The U.S. has a wide variety of different barbecue sauces. In trying to research the various regional styles of barbecue sauce, I’ve come up with a pretty decent list of the various regional types that have slowly melded and morphed over time. I’ve noticed during my research that there are some contradictions and a lot of blending that has happened. For example, I was initially interested in trying to determine the true differences between Kansas City barbecue sauces and Memphis barbecue sauces. Well, after exhaustive research, it’s hard to be 100% sure as there are as many barbecue sauces and variations as there are people who like BBQ sauce. However, this is what I’ve come up with so far and I’m sure there’s probably an entire book in not only regional but variations by city and specific influential restaurants and companies that have produced barbecue sauces over the years.
East Carolina Sauce
Most American barbecue sauces can trace their roots to the two sauces common in North Carolina. The simplest and the earliest were popularized by African slaves who also advanced the development of American barbecue. They were made with vinegar, ground black pepper, and hot chile pepper flakes. It is used as a “mopping” sauce to baste the meat while it was cooking and as a dipping sauce when it is served. Thin and sharp, it penetrates the meat and cuts the fats in the mouth. There is little or no sugar in this sauce. Here’s a link to a Basic Mustard Barbecue Sauce Recipe.
(a.k.a. Western Carolina Dip or Piedmont Dip) – In Lexington, and in the “Piedmont” hilly areas of western North Carolina the sauce is often called a dip. It is a lot like the East Carolina Sauce (above) with tomato paste, tomato sauce, or ketchup added. The tomato softens the vinegar. Lexington Dip is still thin, never thick like a Kansas City style sauce.
Kansas City style barbecue sauce
Thick, reddish-brown, tomato or ketchup-based with molasses and/or other sugars, vinegar, and spices. Evolved from the Lexington Dip (above), it is significantly different in that it is thick and sweet and does not penetrate the meat as much as sit on the surface. This is the most common and popular sauce in the US and all other tomato-based sauces are variations on the theme using more or less of the main ingredients. For example, barbecue sauces in Memphis are made from the same ingredients but tend to have a larger percentage of vinegar so they cannot really be called a regional sauce, just a variant of the Kansas City sauce. Some popular brands are KC Masterpiece, Sweet Baby Ray’s, Kraft, Hunt’s.
Memphis barbecue sauce
Memphis barbecue sauce has its own distinctive flavor, as well. Though the specific ingredients will vary from cook to cook, Memphis sauce is usually made with tomatoes, vinegar, and any countless combination of spices. It is generally thin, tangy, and somewhat sweet. Memphis sauce is poured over pulled pork or served alongside of dry ribs. Memphis style seems to be a thinner and not as sweet version of Kansas City style sauces.
South Carolina Mustard Sauce
Part of South Carolina is known for its yellow barbecue sauces made primarily of yellow mustard, vinegar, sugar, and spices. This sauce is most common in a belt from Columbia to Charleston, an area settled by many Germans. Vinegar based sauces with black pepper are common in the coastal plains region as in North Carolina, and thin tomato and vinegar-based sauces are common in the hilly regions as in North Carolina.
Texas barbecue sauce
In some of the older more traditional restaurants, the sauces are heavily seasoned with cumin, chile peppers, bell peppers, chili powder or ancho powder, lots of black pepper, fresh onion, only a touch of tomato, little or no sugar, and they often contain meat drippings and smoke flavor because meats are dipped into them. They are medium thick and often resemble a thin tomato soup. They penetrate the meat easily rather than sit on top. Bottled barbecue sauces from Texas are often different from those used in the same restaurants because they do not contain meat drippings.
Alabama barbecue sauce
A white barbecue sauce known as Alabama Barbecue Sauce evolved out of Alabama and has enough variation now it might be considered a small or minor regional style. It is a very simple Mayonnaise based sauce vs. the more traditional tomato and mustard-based sauces. I have several variations of this listed in this website. Here is the link to the basic Alabama White Barbecue Sauce Recipe.
By no means is this the definitive list of regional barbecue sauces. There’s plenty more across the country such as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nevada and other states that have some variations of other regions and are beginning their own regional traditions to some extent. However, this is a reasonable attempt to list the major well-known regions and their slight differences.