Barbecue Digest: The secret history of BBQ sauce
July 9th, 2012
11:00 AM ET
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Editor's note: All summer long, the Southern Foodways Alliance will be delving deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. Dig in.

If there's one issue that divides barbecue fans more deeply than any other, it's the kind of sauce that should be served on the meat - if, indeed, a sauce is to be served on it at all. Though it inspires passionate argument, the colorful variety of regional sauces - peppery vinegar-based in eastern North Carolina, orange tomato-based in Kansas City, yellow mustard in South Carolina - is actually a rather recent phenomenon.

Regional sauce variations originated in the early 20th century with the rise of barbecue restaurants. Before then, barbecue sauce was pretty much the same from state to state. It was generally not a condiment applied at the table, but rather used to baste the meat just before it was served.

From Virginia to Texas, 19th century accounts of barbecues are remarkably similar in their descriptions of the sauce. In 1882, a reporter from the Baltimore Sun visited a Virginia barbecue and noted male cooks mopping the meat with "a gravy of butter, salt, vinegar, and black pepper." A guest at a San Antonio barbecue in 1883 recorded the sauce as, "Butter, with a mixture of pepper, salt, and vinegar." In 1884, the Telegraph and Messenger of Macon, Georgia, described the sauce of noted barbecue cook Berry Eubanks of Columbus as, "made of homemade butter, seasoned with red pepper from the garden and apple vinegar."

Similar descriptions can be found of sauces in Kentucky and the Carolinas, too. Sweeteners - be they brown sugar, molasses, or honey - were notably absent from any 19th-century formulas.

Based on these descriptions, could one conclude that the eastern North Carolina–style sauce - which consists of vinegar, salt, black and red peppers, and not a trace of sugar - is the closest to the original? I'll let readers decide for themselves; that's not an argument I want to get in the middle of.

Today's installment comes courtesy of Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and author of "Barbecue: the History of an American Institution". Follow him on Twitter at @mossr.

Delve into more barbecue goodness from the Southern Foodways Alliance blog

Previously - A fraternal bond in Texas barbecue

soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. films

    I think this is among the such a lot significant information for me. And i am happy reading your article. But wanna statement on some general issues, The web site style is ideal, the articles is truly nice : D. Good job, cheers

    July 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  2. Carn E. Vore

    My homemade sauce starts with some Newcastle Brown Ale – one for the cook and one for the sauce.

    July 11, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  3. md22mdrx

    More people need to experiment with fenugreek powder in things like BBQ where you're doing sauces or cooking at low heat (you do NOT want to burn fenugreek).

    July 10, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  4. md22mdrx

    BBQ is the OLDEST form of cooking .... no one "invented it" as far as we know. It goes back to when man invented fire.

    July 10, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  5. Low N Slow

    It's allll good, baby! BBQ is fun to cook and ever better to eat. Like man have posted, different situations call for different sauces or rubs.

    July 10, 2012 at 4:15 am |
  6. mmi16

    If the Jews & Muslims would sit down with with a feast of Pork Bar-b-que and some cold brews all the Mid-East hostilities would come to a end.

    Pork Fat Rules!

    July 10, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • VladT

      As someone raised Jewish, I find this offensive. However, after reading the recipes, this talking point is hard to debunk. Yum, BBQ.

      July 10, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • David Hoffman

      The idea can be used with goat, beef, or lamb of which Jews and Muslims can eat. Instead of beer, you would use the finest teas and coffees of the world.

      July 10, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Wastrel

      I doubt it very much. The dietary laws are about the only thing they agree on - so violating these laws would bring them together? Are you trolling, trying to be funny and failing, or just plain lacking in understanding?

      July 10, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • SillyAss

      Unfortunately, I don't think even that would work, but the impending Apocalypse would be yummy. Good idea, sir!

      July 10, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  7. Roger Richard

    Dry Rub... Sauce is separate, after cooking, apply and douse as the eater sees fit! I want to taste the meat, not drown it in sugar and vinegar.....

