Barbecue Sauce is Nothing Short of Magic. Here's Eleven Different Sauces to Prove My Point


The Roles of Barbecue Sauce
Different Types of Barbecue Sauce
Frequently Asked Questions
Boring. Recipes, please!

I’m telling you now, this article is worth sharing. If you know anyone that loves to cook, then they need to know more about barbecue sauce. It’s not just brown ketchup! And if you know anyone that loves to barbecue, then share this article with them twice.

Spring is finally upon us, which means it’s time to fire up the grill and make grilled salad, pork butt, ultimate burgers, and mushrooms so good they’ll make you cry. When I barbecue, part of my soul comes back to life.

I really enjoy classic charcoal grilling. I love how fickle the flame is; you have to make friends with it for it to behave. I love the way smoke and radiant heat (as opposed to convective or conductive heat from the kitchen stove) alters the molecular properties of the meat to provide something you just can’t get indoors. I love how some recipes take hours and hours of labor, which gives me an excuse to stay home and have a relaxing day watching my grill.

When you can steal the time, try some barbecue. I try to do it at least a couple of times a month.

But if you don’t have the time, you can at least try making homemade barbecue sauce. I’m going to take a deep dive here into the chemistry and power of a good barbecue sauce. If you are uninitiated like I was a few years ago, this article is about to blow your mind.

The Various Roles of Barbecue Sauce

I’ve said it already, but I’m going to say it again: barbecue sauce, properly used, isn’t just for kicking up the final flavor of your food. It ain’t just another version of ketchup.

To those of us who eat lunch next to the smoking remains of a 16-hour grill session, barbecue sauce comes in an entire spectrum of colors, flavors and consistencies. And they’re not just for sweet, molasses flavor. Barbecue sauce is meant to enhance, caramelize, crystallize, lubricate, and preserve your meat.

Let’s talk about the four ways to use your sauce:

Preserve moisture throughout the cooking process: As you cook (especially if cooking with radiant heat on a grill), your meat will lose moisture. You can’t immerse your meat in cooking liquid like when braising in an oven, so you have to find some other way to keep your meat from going dry. First off, you should be using some pans of water in your grill to create steam that will cling to the meat and prevent major temperature flare-ups. But second off, regular and liberal use of a thin, watery / vinegary sauce will provide extra flavor and keep your meat nice and moist. Just one warning: a good sauce is no replacement for proper cooking. If you overcook your meat, then the moisture is doomed anyway.

Create a caramelizing and lubricating effect near the end of the cooking process: This can vary slightly depending on what and how you’re cooking. Option one is when cooking low and slow, to apply a nice, thick sauce about half an hour before you finish cooking. This will give the sugars in the sauce time to caramelize, creating a whole new flavor profile and some gorgeous mouthfeel. Otherwise, you can apply a very thin layer of sauce (usually a glaze) once the meat is done cooking, and briefly put the sauced-up meat under the broiler just until the sugar caramelizes. Watch carefully here though, as it will burn the moment you look away.

Make an awesome dip or sauce over the dinner table: This is the moment everyone is already familiar with. Dollop some sauce onto your plate or into a bowl for liberal slathering and dipping of your food while you eat.

Make the perfect freezer preservative with your leftovers: When all is done and guests are gone, you may have some leftovers. Pour all the remaining unused sauce over the meat and coat it liberally. This will protect the meat from freezer burn.

The Primary Types of Barbecue Sauce

I cannot properly write this article without thanking the king himself: “Meathead” Goldwyn. Meathead is a several-times-over award winning barbecue chef. When I was in the thick of my military training, I spent my free time reading his blog and learning everything I could about smoke and barbecue. A lot of what comes next is inspired by his blog and cookbook, Meathead.

According to Meathead, there are eleven distinct types of American barbecue sauce. That’s right—ELEVEN! These include:

Kansas City Red: When most people think of barbecue sauce, they think of some version of this. The original Kansas City sauces (or KC sauce, for short) were vinegary and spicy, but not sweet. It was only in the last fifty years or so that we began adding brown sugar, molasses, honey, and other sweeteners.

Believe me when I say if you make your own KC sauce, you will never buy the bottled stuff again.

I’ve dabbled in my own recipes but haven’t found something I’m totally satisfied with. Even Meathead’s recipe doesn’t quite satisfy what I’m looking for, so I’m elbows deep into my own methods of trying to make this incredible sauce. Here’s one thing though: I’ve learned that I like it nice and chunky.

Variations of the Kansas City Red: Many chefs take inspiration from KC sauce, but they change it so much that it can no longer in good faith be called a classic KC sauce. Variations include adding different kinds of hot sauce, fruit purees, and liquors (usually whiskey).

South Carolina Mustard Sauce (or as the locals call it, Columbia Gold): This is some very special sauce. Bright yellow, very herby, and mustard-forward. This stuff is perfection on fatty cuts of meat like pork butt. It’s my wife’s personal favorite sauce, which surprised me since it’s so sharp, but it just contrasts so well with smoked meat that it’s impossible to forget.

