The Basics of Barbecue and Grilling Sauces

Unlike the set of French “Mother” sauces that depend on strict interpretation and execution, American barbecue and grilling sauces are easy to master and fun to play with. In fact, creativity is encouraged and rewarded. Stick with a classic, doctor the old favorite, or explore dozens of flavors to make the same piece of meat taste different even when applying same cooking techniques.

Although, the love of barbecue unites us all, the flavors and sauce styles vary across the United States.  Numerous recipes differ by region, state and city.  To be sure, the sauces served at restaurants in East Tennessee are often sweet, while those in the Memphis are smokier, with a spicy kick. Chances are that your favorite barbecue joint will have a variety of sauces on the table along with salt, pepper, and hot sauce.  Just to keep it interesting.

I’m often asked about different sauces when doing cooking demos at home. Here’s how I like to break down the basics when it comes to barbecue and grilling sauces.

Barbecue Sauce: I break, what most people consider barbecue sauces. into three categories, “plus one”. More on that later.  My main three are: tomato-based, mustard-based, and mayonnaise-based.

The tomato-based sauce provides a broad canvas for a variety of strong flavors.  Hickory, mesquite, honey, brown sugar, spices, and hot peppers are the building blocks of these tasty possibilities.

Next, the yellow sauces featuring mustard as their main ingredient.  These are usually composed with apple cider vinegar, honey, light brown sugar, along with salt and pepper.

The final category are the mayonnaise-based white sauces that are balanced with vinegar and black pepper.  “White BBQ sauce” is often associated with smoked barbecued chicken and is enjoyed in Northern Alabama.

Finishing Sauce: Here’s the “plus one” sauce I mentioned above. This vinegar-based barbecue sauce is flavored with crushed red peppers or other light seasonings. It is popular in the Carolinas and considered by many to be the only sauce worth mentioning! It can be used during the cooking process.  In addition, it is served over smoked pulled pork to “finish” things off right before serving.

Mop Sauce: A thinner sauce used for basting which known as “mopping” in barbecue circles. Often used with slow-cooked meat like ribs and Boston butt. It adds moisture to the meat and the cooking chamber. Mop sauce can be made with fruit juice, beer/water combination mixed with seasonings or simply a modified finishing sauce.

Grilling Sauce: A grilling sauce is a sauce used for basting and coating grilled food. It can be as simple as using your all-time favorite bottle of BBQ sauce. However, grilling does differ from barbecuing. While the low and slow barbecue method is an offset heat form of cooking, grilling is the method of cooking food over a high heat source. Sauces intended for grilling should contain less sweeteners (usually brown sugar or molasses) than barbecue sauces. Since, sugar will burn over the direct heat and leave you with a bitter taste.

Dipping Sauce: A really thick sauce used for dipping. Think of thicker versions of “barbecue” sauce served up with chicken nuggets at fast food restaurants.

Junk & Cheater Sauces: This is my own category! I love making a sauce from scratch but when time is short you can whip up a quick Junk sauce. Grab some store bought sauce and add some junk to it. You can toss in minced onion, garlic, jalapenos, or green peppers. Simmer over low heat until veggies are soft. A cheater sauce uses store-bought sauce with one other ingredient. I know, it’s cheating… but try this recipe idea before judging.

Quick and Easy Cheater Sauces

Buy an inexpensive barbecue sauce and combine it with one other ingredient. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Orange marmalade
  • Peach preserves
  • Apricot jam
  • A dash of whiskey, beer, flavored rum.

Once combined, pop it in the microwave or use a saucepan and heat it just enough to liquefy the marmalade, preserves or jam. Stir and serve! Here’s one I did this weekend: steak sauce with a couple of teaspoons of raspberry preserves.

Barbecue Sauce

However, if you want to make your sauce from scratch then try the following recipe. I’ve used versions of this recipe in a few of my books including Great American Grilling and the Texas Hometown Cookbook.

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 1/2 cup mustard
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce or steak sauce

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook for ten minutes. Chill before serving.

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