In the 19th century, the French declared the mother sauces. Bechamel, veloute, espagnole, tomate, and hollandaise all became the bases for other sauces in classical French cuisine. Barbecue sauce is sort of the same deal. Key ingredients such as vinegar, tomato and mustard have all come to define regional barbecue in the United States.
While sauce on its own is never enough to save bad barbecue, it can perfectly complement the flavors of good barbecue, giving it an identity and elevating it to greatness.
So, what are the "mother sauces" of barbecue?
Basting Liquid: Barbecue's First Sauce
During the 19th century, when barbecue took root across the nation as a culinary tradition, cooks basted their meats with some mixture of butter, salt, pepper and vinegar. Some cooks even relied on a combination as simple as water, salt, and pepper, mainly to add a bit of moisture and secondary flavor to their smoked meats.
Texan smokehouses like Cooper's have held onto this basting tradition longest, using meat drippings as a base and spiking recipes with a range of ingredients like ancho, chipotle, garlic, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce.
Vinegar sauce, the first evolution from barbecue basting liquid, remains barbecue's most basic condiment. At a minimum, it is limited to white or cider vinegar and dried red pepper flakes, producing a tangy, spicy baste meant to cut through the smoke and fat of traditional barbecue.
Over time, pit masters have adapted vinegar-and-pepper sauces to their own ends. Lexington-style barbecue adds a bit of tomato paste or ketchup to thicken and sweeten its vinegar-based "dip." Pit masters who love a good kick with their 'cue tip the balance in favor of red pepper.
Vinegar sauce is best served with whole hog and pork shoulder, especially the good stuff from the Carolinas. The sweetness and smokiness of pork barbecue is complemented perfectly by vinegar's acidic tang, and the subtleties of the meat won't be buried by this sauce's thin consistency.
Tomato and Vinegar
Tomato-based barbecue sauce became the new standard of American barbecue in the mid-20th century, but this sauce tempers sweeter tones with the bite of vinegar. Most prominent in Memphis and St. Louis but also all over the country, tomato and vinegar sauces have a runny consistency, sweet-and-sour flavor, and often include a kick of pepper.
Tomato and vinegar barbecue sauce is the perfect partner for a rack of pork ribs, a basket of rib tips, or a chopped shoulder sandwich. It's especially great with barbecue that's developed a smoky, substantial bark, since the more subtle flavors of pulled pork or whole hog can be obscured by the lingering sweetness of tomato-based sauces.
Tomato and Sugar
Thanks to Heinz, K.C. Masterpiece, and the other bottled sauce brands that many Americans have grown up with, tomato-and-sugar sauces (or just "heavy tomato" are by far the most recognized style in the country. Those nationally distributed, factory-made sauces have taken on a (not exactly recommendable) life of their own, but they don't faithfully represent the sauces actually served in Kansas City smoke joints.
Whereas vinegar-based sauces are essentially refined basting liquids, heavy tomato sauce can be just as much an attraction as the barbecue it coats. The impact is mostly in flavor; these tend to be prepared with sweeteners like molasses or brown sugar, with inflections of vinegar, pepper, and other ingredients as the cook sees fit.
For this same reason, heavy tomato sauce can also compromise good barbecue by overwhelming the palate. The best way to approach one of these sauces is to ask for it on the side and apply as you like it. Its best use is on equally hefty Kansas City classics, like a meaty rack of spare ribs, slices of smoked beef brisket, or a plate of smoky, fatty burnt ends.
Mustard-based barbecue sauce dominates South Carolina's "Mustard Belt," where whole hog is pit-smoked, chopped, and sauced with this intense concoction of yellow mustard, vinegar, and seasonings. At its best, a rich, tangy mustard sauce complements sweet, smoky pulled pork or whole hog in a way that's much edgier than its tomato-based cousin.
And like heavy tomato sauce, mustard sauce is best served on the side. Too much "Carolina gold" can turn the best barbecue into an acrid, sour glop.
Mayonnaise (AKA "White Sauce")
Made famous by Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama, white barbecue sauce is made from mayonnaise, vinegar, and lemon juice, and boosted by black pepper. The consistency ranges from a thick dressing to a thin drizzle. Like mustard sauce, this style hasn't become a household name, but the blend of creamy, tangy and peppery flavors has cemented its status as a regional signature.
White barbecue sauce is an excellent match for pulled pork, or a great baste for smoked chicken. In Decatur, whole birds are dunked into vats of white sauce, allowing it to drench the exterior and sink into the meat.
Barbecue Brothers From Another Mother Sauce?
Barbecue's popularity, especially when it comes to competition cooking, has led to the development of signature sauces. Fruit, smoked peppers, maple syrup, and all other manners of flavor put a new spin on classic styles.
If you're looking to put your own spin on barbecue sauce, then stay tuned! SE Barbecue Bureau member and Grilling columnist Josh Bousel will be exploring regional barbecue sauces in his column, Sauced. He'll also include tips on how to give your 'cue the perfect finishing touch.
Barbecue Sauce Recipes
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.