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How to make your own barbecue sauce — from mustardy to molasses-y

A great barbecue sauce will keep your meat moist, give it a ton of flavor and add variety to your meal.
These barbecue sauce recipes will take your taste buds from Kansas City to Korea.
These barbecue sauce recipes will take your taste buds from Kansas City to Korea.TODAY Illustration / Ali Rosen

Summertime is synonymous with barbecue — and whether you’ve got a smoker in your backyard or you’re just getting started, there is nothing that gets a group more excited than some well-executed meat.

But we can’t all be pitmasters, so sometimes the sauce has got to do the heavy lifting for us. Barbecue techniques can work with most cuts of meat — from classic pork or brisket to chicken or even vegetables. Some barbecue aficionados rely on a rub for the actual cooking, but no matter what, you’re going to want a sauce to go along at some point. And a great barbecue sauce should be celebrated because it will keep your meat moist, give it a ton of flavor and add variety to your meal.

The first thing to do is to choose your sauce (or sauces). You can certainly go to your grocery store and purchase a barbecue sauce, but it is among the most simple items to make — and customize — at home. Americans love their regional cuisine and barbecue is the ultimate test of preferences. Across the South, from the Carolinas to Kentucky, you’ll find completely different takes on this complex thing called "barbecue sauce." It often starts with ketchup and vinegar and can expand to include items as disparate as mustard, molasses and mayonnaise. You can keep it classically Southern or even take inspiration from outside the U.S., all the way to Korea.

The best part about barbecue sauce is that it's incredibly versatile — hence why we see so many variations. Mix and match ingredients to find what you like. The key is to combine ingredients and cook it down until it gets to the texture you like (other than vinegar and white sauce, because neither needs to be cooked). It’s as simple as that. What is not simple is deciding which one to go with, because they're all so good in their own unique ways.

Here are few of our favorites:

Kansas City Barbecue Sauce

Kansas City-style barbecue sauce from chef Anthony DiBernardo.Swig & Swine

This is most often what people think of when they are imagining a traditional barbecue sauce. It is that sweet and tangy combination with a base ketchup and molasses layer. Slather it on ribs or brisket before you cook it and then save some for basting right before you eat. If you have a crowd, you know everyone will love this classic version.

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 cup yellow mustard
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce (plus more if you want it hotter)

Combine all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce is your desired consistency.

North Carolina Vinegar Barbecue Sauce

Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce from chef Jennifer Hill Booker.Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

If you want a brief conversation, do not start talking to North Carolinians about their barbecue sauces — North Carolinians believe they started American barbecue and you can find recipes dating back hundreds of years. Every part of the state has their own take, but it is divided at its most basic by tomato and vinegar. Because so many of these other sauces use tomatoes, we are going to stick with the simplicity of the vinegar-style variation. It is a combination of vinegar and spices, and it is the perfect coating to douse your meat in before cooking and then keep sprinkling on once it is done. This is also the simplest because, without sugar, you don’t even need to cook it (but if you want it a little sweeter or thicker, you certainly can throw some brown sugar in and/or boil it to a thicker consistency).

  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Whisk all ingredients together and let sit until ready to use, preferably at least a few hours.

South Carolina Mustard Barbecue Sauce

South Carolina barbecue sauce from Henry's Smokehouse.Tiger O'Rourke/Henry's Smokehouse

South Carolinians also like to claim the mantle of originating Southern barbecue. But instead of a vinegar-versus-tomato debate, theirs throws in mustard. Yellow mustard shifts the tang from solely being vinegar-based and adds a bit of ketchup in just to make everyone happy. It’s a stronger and less sweet flavor than some other sauces, but it does particularly well on tougher cuts of meat that might otherwise need something to kick it up a notch.

  • 1 cup yellow mustard
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce is your desired consistency.

Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

Chicken dipped in Alabama white barbecue sauce from pitmaster Chris Lilly.Kingsford Spokesperson, World Championship Pitmaster Chris Lilly

Alabama is known for its white sauce — a mayonnaise-based delight spiced up with everything from horseradish to vinegar to mustard. It works particularly well on lighter meats like chicken and it’s sugar-free for anyone looking to avoid added sugar. You can add it to your meat before cooking — the mayonnaise helps retain moisture — or you can use it as a sauce to slather on at the end.

  • 2 cups mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1/4 cup horseradish
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Whisk all ingredients together and let sit until ready to use, preferably at least a few hours.

Korean Barbecue Sauce

Korean barbecue short-rib (galbi) lettuce wraps from chef Judy Joo.Jean Cazals / Korean Food Made Simple

If anyone loves barbecue as much as Americans, it’s Koreans. And Korean barbecue has been slowly making its case across the U.S. for years now, becoming a favorite of meat-lovers everywhere. Swapping soy sauce for cider vinegar, Korean barbecue sauce is a flavor game-changer while still keeping that classic umami on our favorite meats.

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon gochujang
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger

Combine all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce is your desired consistency.