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 the same cooking techniques.

Although, the love of barbecue unites us all, the flavors and sauce styles vary greatly across the United States.  The recipes differ by region, state and city.  To be sure, the sauces served at restaurants in East Tennessee are often sweet, while those in Memphis are smoky and spicy. Chances are that your favorite barbecue joint will have a variety of sauces on the table along with salt and pepper – 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 barbecue and grilling sauces:

Barbecue Sauce: Tomato, Mustard, and Mayonnaise.

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: This vinegar-based barbecue sauce is flavored with crushed red peppers or other 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 is also known as “mopping”. It is 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 or a beer and water combination mixed with your favorite herbs and spices.

Grilling Sauce: A grilling sauce is 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. Sugar will burn over the direct heat and leave you with a bitter taste.

Avant-garde Sauces: I love making a sauce from scratch but when time is short you can whip up a quick “avant-garde” sauce. Just follow your instincts. Combine a store-bought sauce with a few of your own ingredients. You can toss in minced onion, garlic, jalapenos, or green peppers. Simmer over low heat until veggies are soft. Delicious!

For a quicker transformation, a store-bought sauce with just one other ingredient will make it your own. I know, it’s cheating… but try this recipe idea before judging. 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 liquify the marmalade 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 from the “Great American Grilling: The Ultimate Backyard Barbecue & Tailgating 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. For other summer favorites check out Zesty Avocado Salad and Black Bean and a Kitchen Sink Salsa.


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