One of the best ways to make a cookout unique -- and delicious -- is to create your own homemade BBQ sauce. Making BBQ sauce from scratch is easier than you may think. Recreate one of the classic American styles, or invent something new. Here's what you need to know to create a great sauce.
If it's flavored liquid and you pour it on smoked meat, you can call it BBQ sauce.
BBQ sauce is applied to smoked meats to enhance flavor and moisture -- during both the cooking process and after the meat is cooked.
An American invention, BBQ sauce comes in many different regional varieties. It can be thick or thin, spicy or sweet, tart or creamy. There are no rules, and styles are always evolving.
To make BBQ sauce from scratch, you have to make two decisions.
There are no right or wrong answers, the world of BBQ is big enough for lots of different types of sauces.
Thin sauces, or mops, are often sprayed or otherwise applied to meat during the smoking process, to keep the meat moist. Sometimes these sauces are made using drippings from the meat itself. Either way, they can also be served alongside the meat (to pour over or dunk into) during eating.
Thick sauces are typically added toward the end of the cooking process. The sauce is slathered on the cooked meat, then exposed to high heat to caramelize the sugars in the sauce and help it stick on when served.
Some pitmasters cook their meats without using a mop or sauce, only a rub. In these cases, BBQ sauce is served as a dipping sauce only.
Vinegar and hot peppers are the original ingredients of BBQ sauce, and most recipes still include apple cider vinegar and some form of heat (hot sauce or cayenne pepper). Sauces in the thick, sweet Kansas City tradition -- which is the style of most store-bought sauces -- usually also include ketchup and brown sugar. Asian-style BBQ sauces often feature soy sauce.
Many, but not all, of the traditional BBQ sauces are vegetarian. The ingredients of most sauces do not include meat or meat products. In BBQ sauce recipes that call for meat stock or meat drippings, you can substitute vegetable stock or water (or just pick a different recipe).
Most manufactured BBQ sauces will last many months in the pantry or fridge, though you should always follow the expiration dates and other warnings on the bottle of sauce you buy.
Sauces made from scratch -- like anything you make at home -- should probably be used or frozen within 2 to 3 days to avoid potential bacterial contamination. Because BBQ sauce is made with acidic ingredients like tomato and vinegar, they should last fairly long, but unless you are experienced with food safety, the best advice is to eat within a few days.
Most BBQ sauce recipes include ingredients that act as thickening agents. They are often sweet: sugar, honey, or molasses.
If you want to thicken your sauce without altering the flavor, cornstarch is the best option. Mix 1 tablespoon of cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of cold water. Stir the mixture until there are no lumps, then whisk slowly into your sauce. Repeat until your sauce has the desired consistency.
Learning about BBQ sauce means taking a virtual road trip. Every type of sauce is associated with a specific region -- or even a specific city. The differences came about because of the types of meat that were commonly available in the local area, and the people who populated it.
Regions that cooked strong flavored meats like beef or mutton tend to have thinner sauces with tart or spicy flavors that complement those cuts. Regions that cooked more subtly flavored meats like pork or chicken typically made thicker, sweeter sauces that add additional flavor.
Areas with large populations of German immigrants, like South Carolina, used their homeland's favorite condiment, mustard, as the base for BBQ sauce. In Hawaii, with a heavy influx of immigrants from Japan, soy sauce is the main ingredient. Folks who've arrived from other countries have adapted the sauces they already used to BBQ-style cooking which is why we can now enjoy Korean and Chinese BBQ (and others).
These are some of the most popular BBQ sauces.
Alabama white BBQ sauce is a thin, mayonnaise and vinegar-based sauce that's best with chicken and pork. It's one of the few popular sauces with a known inventor: "Big" Bob Gibson, a former railroad worker from Decatur, Ala.
Gibson entertained friends and family with huge weekend cookouts, and began mixing mayonnaise with vinegar as a basting sauce for smoked chicken. When he opened his first restaurant in 1925, the white sauce made the menu. The sauce's popularity grew along with the restaurant and is now identified as the classic Alabama BBQ sauce.
Main ingredients: mayonnaise, vinegar
American cuisine is all about the mix of cultures. In the case of South Carolina's most distinctive sauce, German immigrants added the key ingredient of mustard to the traditional vinegar and pepper sauce that's thought to have been introduced by Spanish settlers, African slaves, Native Americans, or some combination of the three.
Main ingredients: mustard, vinegar
North Carolina vinegar sauce is the closest to the "original" BBQ sauce of Early America. Used as both a baste during cooking and a sauce for dipping, the main components are vinegar and hot peppers. The acidity of the vinegar cuts the fat of pork which is the most commonly BBQd meat in North Carolina, and the pepper adds flavor.
Main ingredients: vinegar, hot peppers
Now we bring BBQ sauce forward to the relatively recent past. The introduction of mass-produced ketchup gave cooks a simple way to add sweetness to their vinegar and pepper sauces. This sweeter sauce played a little better with folks who hadn't grown up eating the traditional sauces. Most of the commercially available BBQ sauces and sauce recipes you'll find are tomato-based, like Kansas City BBQ sauce.
Tomato-based BBQ sauce wasn't invented in Kansas City, but the city is home to so many classic BBQ spots that the style and the sauce came to be associated with KC.
A classic KC sauce still contains the vinegar and pepper of the traditional sauce, but adds a thick blend of ketchup, brown sugar, and molasses for a sweet, sticky, silky texture. The sauce is usually added near the end of cooking. Our Traeger 'Que BBQ Sauce is similar to KC-style.
Main ingredients: ketchup, brown sugar, molasses, vinegar
Memphis BBQ sauce is tomato-based like the Kansas City sauce, but it's not as thick and tends to be a little bit heavier on the vinegar.
Unlike in KC-style, Memphis BBQ-ers serve their sauce on the side.
Main ingredients: ketchup, vinegar
Think Memphis sauce, just a little bit thinner. Texas sauces typically have just a hint of tomato base. But because Texas BBQ focuses on beef brisket, the sweetness of sugar and molasses doesn't make for a good dance partner.
Texas BBQ sauce is a little closer to the classic vinegar and pepper, and because of the Mexican influence on the state, spices like chile powder and cumin are common ingredients. The sauce is often used as a mop to baste during cooking. At Traeger, we make a bottled version.
Main ingredients: vinegar, meat stock, chile peppers
While BBQ in the United States brings to mind picnics and open cooking pits, Korean BBQ is street food; meat grilled over open flames on sidewalks or in marketplaces. The delicious sauce can be added at the end of cooking, or as a marinade.
Main ingredients: soy sauce, brown sugar
Chinese cuisine is more than 2,000 years old, so it's no surprise that there are dozens of different Chinese sauces. BBQ expert Meathead Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com credits Chinese cooks with developing the "sweet and sour" framework for our modern-day sauces.
Chinese-style BBQ sauces used in U.S. restaurants are a bit of a riff on the thick, sweet KC-style sauce. This Chinese BBQ Pork recipe is a good starting point.
Main ingredients: hoisin sauce, brown sugar
The easiest way to make a spicy BBQ sauce is to find a recipe you like and add your favorite heat to taste using hot sauce, cayenne pepper, or red pepper flakes.
The traditional sauce styles listed above are just a starting point from which different grillmasters borrow and adjust. These full recipes can give you additional inspiration.
Cook time: 40 minutes
This tangy sauce for pork avoids processed ingredients like ketchup and refined sugar.
Cook time: 0 minutes (just combine and stir)