East Carolina Mop Sauce: This is arguably the original barbecue sauce. It’s called mop sauce because it is very, very watery, and pitmasters generally mop it over their meat several times during the cooking process. And yes—whole-hog pitmasters often use a literal mop specifically designated for mopping their pigs over their 12 to 16-hour cook time.

Originally, this sauce was just vinegar and something spicy like red-pepper and black pepper. These days most people use something with a little more bling, but you cannot go wrong using high-quality vinegar and some fresh black pepper to make a truly standout mop sauce.

Lexington Dip: The same thing as the mop sauce above, but with tomato and some form of sugar added. To most amateur cooks, this is the more popular alternative.

I have my own special dip sauce I call “Slap-yo-Mama.” I’ll share it someday when I feel like it’s finally ready. It’s just missing… something.

By the way, a lot of cooks call their sauce “dip,” not sauce. This is generally the case when the sauce is very watery. To me, it’s useful to have a mental distinction between a dip and a sauce because while they serve the same function at the end of the day, their method of delivery may vary. For example, you need to be more careful when applying a thick sauce during cooking so as to not burn the sugars or overpower the meat. Whereas a dip you can apply rather liberally throughout the cooking process and you’ll be just fine. On the flip side, it’s easy to slather on some thick sauce over the dinner table, but dip usually needs to come in its own little bottle or bowl, which can become cumbersome when you’re serving several people at once.

Texas Mop Sauce:r Texan barbecue is king of all things beef. Beef doesn’t pair particularly well with sweet ingredients (or at least until the last thirty or so years as the American palate has become more and more accustomed to sweet. In any case, I like sticking with the classics). Thus, Texas mop sauce can often be herby, but is much less sweet. It often even includes beef drippings collected while you cook.

Alabama White Sauce: I consider Alabama White Sauce to be among the holy trinity of backyard barbecue. That is in no way the final word on sauces, but as far as personal preference goes, I love Alabama White Sauce!

This mayonnaise-based sauce was invented in a restaurant in Alabama as a mop sauce (or dip) for their chicken. The sauce became so radically popular that by now many restaurants have their own version.

This sauce is generally another thin mop sauce. My personal recipe is thicker. While the original recipe is meant for chicken, I’ve found it also goes well with beef. I love to make Tex-Mex burritos with my proprietary ‘Bama sauce as a creamy and acidic base instead of using sour cream.

Kentucky Black Sauce: This is a classic sauce for mutton and lamb. It’s similar to other dips, meaning it’s vinegar forward. The difference is this tends to be a mix of vinegar and worcestershire.

Hawaiian Huli-Huli Sauce: A marriage of Japanese teriyaki and American barbecue.

Sweet Glazes: These are generally high-sugar sauces that can overpower your meat if you’re not careful. But when properly applied in the last half hour of cooking, these sauces make a crackly, shiny layer on the outside of your meat that has an unbeatable texture.

I once accidentally made a sweet and spicy glaze that gave me such a kick that I named it “Punch-yo-Pa” to go along with my “Slap-yo-Mama” sauce. I’m putting the final touches on this glaze. If you’re a hardcore spicy food lover, let me know in the comments and I’ll drop the recipe for it someday.

Tartar Sauce: A lot of people get annoyed at the inclusion of tartar sauce as a type of barbecue sauce. Meathead considers it a barbecue sauce for “historical honesty,” and I agree with his take. Smoked fish was America’s first barbecue, and tartar sauce recipes are older than America itself. Tartar sauce is absolutely a barbecue sauce, even if it has often been removed from its roots.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the point of learning about barbecue sauce when I can just buy some from the store?

Short answer: homemade is so much better that when you try it, you’ll feel like you’ve been robbed your whole life.

Long answer: barbecue is the cornerstone of American cooking, so if you’re curious about American heritage, this is the place to start. An education in barbecue sauce is also a thorough inculturation into several different regions of the United States. On top of that, you don’t just love eating; you love to cook. You’re a home chef! Learning about sauces is the first step to developing your own proprietary sauce. My special barbecue sauce is the first recipe I ever decided to keep to myself. In fact, it made me start giving out other recipes much more liberally because I realized how common other foods really are. But a good, personalized sauce is something truly special.

Finally, you have your health to think about. Store-bought sauces are sugar bombs. You’re paying for overpriced molasses sauce that isn’t good—it’s just well marketed.

If other sauces are so good, why aren’t they as popular as KC sauce?

This is actually really hard to answer. I’ve researched it, but haven’t come up with much. From what I can gather, it’s a multitude of factors:

  • Kansas City has long been known as a hub of good barbecue. While Texas was perfecting the brisket, Kansas City was perfecting its sauce. Thus, Texas became the king of beef while Kansas City became the sauce boss.
  • Modern KC sauce has a sweet profile, which makes it palatable to a broad range of consumers—barbecue enthusiasts, dabblers, children, tourists, etc. Other sauces can be sharp and herby, which while irreplaceable to a trained palate, just don’t have the same appeal to someone who doesn’t care about food in the same way.
  • KC sauce is arguably the most versatile of all the sauces on Meathead’s list. It pairs well with beef, pork, chicken, and vegetables, and it’s good during and after a cook session. It goes with hot meals and cold meals. It goes on burgers and in sandwiches, and even as a dressing on salads. It’s the only sauce that is this versatile, so its widespread use was inevitable.
  • Pair the above reasons with strong marketing and cultural influence, and it’s no wonder that KC sauce has snowballed into the only barbecue sauce that most Americans are aware of. That doesn’t make it objectively “better,” but it does make it inevitably more popular.

