In Canada, barbecuing is something we do on the back deck when it’s warm outside, and barbecue sauce is that stuff we pick up at the supermarket next to the ketchup. It’s a pretty straightforward way of cooking, right?
Not so south of the border. For many Americans, barbecue is more than an excuse to wear a bib and eat with your fingers: it’s cultural, steeped in history and, for many, a subject for heated debate. Variations in cuts of meat, methods of cooking and, perhaps most obviously, types of sauce, vary wildly from region to region, and are matters of fierce local pride. Vinegar or ketchup-based? White or red? Sauce or dry rub? The possibilities are endless.
One thing barbecue fans to the south of us know, though, is that there’s no substitute for homemade barbecue sauce—commercial bottles might come close, but a really good sauce is made from scratch.
Let’s learn a little from our neighbours to the south and expand our repertoire beyond the thick, sweet bottled stuff that tends to be our default for barbecued stuff up here. Ever try mustard in your sauce? Read on and find out why folks in South Carolina wouldn’t dream of eating barbecue without it.
Kansas City sweet sauce
If you’ve had commercial barbecue sauce, you’ve had something that approximates Kansas City-style sauce—it’s thick, made sweet with ketchup and brown sugar, spicy with garlic and cayenne, and tart with a hint of vinegar. Unlike the bottled stuff, though, made-from-scratch KC sauce is subtle and flavour-filled, not cloyingly sweet. This type of sweet sauce burns easily, and isn’t meant to soak into the meat. Instead, brush it on during the last ten minutes of cooking to caramelize it, then serve some on the side for dipping. (Kansas City barbecue fans will point out that an important exception to the thick-sweet sauce rule is Arthur Bryant’s original barbecue sauce, which isn’t sweet at all but is still wildly popular.)
South Carolina mustard sauce
German immigrants to the eastern part of South Carolina brought with them a fondness for smoked pork and mustard, so the barbecue cuisine of the state incorporates both. South Carolina’s distinctive mustard-based sauce — which incorporates yellow mustard, vinegar, spices and sugar — is probably unfamiliar to a lot of Canadian grill-heads, but worth a try, especially on a pork shoulder cooked low and slow, served on a bun in delicious shards topped with coleslaw.
North Carolina dip
In North Carolina, barbecue sauce is meant to penetrate the meat while it’s cooking, so it’s thinner and less sweet than Kansas City-style sauce. Based on vinegar, sugar, and hot pepper flakes, it’s often augmented with a hint of tomato sauce or ketchup (although this is a matter of much debate). Pitmasters baste their meat once per hour, then serve a bowl of sauce on the side of the finished meat for dipping.
Alabama white sauce
This specialty of Northern Alabama doesn’t look like any kind of traditional barbecue sauce—mostly because it’s made with mayonnaise, which makes it white and creamy. Combined with vinegar, lemon juice, sugar, and seasoning, white barbecue sauce isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s worth a try if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to serve at your next summer barbecue. Experts say it’s not great on beef or pork, but works well on chicken. Paint it on just before serving, and see what you think.
In Texas, the name of the barbecue game is brisket, brisket, brisket (although lots of other meat gets barbecued as well). True to the Mexican influence in the southern parts of the state, Texas barbecue sauce tends to be thinned with vinegar and worcestershire sauce—making it good for mopping on a slow-cooking brisket—combined with tomato sauce and brown sugar and made spicy with the addition of jalapeno peppers and ancho chili powder. Some of the best homemade sauces also incorporate beef drippings.
What’s your favourite barbecue sauce?