This business of generalizing styles in barbecue is very tricky because, you know, you've got one restaurant serving a dry rub rib, which is really fabulous, and that becomes associated with Memphis," says Raichlen. "But there are plenty of places in Memphis that still slop their ribs with the sweet sticky stuff."

So, does Memphis have a barbecue sauce style of its own? One that shares specific qualities you repeatedly see in the city's restaurants, one that is distinct from other regional sauces? The answer is perhaps not. While it would be convenient to narrow the city to just one style, its richness of culture doesn't allow for it.

"In terms of generalizations, I'd be comfortable with saying that Memphis sauce is very tomatoey," Raichlen says, when pressed for an answer. That's certainly true at Cozy Corner, the Memphis landmark which bucks the sweet-and-sticky stuff. There, late founder Raymond Robinson engineered a sauce that is gravy-like in consistency and opacity, sweet but balanced with vinegary twang. Many liberally drizzle it on the restaurant's dry rubbed ribs, thick-cut bologna sandwiches, and Cornish hens for which it's known. (The restaurant also stands out for cooking with coal, not wood. While there's some bias against this, its results continually convert customers.)

Robinson's wife, Desiree Robinson, is a force in her own right and continues to oversee the restaurant that her husband built. Her take on Memphis sauce? She's with Raichlen: There's a plethora of styles.

"All of them are kind of unique," she says. "So it's really a matter of taste." Her late husband created the sauce he wished he could find elsewhere, and it's only logical that each pitmaster builds a sauce to his or her own palate. "There are a lot of good places in Memphis … and it's just a matter of what you've got a taste for that night," Robinson says. (For the record, she eats her restaurant's ribs dry.)

Of course, a plurality of style doesn't mean an absence of it. Memphis is, hands down, one of the most foundational barbecue cities in America, past or present. It is home to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, also known as Memphis in May, which has boasted 100,000 attendees and prizes as high as $25,000. It's ground zero for companies like Traeger Grills to demonstrate the latest technologies, while backyard barbecue enthusiasts get to rub elbows with the pitmaster elite. And, in October 2020, the city became home to the first Black woman ever to be inducted to the Barbecue Hall of Fame — Robinson herself.

"It was mind boggling," she says about getting the nomination phone call. "It wasn't something that I thought would happen to me. Because you're so used to being under the radar if not everybody knows about you. It's just not something I really ever expected, but it was such a delightful surprise."

St. Louis-Style Barbecue Sauce

St. Louis barbecue is most often characterized by its cut of meat: pork spare ribs. "St. Louis ribs" are named for the way that they're trimmed, with the connective tissue cut away so that the rack appears neatly rectangular and quite flat. Raichlen also asks us not to forget about the pork shoulder steak, which to him is what really makes St. Louis barbecue distinctive.

For him, St. Louis barbecue has really come into its own in the last decade. "I remember when I was writing both Barbecue Bible and BBQ USA," he says. "I went to St. Louis and I couldn't find a barbecue for love or money anywhere. I mean, barbecue, what it meant was ribs cooked in the oven and drenched in sweet tomato barbecue sauce. Now that's changed quite a bit because there are places like Pappy's, and there are probably half a dozen other places." While Pappy's bills itself as Memphis-style barbecue, it is unquestionably one of St. Louis' most storied barbecue restaurants.

In BBQ USA, Raichlen described a St. Louis-style sauce as usually being prepared without liquid smoke, which sets it apart from the Kansas City version. He also points to Maull's sauce as having a place in any discussion of St. Louis barbecue sauce. It is among the city's most celebrated, famously including anchovies and orange peel. But this doesn't necessarily mean that these ingredients have been adopted by the city at large.

"I would say that Maull's is sort of the iconic sauce," Raichlen asserts. "It comes in a bottle and people use it in their backyard. Of course, local barbecue joints make their own sauce. Everybody has kind of a different take. That's probably not what you want to hear."

Several experts around the country repeated that same sentiment when pressed to describe regional nuances. "I just think that a lot of these sauces are indistinguishable and so people are manufacturing differences that don't really exist," says Miller. "That's just my take."

Lexington Dip

Named for the North Carolina city in which it originated, this sauce is found in the western part of both Carolinas. It's similar to its Eastern-style counterpart, heavily featuring vinegar and red pepper, but it also includes ketchup. In general, "as you move farther into the middle part of the Carolinas, you begin to see more tomato and sugar creep in," Scott says.

The added ketchup is minimal, as Lexington dip should still be "thin and penetrating," according to Goldwyn. Like Eastern-style sauce, it's used both as a mop sauce and tableside condiment.

