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A Taxonomy Of Regional American Barbecue Sauces & Recipes

Posted: 07/16/2010 1:40 pm

You can read more reports from Meathead's grill deck at

2010-07-15-LCs_grizzly.jpgWhen properly cooked, great barbecue, such as a slab of ribs, is mighty good nekkid, but most folks prefer it with barbecue sauce. To most Americans, barbecue sauce is red and sweet and it comes from a shelf near the ketchup. To those of us who travel and would rather lunch out back of a rickety shack under a shade tree rather than under the golden arches, barbecue sauces come in a rainbow of colors and flavors, and their recipes are tied to the area of origin.

That's because barbecue has evolved along disparate paths around the nation, led down these trails by the racial and ethnic immigrants. Indeed, barbecue sauce is a purely American cultural phenomenon.

Every grownup should have a personal secret recipe sauce. To add a personal flair to your next cookout, serve your homemade sauce from a jelly jar and be prepared to take a few bows, and requests for the recipe. If you feel ambitious, serve your guests a choice of several regional sauces.

Below are the 9 classic American barbecue sauces (if we stretch the definition of "sauce" to include Memphis dry rub). Click the links for my recipes if you want to make your own. If you want to taste examples of these styles but don't want to make them, click here for a list of my favorite commercial barbecue sauces.

Tell me about your fave in the comments below.

1) Kansas City Sweet Sauce
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1) Kansas City Sweet Sauce. By far the most popular style of barbecue sauce, this is the classic rich, sweet-tart, tomato-based sauce often sweetened with molasses or brown sugar and balanced with the tartness of vinegar. Many have liquid smoke to help get that outdoor flavor for folks who cannot cook outdoors.

KC sauces don't penetrate the meat well, and sit on top like frosting. But they caramelize beautifully over a hot fire. They also burn easily, so coat your meat no sooner than 10 minutes before serving. If this is your favorite sauce, make sure you read my article on saucing strategies.

Let me point out an important exception to the rule: Arthur Bryant's Original. Arthur Bryant's has been one of the iconic American barbecue joints since 1930, perhaps the most holy of them all in the city that means barbecue more than any other, and they have been making a tomato based sauce that is thick, intense, with a solid black pepper and garlic theme. No noticeable sweetness or liquid smoke flavor. Nada. Click here for my recipe for Kansas City Classic Barbecue Sauce.
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This Barbecue Sauce
My favorite.

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Top 5 Barbecue Sauces
Users who voted on this slide

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