    July 10, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • Ryan in Texas

      That is generally Texas style – with the sauce on the side (if at all). If you get the meat and the spices right – there is no need for sauce. Of course plenty of places can't get those right – so they NEED sauce to help out. And everyone likes to take a break from whatever they normally have – so a variety of styles is really what many here do. Some like the really thick tomato based sauce. I like the thinner vinegar/tomato/spicy pepper based sauce sometimes. My wife likes the sweetness of most commercially made sauces. I think they are too sweet, but that's just me.

      July 10, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  8. bobby


    July 9, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  9. The_Mick

    I adapted a "Missouri BBQ Sauce" – basically by cutting the sugar in half – and ended up with a great rib or pork chop or chicken sauce everyone who's tasted it likes: this is generous for each 2 lb meat: 4 tbsp ketchup, 2 tbsp brown sugar, 1.5 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce, 1.5 tbsp vinegar, 2/3 tbsp dry Italian Seasoning, 2/3 tbsp minced garlic (or 1/3 tbsp garlic powder), and as much cayenne pepper as you like. Personally, I don't like spicy-hot food, so I use about a pea-sized amount of ground cayenne (red) pepper. Mix thoroughly (all sugar will dissolve). Apply some of the sauce to meat the last 5-7 minutes you're grilling or baking it, just a minute or two if you're broiling. Set the rest out in a bowl so others can add more to their plate later.

    I'm still looking for a great dry rub recipe without loads of sugar. The red stuff coating the special chicken or pork chops, etc. in the stores is excellent, but they come to the store in bags that aren't marked with all their spices (at least at the Shoppers and ShopRite near me whose butchers tried to help me out.

    Two rubs from America's Test Kitchen (great cooking show on PBS) I haven't tried yet but look very promising: Spice Rub (for four 8-10 oz bone-in pork chops): 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 2 teaspoons ground coriander, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper. And from their Season 8 show on the subject, their KC BBQ rub recipe for two racks of spareribs is: 3 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, 1 tablespoon ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon table salt, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

    An interesting complex rub that's a something in the chili family is: 2-4 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 2 tablespoons chili powder, 2 tablespoons salt, 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, pinch cayenne, 4 tablespoons paprika.

    July 9, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  10. Kip

    Coffee makes an interesting addition to a BBQ sauce.......try it sometime

    July 9, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  11. JoeSchmoo

    I prefer a Caribbean jerk

    July 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  12. SEkelund

    The origin of the barbecue is the Spanish Barbacoa, the cooking of pig meat in a pit having hot stones in the bottom and on top, covered with dirt and cooked for hours.
    The Spanish Barbacoa came into the American content via the Caribean and Mexico, the sauces incorporated american spices such as chiles, tomatoes, etc.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • ribguy

      Actually, the Spanish took the word from Caribbean Indians. They cooked mostly fish, lizards, snalkes, and small animals. The history of the word and barbecue can be found here:

      July 11, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  13. OBAMA

    I will tax all your BBQ idiots so much that you won't be able to afford BBQ, unless you buy it with Foodstamps that I am preparing to print trillions of. These foodstamps will only work on Soylent Green products.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Feank F Moore

      What an a-hole! Only a first class douchebag would find a way to turn an article about barbecue sauce into some whiney, pubescent political rant. Get a like, Republitard!

      July 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Big Larry

      You sir a a buffoon or is it baboon,either way you are way off topic.

      July 9, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • damo12345

      So this is what passes for Conservative humor?

      July 9, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      When Gov't regulates or taxes everything, no subject is not political. Hence why so many of us want Gov't out of our lives. Recent food related Gov't bans, such as soda size and happy meals, means BBQ may soon also be regulated, banned or taxed.
      Not in Texas, but I could easily imagine a town in California or NY attacking it on health grounds.

      July 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  14. MBob

    I like all styles, with sauce, without...dry rubs, wet and dripping with sauce. I don't care, if it tastes good I'll eat it.

    I really love when people feed me, trying their hardest to convince me 'their' style is the best, I have to try it and try it over and over again, but I like to make an informed decision. =)

    July 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  15. Ron

    Gates Sauce on everything.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  16. Fredrick

    BBQ sauce was invented by blacks.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Rick

      What's your point, Sparky?

