The Sauce Question
What’s the best barbecue sauce? It depends on where you live
Barbecue may be synonymous with smoked meat, but the vast majority of barbecue sandwiches afford almost equal significance to sauce. There are as many barbecue sauce variations as there are hairs on a pig’s hide, but nearly all of them can be grouped into five primary categories by their base condiments: mustard, ketchup, ketchup-vinegar, vinegar, and mayonnaise. (The absence of sauce is so critical to certain barbecue traditions that it merits a separate discussion.) Sauces are associated with particular regions of the South, and allegiances run fierce. Here, a guide to the leading styles:
For barbecue novices, heavy tomato sauce is barbecue sauce, thanks to the marketing efforts of food conglomerates, which have stocked the nation’s groceries with bottles of thick reddish-brown sauces. But homemade versions predominate in the Delta, and particularly around Memphis, where pulled pork sandwiches as well as ribs and spaghetti are soaked with sweet acidic sauces made from ketchup, cider vinegar, and brown sugar or molasses.
Perhaps the most geographically limited of all the major sauce styles, white sauce sounds like a practical joke to those who haven’t eaten barbecue in northern Alabama. It’s sometimes thick, sometimes thin, sometimes ivory, and sometimes as white as a fresh sheet of paper, but it’s always made with mayonnaise. Legendary pit master Big Bob Gibson developed the vinegary sauce back in 1925 to complement his chicken, but it’s now paired with all kinds of smoked meats.
North Carolinians love to squabble about politics and college basketball, but sauce talk can get especially heated. Eaters in eastern North Carolina believe adding ketchup to a vinegar sauce is heretical. Proponents of Lexington-style barbecue believe otherwise. Light tomato sauces, also served in Georgia and South Carolina, became popular around the turn of the last century, when bottled ketchup emerged as the nation’s top condiment. Don’t tell an eastern North Carolinian, but the ketchup’s sweetness counterbalances the acridity of strong smoke.
South Carolina’s colonial governors urged Germans to settle in their territory, believing they’d bring stability and sophisticated farming techniques to the frontier. But immigrants also brought their love of mustard, and the golden sauce served in the state’s midsection pays tribute to a heritage of plates piled high with pork sausages. Made with mustard, vinegar, sugar, and hot sauce or cayenne, it’s typically tangy and subtly sweet.
Vinegar-pepper sauce is the fountain pen of the sauce cabinet: simple, elegant, and pedigreed. A throwback to the earliest days of barbecue, when coastal settlers dressed their smoked hogs with homely blends of vinegar and hot red peppers, this thin, tart sauce still reigns in the eastern Carolinas and western Kentucky. Sauces have become flashier since vinegar-pepper served as the nation’s standard, but acolytes would argue they haven’t gotten any better.