You said using barbecue sauce isn’t the same as using ketchup. What’s the right way to use it?

First off, if you want to use it like ketchup, go right ahead. I use it that way all the time. However, if barbecuing over low temperature, it’s a great idea to spread one or two thin layers of sauce over your meat during the last half hour of cooking. If you’re using a sweet glaze, you can also consider spreading a thin layer over the meat and sticking it under the broiler once it has finished cooking.

This method will caramelize the sugars and create a whole new experience with your sauce.

A word to the wise: when using a broiler, you need to watch your sauce like a hawk. Don’t step away from the oven or grill. The sauce can go from caramelized to burned in an instant, and that can ruin everything. It’ll bring your ribs from perfectly cooked to overdone, and turn your sweetness into bitterness.

Another important way to use your sauce is as a preservative. Usually when I make pork butt, I have a lot of leftovers. Pork butt freezes really well if you freeze it with the sauce! So I take all the leftover sauce that we used to spread our plates and buns, and I dump the rest of it in with the leftover meat. I stir it around thoroughly, and then I bag up the leftover pork into single-serving packages. I am often left with six to eight leftover meals that I can pull out of my freezer over the next couple of months.

A final note: when cooking with sauce, put it in a little bowl and apply it with a brush or spoon. After, THROW THE REST AWAY. This is a food safety concern, you don’t want to risk ingesting bits of undercooked food.

I don’t like the smoke and hassle of grilled foods. Is barbecue sauce still worth my time?

Barbecue sauce is still fully worth your time. Barbecue sauce is one of the most versatile sauces, and developing a proprietary recipe will give you a leg up on all sorts of foods, like blanched or roasted vegetables, every cut of meat you can imagine, rice, salads, and more.

I at nearly all times have two to four of my own sauces sitting in the fridge, and I find myself whipping them out to garnish meals more often than not.

I want to try some good sauces. Where should I begin?

If you have no clue at all where to begin, I suggest learning a good KC sauce recipe. This is most similar to store-bought sauces, so you should have a good understanding of the general flavor profile. But beyond that, KC sauce is so versatile that you’ll find yourself putting it on rice, salads, sandwiches, and every cut of meat under the sun.

If you’re interested in something a little more niche, consider the foods you cook most often. If you cook with a lot of ground beef and chicken, then you can’t go wrong with a good Alabama White Sauce. If the barbecue fever has hit you something fierce and you can’t wait to throw some pork on the grill, then try an East Carolina Mop Sauce, a Hawaiian Huli-Huli, or some South Carolina Mustard Sauce.

If you’re still not sure where to begin, then just scroll to my recipe below.

For the Love of All I Hold Dear, Give Me A Recipe, Please!!!

I so badly wanted to provide four different sauce recipes. The thing is, I don’t like sharing anything unless it’s as close to perfect as I can manage… and some of my sauces are still in the works. However, here is my Bad ‘Bama Sauce. It is one of the greatest achievements of my relatively brief foray (about two and a half years) intensively studying barbecue. This is Alabama’s elusive white barbecue sauce.

Matthew's Bad 'Bama Sauce

This sauce is a zesty, bright, and very flavorful white sauce that is killer good on tons of different foods. I use it as a barbecue sauce when smoking chicken, but I also use it as a garnishing sauce for chicken, ground beef, potatoes, cheese dishes, pastas, salads, etc. It is a super versatile sauce that deserves a lot more recognition. My personal recipe is a modification on the classic white barbecue sauce native to Alabama. Traditionally, this sauce is watery and mainly used for dipping chicken before smoking it. I prefer to make mine thicker and more spreadable by adding a little more mayo and by very gently cooking it to reduce the water content.

Prep time:
Cook time:
Yield: 2 cups

1 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 lemon, squeezed
1/4 cup apple cider (not apple juice from concentrate)
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon horseradish (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients thoroughly in a glass bowl.

This step is optional, but because the sauce is usually so thin, I like to put it in a wide and shallow sauce pan over low to medium-low heat. Heat it up just enough to make some steam, but not enough for it to boil. Let it steam off for fifteen to twenty minutes and then refrigerate for three hours minimum (leaving it overnight is best).

The next time you're barbecuing some chicken, dip it whole into this sauce or use a brush to generously apply the sauce. Otherwise, use it as a delicious garnish just like you would use any other sauce.

Recipe formatted with the Cook'n Recipe Software from DVO Enterprises.

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    Matthew Christensen
    Weekly Newsletter Contributor since 2023
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