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Americans love their barbecue.
Case in point: we could eat a different style of barbecue every day of the week and still not cover them all. But what's the main difference between these flavorful meats? The sauce their slathered in, of course.
So, before you fire up the grill or attend the country's next big food festival, brush up on these eight regional sauces. Whether you like something that's tangy with vinegar, sweet and smooth with ketchup or even spicy mustard-base, there's perfectly succulent sauce out there with your favorite cut of meat's name on it.
Kansas City: Tomatoes meet molasses
This gravy-like sauce is known for its sticky sweetness. Although he now lives in South Carolina, chef Anthony DiBernardo, a Missouri native, considers Kansas City barbecue sauce to be his favorite. “The flexibility of this sauce to go from chicken, ribs, pork butt and even brisket is the biggest appeal for me,” said the executive chef of Charleston, South Carolina's Swig & Swine told TODAY Food. DiBernardo's signature “Sweet Red” sauce is a spin-off of this thick, slightly tangy sauce with a ketchup base. “My number one tip for serving it is to give it time to come to room temperature to allow it to almost ‘open up,’ like a fine wine.” If you’re making it yourself, DiBernardo recommends using a heavy bottom sauce pot that allows the sauce to simmer for awhile without scorching.
Lexington, North Carolina: Hot and vinegary
This barbecue sauce, which hails from Lexington, North Carolina, is also known as Piedmont style. “It needs to be kept hot,” chef Sarah McClure of Southside Smokehouse in Landrum, South Carolina, told TODAY. “This is one reason you don't really see pre-made vinegar sauces on store shelves.” McClure doesn’t put sauce directly on the meat she serves. Instead, she serves a warm cup of “dip” on the side. Besides its vinegar base (McClure uses 40 Grain Distilled Vinegar with Coloring instead of apple cider vinegar which many recipes call for), this sauce has ketchup, sugar and pepper. Other ingredients and spices are optional. She thinks the barbecue sauce you knew as a kid is the one you end up loving, so this is McClure's undeniable favorite. “It's not that I don't like the other sauces, but for a basic pulled pork sandwich, Lexington is the only way to go for me.”
Texas: Ketchup-forward with Worcestershire sauce
According to pitmaster Leonard Botello IV, great barbecue doesn’t really need sauce. “That’s our golden rule in Texas,” said the owner of TRUTH BBQ in Brenham and, now Houston, Texas. That said, there are still plenty of Texas-style barbecue sauces. Recipes vary but are always tomato-based, according to Botello. Many include a mix of ketchup, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, chilis, garlic and/or cayenne pepper for heat. “Make it in advance so it has time to settle and the flavors can really come together,” Botello told TODAY. He likes to add vinegar to his sauce to cut the sweetness and add tanginess. He also recommends serving it at room temperature and storing any leftover sauce in a glass jar.
Alabama White: Chicken's peppery best friend
As a kid, Chris Lilly only ate Big Bob’s world-famous barbecue once. “Still, it only takes one time to develop a craving,” the Kingsford spokesman and World Championship Pitmaster told TODAY. Lilly eventually got a job at the Decatur, Alabama restaurant credited with birthing Alabama white sauce. He even married Big Bob Gibson’s great granddaughter, Amy. “The most common misconception is that it tastes like ranch dressing,” Lilly explained about this regional specialty. “But if you close your eyes and taste it, the first two ingredients that come to mind are vinegar and black pepper.” While there are variations, mandatory ingredients include vinegar, mayonnaise, black pepper, lemon juice and salt. At Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, where Lilly is now the executive chef and vice president, staff members take whole chickens straight from the barbecue pit to an Alabama white sauce vat where they’re “baptized.” “It’s also a great all-purpose table sauce,” added Lilly. “Locals eat it on just about everything.”
Eastern North Carolina: Tangy, tomato-less hot sauce
"You won't find any tomatoes here," chef Jennifer Hill Booker said of what she calls the "Mother of all barbecue sauce." The Atlanta-based chef and author of "Dinner Déjà Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow" describes Eastern North Carolina sauce as a tangy hot sauce. "Lots of vinegar, chili peppers (both ground and flakes), black pepper, hot sauce and a pinch or two of salt." Booker recommends "mopping" it on pork butt, ribs and chicken, while the meats are still on the grill. "And make sure to leave plenty to splash on right before serving," Booker told TODAY. "Store any unused sauce in a bottle or jar. It only gets better with time."
South Carolina: Mustardy and mysterious
“The flavor is universal. It goes on anything.” That’s how South Carolina's signature sauce is described by Rodney Scott, executive chef and founder of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston. Scott uses it on chicken, beef, pork and even turkey. “It can be the secret ingredient that no one can quite put their finger on.” The most important ingredient in South Carolina barbecue sauce isn’t ketchup. It’s mustard. “We are known for mustard sauce, but each region has tweaked it to its own liking,” Tiger O’Rourke, owner of Greenville’s most popular smokehouse, told TODAY. “For example, in the Upstate, there is more vinegar in the sauce.” The most important thing, however, is that the sauce isn’t too intense. “Barbecue sauce should accent the taste of the meat, not overpower it.”
St. Louis: Pork's sweet little friend
St. Louis, Missouri native Jason Ganahl grew up on this style of tomato-based barbecue sauce, which is often likened to a less sweet Kansas City sauce. The cxecutive chef at GQue BBQ in Denver told TODAY that he never includes liquid smoke in his St. Louis sauce, but always adds Maull’s — an iconic sauce beloved by Missourians for more than 100 years. (St. Louis is said to consume more barbecue sauce than any other city.) He also recommended adding a little apple cider vinegar to introduce some sweetness and extra tang. “But not too much," he cautioned. "You don’t want an acidic, vinegary sauce.” So, what meat does it pair well with? The answer is always pork. Ganahl brushes it on pork ribs and pork steaks during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Memphis: Tangy and tomatoey
John Vergos was born in 1948, the year his father opened Rendezvous, the Memphis alley institution Southern Living credited with creating an entirely new barbecue category. "Our distinctively Memphis-style barbecue sauce is a tomato, mustard and vinegar-based sauce that is not too sweet," said Vergos, who is now a co-owner of the restaurant. Chefs at Rendezvous cook chicken with the sauce so it has a chance to caramelize. They baste ribs with a mixture of the sauce, vinegar, water and extra seasoning as they cook. For shoulder and brisket, they apply the sauce after the meat is fully cooked. Finally, for all dishes, they heat the sauce and serve it on the side. Said Vergos, "Memphis-style barbecue sauce is a perfect complement to any smoked or grilled meat or veggies."
Want to see how the sauces really stack up? Check out this handy primer on America's top barbecue sauces!