Which is the best American Barbeque (BBQ) sauce?
America has a strong and diverse barbequing tradition dating back to the Spanish explorers. The culinary tradition of cooking meat slowly, at low temperature, over indirect flame (no grilling, thank you!) has continued down to the present day. It generates a large number of cooking shows, recipe books and passionate debates about which method and style of cooking is the best. Whilst the BBQ is now a global phenomenon, in America there is not one style or tradition for the BBQ or BBQ sauce, but at least four major types and a plethora of styles and ingredients.
There are four southern states where the claim to have the best BBQ and the best BBQ sauce is particularly vociferous. The ‘barbeque belt’ houses 4 major traditions based in the Carolinas, Texas, Memphis (Tennessee) and Kansas City.
These diverse regional styles have developed over the last two centuries, based on the type of meat and other ingredients which were historically in good supply in each region at the time and influenced by the national background of the colonists who brought their own cooking traditions to America.
The earliest styles of BBQ sauce were used in the eastern colonies, including Virginia and North Carolina. Here, they barbequed whole hogs (pigs) and were influenced by British colonists who used vinegar-based sauces to baste the meat to keep it moist. In South Carolina, which had a large community of German and French colonists, a tradition of using a mustard-based BBQ sauce developed, no doubt influenced by the use of Dijon style mustards by the French settlers and the type of sweet/spicy mustard still beloved by Germans today. Red pepper flakes and spices were also added, but never tomatoes. Whole hog BBQs are still popular in the Carolinas where the acidic, tart marinade is a perfect match for cutting through the rich, fatty meat. These thin, vinegary marinades are also sometimes called ‘mop sauces’ because the pitmasters (BBQ Master Chefs) literally use a mop to baste the barbequing hogs. The sauce can also be served on the side for dipping.
Memphis, in the state of Tennessee, developed a very different BBQ tradition, again using pork as the favoured meat. Most often a dry rub was applied to the meat rather than a wet sauce or marinade. Where a wet sauce was used, here it would be a highly spiced tomato-based sauce, sweetened with molasses which was readily available in this popular Mississippi river trading port. This barbequing tradition continues today. Memphis holds the World Championships of Barbeque (otherwise known as ‘Memphis in May’) each year where over 100,000 pitmasters and amateurs compete for major prizes.
Originating in Kansas City and building on the sweet and spicy Memphis style of BBQ sauce, this is the sauce which is perhaps now thought of as the ‘traditional’ American BBQ sauce across much of the world. It is thick, dark and smoky (flavoured with liquid smoke rather than hours on an actual BBQ); highly spiced and sweetened with molasses, it is less sweet and more acidic in style than a Memphis BBQ sauce due to the addition of lemon juice or vinegar. The first Kansas City restaurants offering BBQ in the late 1800’s offered both pork and beef and that tradition remains today.
In Texas, settlers had huge tracts of land to rear cattle, so the BBQ method of cooking was applied largely to beef, not pork. BBQ in this vast state cannot be pigeon-holed to one style. Central Texas is best known for its salt and pepper rubbed brisket, smoked with post oak and for saying the best sauce is no sauce……However, for African Americans in Texas there was certainly a long tradition of using thin wet sauces, similar to a hot sauce. Sauces tend to be served on the side in Texas and not directly on the meat.
Best American BBQ sauces in the UK
Whilst your local supermarket may have several shelves of cheap BBQ sauce bottles with American sounding names, it is unlikely that you will get an authentically American BBQ sauce on the shelves. A scan of the country of origin (most often not America!) and the long list of chemical sounding ingredients are unlikely to conjure up a great traditional BBQ sauce bubbling away for hours in a vat, full of natural ingredients. If you are a fan of barbequing and want to try some regional American sauces which have a short list of natural ingredients, it is better to seek these out online or, if you have the time and inclination, to make your own. For those seeking healthier alternatives, lower sugar or gluten free BBQ sauce, there are authentic imported products and hundreds of recipes out there, so whichever style of American BBQ sauce you prefer, or would like to test out, there is a bottle or a recipe waiting for you.