      July 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • LarrySellers

      you were invented by a moron and a woman who settled for it.

      July 9, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • ribguy

      Actually, the first record of a barbecue sauce may have been in Mississippi when native Americans and DeSoto had a barbecue of venison and turkey with vinegar and chiles. For the history of BBQ SAuce go here

      July 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  17. Don Sparks

    This story is just a bunch of Hogwash!

    July 9, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  18. Brian Christoferson

    Homemade Huckleberry BBQ sauce rules when it comes to ribs.

    Boil 2 cups Huckleberries (or blueberries would probably work, too) wth 1 cup honey. Add sauce in blender with (2) 18 ounce KC Style BBQ sauce (or your favorite sauce).

    I live in Washington State so I use applewood to smoke the ribs. Cook the ribs your way, but add the "Huck-You BBQ" sauce the last 10 minutes before removing them from the grill. I learned to BBQ in KC, but this is a great NW variation.

    July 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  19. L

    Worchestershire-based; but thats as much of the secret as I'll give away.

    July 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  20. Wayne's World

    Do you has da cream of sum yun gai?

    July 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm |

      You mean cream of some hung guy(gay)

      July 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  21. friendlyphil

    I've eaten BBQ everywhere. The best sauce I've had is from McClard's in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Not the best BBQ, but the best sauce.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  22. Carolina Boy

    Good BBQ doesn't need sauce. Rub it and cook it ow and slow. The sauce should only be used as a side to enhance the succulent meat if you want a slightly different flavor.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  23. guitaremh

    It depends on what type of meat I'm cooking and what I'm going for. If I'm going for a full sweet-ish result then I'll use a sauce/rub/marinade that gives me those flavors. If I want something more traditional then I will go in that direction. Sometimes I'll even go with a no-sauce flavor... Put said meat in my smoker for however long is needed and enjoy.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  24. pearly1

    youtube Rhett and Link's 'The BBQ Song'. Everyone knows Lexington (eastern) style from NC is best, though I may be biased

    July 9, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Wolfpack Fan

      I think you are confused. Lexington is known for the western NC tomato based pork shoulder barbeque. Eastern NC style barbeque is generally whole hog and the sauce is vinegar based. I like the Eastern style but I know I'm biased.

      July 9, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  25. Cast Iron Chef

    I answered based on what I usually BBQ- brisket. A good BBQ brisket needs no sauce, no rub, no NUTTIN, just a good slow smoke, say 12-14 hours at about 200 to 210. With pork, I like a vinegar/tomato sauce. And I don't do chickens!

    July 9, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Wastrel

      Chickens don't need anything but paprika. You can't cook a bird like beef or pork, though - it's done in a couple of hours, and after that it gets dry and tough. That said, a great and seldom used meat is cabrito, a.k.a. goat. Only BBQ'ing it (your way, for hours) can make it tender.

      July 10, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  26. dug

    They do'nt make barbecue anywhere else besides Kansas City or ST. Louis...anything else is like buying Picante Sauce in NEW YORK CITY? Arthur Bryants/Quicks pwns any pseudo nasty Tobasco/Vinegar/Mustard crap in the world.

    July 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Burp

      KC BBQ is okay, but Georgia pit-cooked is the best. Especially if it's wild hog from the mountains. We stay up all night slow cooking that pig til it's just right. No, I ain't gonna give you my sauce recipe!

      July 10, 2012 at 7:15 am |
  27. JMK

    Notice there aren't many people racing to share their secret recipes on here?

    July 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Steve Giles

      In the south that secret is guarded more closely than grandma's affair.

      July 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫


        July 9, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • md22mdrx

      BBQ recipes have about 30 ingredients .... and they're generally kept secret.
      One of my secrets of MY rub is espresso powder. Fenugreek can also be added to heighten the sweet flavor and keep that BBQ smell on your fingers ALLL day long!!

      July 10, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  28. CookFromHell

    It all depends on the meat. For pork I prefer a dry rub for cooking and a mustard base sauce on the side for eating. On beef I like a sweet tomato sauce, and on chicken a honey sauce.

    July 9, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
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