While the "which is better" debate rages on, the answer seems to be that each is best suited for the type of meat it's typically paired with. Lexington dip — also called Piedmont dip because of its origins in the Piedmont area of the state — most often accompanies pork shoulder, not whole hog. This frequently used muscle on the pig yields a tough cut of meat, making it perfect for low-and-slow barbecue cooking. The tomato sauce and sugar add body that fatty whole hog barbecue just doesn't need.

Carolina Gold Sauce, aka Carolina Mustard Sauce

Carolina Gold sauce is probably one of the most distinctive regional barbecue sauces. Its defining aspect is mustard, and incontrovertibly so. The playground-yellow condiment is a legacy of the 18th century German settlers to South Carolina, who preferred to eat their smoked meats with mustard. Today, many restaurants in the area serving this style of sauce still have German names, Goldwyn notes.

Mustard sauce can be found in restaurants from Columbia down to Charleston (refer to this excellent barbecue map created by Goldwyn), although this isn't necessarily a consistent trail. "As far as I know, mustard sauce is kind of a one-off that pops up in different parts of South Carolina," Scott says.

However, mustard-based barbecue sauces are not just relegated to South Carolina. Miller points out that North Florida has a mustard-based sauce as well, likely from German immigrants (although some historians make the case that it's from the French). Goldwyn adds that you'll also encounter it in some pockets of Georgia.

In addition to mustard, the sauce typically features cane sugar instead of molasses, which preserves its bright hue and acidic punch. In keeping with most Southern styles of barbecue, it's usually served over pork.

Texas-Style Barbecue Sauce

Too often, barbecue in this vast state — bigger than the entire country of France — gets reduced to a single style. It's that of Central Texas, known for its salt- and pepper-rubbed brisket, smoked with post oak. Here, the story goes, the best sauce is no sauce. It's served on the table, if at all, and widely regarded as a crutch for inferior 'cue.

"There's this narrative that barbecue should not be sauced," Miller says. "And that narrative is fueled by the Central European immigrants." They're the ones who shaped Central Texas barbecue, the Czech and German butchers who sold unadorned roast meat at meat markets. "But for the African Americans who were in the area, sauce was a part of the tradition," he says. "So my experience has been, in Texas, the sauces that I've had tended to be thinner and almost more like a hot sauce."

Texas is full of false narratives around barbecue, Miller asserts. And Vaughn agrees. "So often you'll hear that a lot of Texas barbecue joints don't even serve sauce, and that's untrue," Vaughn says. "I think the biggest difference in Texas is that the sauce is usually served on the side. In Central Texas, you're never going to get the sauce directly on the meat."

If you were hard-pressed to find one state-wide representation of barbecue sauce, perhaps the most illustrative example is provided by Kraft. The food conglomerate launched a line of regional barbecue sauces, Vaughn recounts, with the Texas variation being a predictably "dumbed-down version" of tomatoey base, chili powder, black pepper, and cumin. It's similar to a Kansas City-style sauce, but a little thinner and perhaps less sweet. You'll often find cumin and chili powder in Texas sauces.

If you're really looking for a barbecue condiment representative of the Lone Star State, however, Vaughn points to salsa as one of the biggest growth markets in Texas barbecue. And it's no longer relegated to Southern Texas and its barbacoa legacy — salsa is increasingly served at barbecue joints all over the state, and not just with tacos.

Texas barbecue is geographically divided into four quadrants, and we would be remiss to not acknowledge the ketchup-y sauces of East Texas. It's almost always ladled directly over meat, until it's drowning in "islands of sauce," Miller explains. Vaughn adds that it's not overly sweet and is thinner than its Kansas City counterpart. It has vinegar and Worcestershire and some spices, but it's not going to have the cumin or smoky chili powder that you might find in other parts of the state. Miller adds that East Texas barbecue was heavily shaped by formerly enslaved people who moved to the region and notes that you can find this same style of sauce throughout the South.

In the northeastern part of Texas, there are lesser-known brown gravy sauces. They originated in Oklahoma and made their way across the border, Vaughn explains. These typically use brisket drippings thickened with flour. "There's a lot of variation in sauces regionally," he says. "There's also a lot of variations in new barbecue joints versus old barbecue charts. The old barbecue joints have held onto their old sauce recipes, and they're more likely to be thinner sauces with a heavier vinegar flavor, maybe a heavier mustard flavor, and just not as sweet."

In sum, attempting to categorize Texas barbecue is futile, if somewhat pleasurable. If there's one takeaway, it's that, as famed as Central Texas 'cue is, there isn't one version that represents this whole great state.

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