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The Elements of Barbecue: The Case of Sauce

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[Photographs: Josh Bousel, unless otherwise noted]

If there's any one thing that distinguishes the barbecue style of one region from another, it's the sauce that's used to finish the meat. It's also the single element that barbecue fans argue most passionately about—what ingredients should go in it, whether it should be poured over the meat while its being chopped or pulled or added later at the table, or even whether it should be used at all.

In Eastern North Carolina, they believe in keeping things simple, and most restaurants chop or pull their pork and season it in advance of serving.

"What we put on the pork is done by hand individually as the meat is chopped," says Samuel Jones of the Skylight Inn in Ayden. "We apply salt, pepper, a very small amount of hot sauce, and apple cider vinegar." They don't pre-mix the sauce, just pour each ingredient from its container directly onto the meat and mix it in while they chop. "It enhances the natural flavor of the pork," Jones says.

The way North Carolinians bicker over their state's two styles of sauce, you might think the recipes would be as different as night and day, but they aren't at all. Both start with a base of vinegar and add salt, black pepper, and either red pepper or hot sauce. Once you get west of Raleigh, though, you'll find that pit masters incorporate one additional ingredient: ketchup.

Because of that ketchup, some people call the sauce in the Piedmont region "tomato-based." But as Chip Stamey of Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro, North Carolina, is quick to point out, the real base ingredient is vinegar. "Everyone makes a big deal about ketchup," he says "But it's really a mild thing. [Our sauce has] black pepper, red pepper, a little bit of sugar, and that's it.
"It's a Lexington-style dip," he adds, using the term favored by most folks in the Piedmont when referring to sauce, and it's meant to complement, not alter, the meat's flavor. "Our sauce is just a moistening agent, really," Stamey says.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

As you head west from the Carolinas, sauces get thicker and sweeter. In Tennessee, they usually start off with a whole lot of ketchup and a good bit of sugar, creating a sauce that's sort of sweet and sour. Once you get around Memphis, they tend to dial up the vinegar as well as the spices to create a thin, tangy orange concoction.

Kansas City, Missouri, is known for its distinctive barbecue sauce, too. It's thick and sweet, and it can range from a ruddy orange to a dark brown in color. It's what most Americans picture when they think of barbecue sauce, for it was the model used by the big national brands like Kraft and KC Masterpiece.

Barbecue fans in Kansas City can be very particular about their sauce, and Doug Worgul of Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que (in Kansas City, Kansas) thinks the city's specialty is often mischaracterized.

"The phrase sticky and sweet comes up a lot whenever food writers write about Kansas City barbecue sauce," Worgul says. "Kansas City barbecue sauce is not sticky. It's a little sweeter than other regional barbecue sauces, but that's not the main thing about it. It's a ketchup-based sauce, and it's perhaps a little sweet. But it's not sticky. It's nice and thick."

Ketchup-based is a bit of a misnomer, Worgul adds. "Our sauce is manufactured from scratch by a sauce company in Kansas City. They start with the ingredients that are also used for ketchup [that is, tomato, vinegar, and a sweetener], but they don't start with ketchup."

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Each restaurant in Kansas City makes their sauce a little differently, including what they use to sweeten that tomato and vinegar base. "We use molasses as our sweetener, and our sauce has a nice molasses undertone to it," Worgul says. It also gives their sauce a darker brown complexion than most of the ones you find in the city.

When you get down to Texas, diners tend to be suspicious of pouring on flavor from a bottle. "Most of our patrons think we don't need the sauce," says brisket-master John Lewis of La Barbecue in Austin. "And I'm in agreement with them, too."

Some old-school joints are hard-nosed about this point. "No sauce, no forks," is the slogan at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, and they won't allow the stuff in their doors. But, most restaurants in the Lone Star state have resigned themselves to accommodating their saucy guests.

For those who insist upon it, La Barbecue does provides bottles of two different kinds of sauces (accompanied sometimes by handwritten signs explaining, "It doesn't need it, but if YOU need it . . .") "We call [the first one] tangy sauce," John Lewis says. "That's pretty much for the pulled pork and the turkey. It's a vinegar, ketchup, and mustard-based sauce. The other one is just like a sweet sauce. It's a typical Texas-style sauce: ketchup, kind of sweet, with chili powder and other spices."

