United Tastes of America: Regional BBQ Sauces in the USA


Photo via Flickr member galant


What does the term “barbeque sauce” mean to you?

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, “barbeque sauce” most readily meant the brick-colored sauce in a ketchup-like bottle that would be slathered on meat before it was put on the grill. But I’ve grown up and seen a bit of the world since, and I’ve learned that to reduce barbeque sauce, a shelf-stable substance, would be a travesty. Barbeque is more a lifestyle than a food, especially in the American south, and the sauce is its crowning glory.

But as to what barbeque sauce actually is, well, that depends on where you are. Here’s a guide to some of the key regional barbeque sauces in the USA.

Why BBQ sauce?

To understand the sauce, it’s important to know a thing or two about the meat it’s being served with.

The origins of the word “barbeque” are hazy, but according to TIME, there’s a possible European connection: “The conventional wisdom is that the Spanish, upon landing in the Caribbean, used the word barbacoa to refer to the natives’ method of slow-cooking meat over a wooden platform.”

Regardless of where the word came from, the method was widely adopted in the American south by the 1800s. Why so? Theories point to a connection to slavery. The slow cooking technique made barbeque ideal for fully cooking and tenderizing cheaper cuts of meat, so the method was adopted by Southern African Americans. To make the meat yet more appealing to the palate, they would serve it with sauce, as well other staples which would go on to become Southern classics, including okra, collard greens, and sweet potatoes.

After the end of slavery, African Americans moved north and west, and they brought barbeque with them. Regional variations of sauces and barbeque styles began to become established. Barbeque began to be more widely adopted, and today it’s viewed as a classic Southern food.

Basic BBQ sauce components

Most barbeque sauces will boil down to a few key types. While nobody thinks of barbeque as being comparable to French cuisine, the sauces all do seem to boil down to a few key ingredients, much like the “Mother Sauces” of French cuisine.

The key bases of barbeque sauce boil down to a starter that contains one of these humble ingredients: vinegar, pepper, mustard, tomato, or mayonnaise.

Regional BBQ Sauces

As previously mentioned, barbeque has evolved as people have moved to different areas and developed their own styles. There are distinct regional differences in the sauces that are served with barbeque. They typically start with one of the aforementioned ingredients and then are seasoned and thickened in various ways.

Here’s an introduction to some key regional types of barbeque sauce throughout the USA. You’ll notice that most of the recipes are from the southern U.S. states and range only as far as the Midwest; this is still strongly considered the “barbeque belt” of the USA.


Photo via Flickr member Charleston’s The Digitel

South Carolina BBQ Sauce – When most people talk about South Carolina style barbeque sauce, they’re talking about a sauce with a mustard base. While other sauces are easily found in the state, the mustard is unique in that it is rarely seen in such great concentration as in South Carolina (and some parts of NC).

The mustard-heavy sauce probably dates back to a large immigration of German families to the area in the 1700s. Like many other immigrants, they brought a taste of home with them, but had to adapt to the local cuisine and ingredients. So they brought mustard with them, but it evolved into a different type of use. Combined with slow-cooked meat, it adds a wonderfully tangy contrast.


Photo via Flickr member mpwillis

Kansas City BBQ Sauce – This is probably the most widely spread version of barbeque sauce, a thick, flavorful sauce with a tomato base thickened and sweetened, often with molasses,  and a bevy of other sweet, sour, and spicy ingredients. When you see “BBQ flavored” chips or snacks, they’re likely inspired by this type of sauce.

Typically, it’s a large variety of ingredients that give it a unique flavor: it isn’t unheard of to see a Kansas City style bbq sauce recipe boasting over 15 ingredients, such as this recipe which features (among other ingredients) brown sugar, paprika, chili powder, tomato paste, and vinegar. Why so ubiquitous? Probably because it goes with everything. Because of its high sugar content, it’s best used after cooking meat, as it can burn easily over high grilling heat.

Home - Lunch

Photo via Flickr member dongkwan

St. Louis BBQ Sauce – St. Louis barbeque is a bit different from everywhere else, because they use distinct cuts of meat, usually pork, ranging from “snoots”, which come from the nose and cheek area of the beast, to a special cut of spare ribs, which have the sternum bone, cartilage, and tips removed to create a striking, rectangle shaped portion. But there is a famous sauce from the area called Maull’s which is a famous bbq standard of the area, and has inspired a variety of delicious copycat recipes.

You could consider the St. Louis style BBQ sauce to be a cousin to the Kansas City style. Like the Kansas City style, it is tomato based, and it has a variety of unique ingredients. The texture is thinner than the Kansas City style, meaning more can be put on while the meat cooks.


Photo via Flickr member aduthie

Texas BBQ Sauce – Also known as “mop-sauce”, Texas barbeque sauce may be thin in texture, but it’s hearty in flavor, with ingredients such as chili powder, hot sauce, cumin, and it’s not unheard-of to see even coffee grounds. The thin texture allows this style of sauce to soak into the meat as it cooks, giving it a rich, full flavor that isn’t just on the surface.

The reason for their name is colorful: working in large batches in Texas barbeque pits, a brush wouldn’t be big enough to baste the meat with the liquid. So it’s slathered on with a mop (only used for this purpose, I can assume) to cover lots of surface area fast.


Photo via Flickr member fuzzy

Memphis BBQ Sauce – Here is a sauce that has evolved over the years. Traditionally, the emphasis was less on the sauce and more on the meat, so early versions will be as simple as a vinegar and pepper mixture. Throughout the years, though, recipes have evolved, and today, you’ll often find that a Memphis style BBQ sauce contains tomato and/or brown sugar. It retains its identity by maintaining the bite of vinegar, and remains thinner in texture than the Kansas City version.


Photo via Flickr member bhamsandwich

Alabama BBQ Sauce – If you go to Alabama, you’ll notice something different about the sauce before you even taste it: the color. In Alabama, the sauce is white. It’s a mayonnaise-based sauce which is used to marinate, baste, and as a condiment at the table. Alabama seems to be the only place where this white sauce is the rule rather than an exception, and so it’s often referred to as “Alabama BBQ Sauce”, “Alabama White Sauce”, or along similar lines.

Barbeque is less a type of food than a way of life. The regional styles of barbeque sauces can tell us a bit about history, immigration, and the evolution of the southern U.S. Traveling the south and tasting all of the different bbq sauce variations is indeed a taste of America!

What kind of barbeque sauce do you prefer?

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