What good is a guide to American barbecue sauce styles if you can't actually try any of those sauces?
Thankfully, most regional styles of barbecue sauce are available via mail order. But even if shipping and handling fees are cheaper than airfare across the country, is this option really worth the cost?
If you're one to argue that that barbecue is not defined by sauce alone (and I am), then perhaps not. Many of the country's best barbecue sauces are inseparable from the local barbecue they adorn, and many more aren't even available in a shelf-stable form. Still, if you've never tried northern Alabama white sauce or want to see what the most infamous mustard sauce in South Carolina is all about, mail-order is the easiest way to get sauced.
Here's a handful of options for the armchair baster:
Perhaps the most direct way to get a taste of basic vinegar sauces is through the North Carolina Barbecue Company, a delivery business with a basic Eastern Carolina vinegar and pepper sauce and a basic Lexington-style vinegar and pepper sauce.
Scott's of Goldsboro: Scott's of Goldsboro (not to be confused with Scott's of Hemingway) delivers its classic Eastern Carolina sauce nationwide. Renowned for its intense punch of cayenne, it's not for the faint of heart. The extremely thin body and strong vinegar flavor makes this one a tough match for anything but pork shoulder, but it's an unfiltered taste of barbecue history. Order here.
Bone Suckin' Sauce: This isn't a traditional Lexington-style sauce, but it's a nice twist on the western North Carolina style, lacing its vinegar, tomato and pepper trio with mustard, horseradish and chopped garlic. Those who enjoy sweeter sauces will dig this one over a bare-bones formula like Scott's. Available at select grocery stores, or order here.
Bessinger's: Carolina Gold is sweeter than most sauces (notice a trend here?) in the Mustard Belt of South Carolina.
If you're OK with that, this is one for the history books, with its own controversial boycott to boot. Order here.
White Barbecue Sauce
Big Bob Gibson: BBG's award-winning white sauce is the standard for this creamier style, and pit master Chris Lilly wastes no energy in spreading that reputation. While it looks like Ranch dressing, this sauce pours relatively thin. Tangy flavors of lemon juice and vinegar are accompanied by a mild kick from black pepper, and the sauce is just creamy enough to create a sense of richness. Order here.
The Bar-B-Q Shop: This sauce from Memphis is one of my favorite spicy barbecue sauces. Bottled and distributed under the name Dancing Pigs, it has a blunt one-two punch of sweet and tangy, with a powerful wave of spices behind it.
Rendezvous can be a polarizing sauce among 'cue enthusiasts, but there's no denying that the name rings out in the world of ribs. So do its seasonings: The Rendezvous' dry rub—which is dominated by celery seed, pepper, and paprika but includes a fistful of other spices, including coriander and allspice—is the most famous dry rub in the country. Order here.
Mike Mill's Magic Dust: Not to be outdone is Memphis in May champion Mike Mills' Magic Dust. Vibrant and intense, this rub activates all the taste buds with an intense yet indistinct shock of flavors if eaten dry—like MSG without the MSG. If you're looking to get into barbecue rubs this grilling season, this is a great place to start. Order it here.
Kansas City Sauces
Arthur Bryant: Bryant's original recipe is set apart from the rest of Kansas City by its spicy, tangy taste and gritty texture. "Sweet heat" is not the phrase that comes to mind when you pour this sauce onto a rack of ribs. Sweeter and thicker options, however, are available; all three of Bryant's sauces are available online. Order here.
Gates Bar-B-Q: This earned its fame by establishing pit-smoked Memphis barbecue as a fast food competitor. Gates and Son's sauce, while not as distinctive as Bryant's, is just as legendary. It's just as potent, balancing tomato, vinegar, and sugars with a strong peppery kick and the sharpness of celery seed. Order here.
Oklahoma Joe's: The Cowtown Barbecue and spicy "Night of the Living Bar-B-Q" sauces are both fan favorites in Kansas City. Those looking for a standard taste of Kansas City sauce, though, also shouldn't be ashamed of picking up a bottle of K.C. Masterpiece. Order here.
Black's: Almost none of the smokehouses in the Barbecue Belt of central Texas serve sauces with their barbecue, let alone bottle it. But Black's is one exception, having introduced its own brand of sauce to the smokehouse mecca of Lockhart after 50 years of cooking without it. That said, this sauce is hardly necessary, especially if you're interested in recreating the simple, sauce-less barbecue of the region. Order here.
There is, however, plenty of barbecue sauce in the rest of Texas. Houston's Goode Company, Luling's City Market, and The Salt Lick in Driftwood are just a few of the Texas heavyweights that not only serve sauce with their 'cue, but also ship it all over the country.
Greetings From New York!
Dinosaur BBQ: I couldn't put together this roundup without including a shout-out to one my favorite barbecue sauces in the Big Apple. Dinosaur BBQ's Sensuous Slathering Sauce is a bolder, sweeter take on the Memphis style. Almost salsa-like in its use of crushed tomato, onion, garlic, and bell pepper, it adds layers of flavor and goes well with pretty much everything. Purists beware: This is not your granddaddy's barbecue sauce, but if you're down with throwing regional pride out the window once in a while, this is a good bottle to have at your side. Order here.
While I've tried to round up the usual suspects in regional barbecue, the availability of mail-order options doesn't change the fact that barbecue is a local food. The same goes for its sauce, which can always be taken home from the smokehouse itself.
With that in mind, what's your favorite regional barbecue sauce or barbecue sauce recipe? Let us know in the comments, because no bottled sauce can represent an entire region. And as our exhaustive collection of sauce coverage this month has shown, it's probably best to to just make your own.
Full disclosure: Ford's Foods (Bone Suckin' Sauce), Scott's, Big Bob Gibson, Dancing Pigs, Gates, Rendezvous, and 17th Street Barbecue contributed free samples of their sauces and rubs to be photographed and tasted for this story. Furthermore, the connection of Bessinger's of Charleston, whose sauce is featured here as an example of Carolina mustard sauce, to Maurice's BBQ, whose sauce has a history of controversy, has been stricken from this post as a reporting mistake. There has never been a boycott of Bessinger's Carolina Gold; the controversy referenced in the story's original form was directly related to Maurice Bessinger.
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.