The Carolinas, Kansas City, and even Texas may have their own sauce styles, but that's not the case everywhere. "I don't that think Alabama was ever known for one specific style," says Nick Pihakis of Jim 'N Nick's in Birmingham. "You can go to Southeast Alabama and get mustard sauce, you can go to the north and get white sauce. In Birmingham it's more tomato-based."

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Over the years, as Jim 'N Nick's expanded and opened locations in other states, it expanded its sauce lineup, too. "We have our original sauce, which is a tomato sauce," Pihakis says. "It's a little sweet, a little spicy. It's a good neutral sauce for everyone.

"We have a habanero sauce that's hotter than hell. We've got a Carolina vinegar and pepper sauce we do a pork sandwich with. We have a white sauce we put on our turkey and our chicken."

That's right, a white barbecue sauce. It's made with a base of mayonnaise with a touch of vinegar for tanginess and some spices, too. Though it's starting to creep its way into other parts, for many years it was known only in Northern Alabama, and it still freaks out a lot of barbecue enthusiasts the first time they encounter it. (Give it a chance, though. It's absolutely wonderful on barbecued chicken and smoked chicken wings.)

Unlike most regional sauce varieties, which evolved in the early 20th century and don't have any one creator, we know exactly who invented white barbecue sauce: Robert "Big Bob" Gibson, the founder of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama.

"He was doing that sauce in the 1920s," says Chris Lilly, who married Big Bob's great-granddaughter and is the pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson's today. But, not everyone insists on the restaurant's original sauce. "In North Alabama we really like the customer to decide what sauce they like," Lilly says. "We have our vinegar-based sauce, our white sauce, and our championship red sauce. That is for your traditional tomato-based fans. We came up with that sauce, myself and my father-in-law, Don McLemore, in 1997."

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As people move around the country and restaurateurs try to accommodate their different preferences, sauce boundaries are beginning to blur. It's very common to walk into a barbecue restaurant today and see anywhere from three to six plastic squeeze bottles on your table, each with a different kind of sauce in it.

A new generation of barbecue cooks are starting to invent sauce formulas of their own, too, taking the classic regional recipes and adding their own twists. Aaron Siegel, who runs Fiery Ron's Home Team Bar-B-Q in Charleston, South Carolina, is one of them. He was born in Atlanta and got his first exposure to barbecue at places like Sweat's in Soperton, Georgia, so it's only natural that the first sauce he used in his restaurant was a Georgia-style thick tomato-based sauce.

"We started out with the red," Siegel says. "It's a tomato and vinegar sauce, not too sweet, not too tart." Next, they added a fiery vinegar and pepper sauce that's inspired by the Eastern North Carolina Style but made with habaneros and jalapenos. "We steep [the peppers] in cider vinegar, brown sugar, some salt, and some other things," he says. "We heat it up to a simmer and then steep them at low heat."

Of course, local diners have their own sauce preferences. In the Midlands and Lowcountry of South Carolina, the traditional sauce is bright yellow in color, as it's made from a base of prepared yellow mustard sweetened with brown sugar or honey and often studded with generous amounts of black pepper.

"We didn't have a mustard base," Siegel says. "And we were just getting yelled at. I never really liked that sweet mustard stuff. So I said, I'll make a mustard sauce, but I'll make it my way. I take our red sauce recipe and replace the ketchup with three kinds of mustard: yellow, dijon, and whole grain."

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The result is a complex and sophisticated sauce, the bite of the mustard and vinegar balanced by just a subtle sweetness. It bears only a passing resemblance to the bright yellow stuff you find at most joints in the area, but even a traditionalist like me has to admit that it's pretty delicious.

It's hard to say where sauces will head in the future, but odds are the original styles that once defined each region will continue to get blurred, adapted, and enhanced. Indeed, inventive pit masters are already pushing the boundaries with a creative fusion of flavors.

At 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville, North Carolina, they glaze ribs with blueberry chipotle sauce. Southern Belly, a new 'cue joint in Columbia, South Carolina, serves seven different sauces with their pulled pork, including a remoulade infused with Asian spices and a Pacal sauce, which they describe as "an ancient Mayan secret barbacoa blend."

There is one thing we do know for certain, though, amid all this shifting variety: barbecue fans will continue to argue and debate about which sauce is best. Now they just have a lot more choices to argue about.

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