What’s in Your Barbecue Sauce? – The Bases That Make Region Barbecue Sauce Styles

Martin SmazenkoSauce IdeasLeave a Comment


What makes American barbecue so great is that there is no right style that is more delicious than the rest, no matter what the fierce debaters say. Each region of the United States has their own distinct barbecue style, and like the mother sauces of French cuisine in which serve as the base for all other sauces, there are a few key ingredients that serve as the base for some of the best regional barbecue sauces.

Whether you are looking to create your own distinct sauce or simply want to know more about what is in your favorite barbecue sauces, it all starts with these bases.


Vinegar is considered one of the oldest sauces used for barbecue, originally used to baste the meat while it was cooking to infuse flavor. Today, while many sauces include vinegar, particularly in Carolina barbecue where they love tangy sauce, many sauces combine vinegar with dried red pepper flakes as more of a meat dip than a sauce. For those looking to add a little complexity and sweetness with this barbecue base should mix in a little tomato paste or ketchup.


Tomato and Vinegar

Vinegar when combined with a tomato base has become the standard base used for American barbecue sauces. Memphis and St. Louis styles of barbecue are big fans of this sweet sauce that is tempered by the tanginess of the vinegar. Packed with flavor, this style of barbecue sauce should be a little runny so you can sop it up with some good meat.

Tomato and Sugar

Now this is a barbecue sauce base that it is likely you grew up with. Almost all the store-brought giants – Heinz, K.C. Masterpiece, Sweet Baby Rays – use a base of tomato and lots of sugar, be it brown sugar or thick molasses. This particular barbecue base comes from Kansas City, but don’t let those factory-made sauces put any ideas in your head about what in-house Kansas City sauces taste like. This sauce base is good for a sweet, thick sauce, but it also needs a meat with sturdy flavor, too, so as to not be overwhelmed.


Mustard is the base of choice for South Carolina style barbecue. The rich tangy sauce is used in turn with vinegar and other seasonings to create a tangier sauce that seeps into the meat and provides an edgier flavor than other tomato bases. However, because of its intense flavor, mustard-based sauced are best used sparingly so as to not overwhelm the natural sweetness of its pork barbecue pairing.

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