From Alabama White to Kansas City-style, here’s how to make the most popular BBQ sauces (and the history behind them)

·12-min read
For pitmasters, the art of barbecue is about more than just meat. There are many different types of barbecue sauce, each with their own history. (Photo: Jarelle Guy)
For pitmasters, the art of barbecue is about more than just meat. There are many different types of barbecue sauce, each with their own history. (Photo: Jarelle Guy)

While some only eat barbecue on occasion, others consider this cooking style — and the array of sweet, spicy and savory types of barbecue sauces that come with it — a way of life. For a barbeque novice, it can be overwhelming to see a caddy full of barbecue sauce types at your local barbecue joint, each uniquely made with a different flavor profile and deeply rooted history all its own.

In the U.S., barbecue has become a national pastime. Destinations like Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, Alabama and North and South Carolina have created cultures around barbecue. And with those juicy smoked meats come a collection of sauces that can feel a bit overwhelming to newbies.

According to David Brendan, a barbecue enthusiast who works as a registered dietician, nutritionist and founder of fitness site Start Rowing, barbecue is an ancient cooking technique that has been adapted countless times by various regions and cultures around the world.

"Originally, what would become the tradition of barbecue in the U.S. was a cooking technique used by the Taíno, indigenous people of the Caribbean, called barbacoa," Brendan tells Yahoo Life. "The technique was first imported into Spain and later anglicized in the English colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas."

Barbecue changed significantly as it made its way through different regions of the U.S., where new ingredients, like tomatoes, were available. Tomatoes meant thicker, more tangy sauces that could really add a kick to barbecued meats.

What is Kansas City-style barbecue sauce?

Brendan says the barbecue sauce we find in most U.S. grocery stores is what smoked meat enthusiasts would call a Kansas City-style "finishing sauce," a variety first developed by Henry Perry, a Black chef and restaurateur who, in 1908, got his start in the barbecue business serving smoked meats to Garment District workers in Downtown Kansas City.

Known as the "father of Kansas City barbecue," Perry went on to open his own barbecue restaurant and was inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2014. It's said that the barbecue legend added a significant amount of molasses to his sauce — putting Kansas City on the map as one of the most famous barbecue hubs in the country and giving its signature sauce a reputation for being thick and tomato-based with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles.

Eudell Watts IV helps carry on his great-great-grandfather's barbecue tradition. (Photo: Old Arthur's)
Eudell Watts IV helps carry on his great-great-grandfather's barbecue tradition. (Photo: Old Arthur's)

Eudell Watts IV is the great-great-grandson of one of the country's original pitmasters, Arthur Watts, who developed his barbecue sauce recipe over 160 years ago. Today, Watts carries on the family legacy with his family's company Old Arthur's Barbecue Sauce, which sells original and hot and spicy sauce varieties in addition to barbecue rubs.

"When it was known [growing up] that we intended to make Arthur's sauce and rubs, there was always an air of excitement in the house," says Watts. "This was partially due to the anticipated treat that awaited, but also a pride in the uniqueness of Arthur's legacy which we still share today."

So how did Arthur Watts, dubbed "Old Arthur" because he lived to be 108, develop his iconic sauce recipe? Eudell Watts says Arthur was born into slavery on a Missouri farm in 1837. From childhood, his daily task was to prepare barbecue over an open pit on the estate that bonded him. There, he first began crafting sauces and seasonings to compliment his barbecue.

Once emancipated in 1863, Arthur earned his living as a highly-regarded pitmaster, catering massive barbecues for city festivals, county fairs and large-scale social functions throughout central Illinois. His eldest son, Eudell, wrote down his father's recipes, and descendants have kept the tradition alive to this day by making the same sauces.

"We made minimal changes to the original recipes," says Watts, "We were careful to stay true to the original flavors. Our barbecue sauce is classified as Kansas City-style, meaning it is a tomato-based sauce."

What is Memphis-style barbecue sauce?

Kortney-Dewayne Powell is the executive manager at Pollard's BBQ in Memphis, Tenn. and a fourth-generation barbecuer in the Pollard family. Powell says Memphis-style barbecue has shaped his family's traditions for years.

"Barbecue is culturally representative of the family," he says, "whether it brings us together or financially supports our livelihood, our journey in the barbecue business began back in the day at a local slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in Memphis." All of the men in the Pollard family worked in the plant, and what began as a modality of economic survival became the basis of how the family discovered some of their most important knowledge about barbecuing.

"Preparing the meat and preparing the fire is a teamwork process for the family — it's also a family tradition," says Powell. "As a fourth-generation member of the family, I feel a sense of connection and pride when I trim ribs the same way my uncle learned from his dad, who learned from his dad. The same goes for the sauce too."

At Pollard's BBQ in Memphis, Tenn., the sauce is tangy with a semi-thin texture. (Photo: Pollard's BBQ)
At Pollard's BBQ in Memphis, Tenn., the sauce is tangy with a semi-thin texture. (Photo: Pollard's BBQ)

According to Powell, Memphis barbecue primarily consists of pork ribs and pork shoulder, usually broken down into pulled pork. It's different from other prominent barbecue styles, such as Texas, a location known for beef ribs and brisket.

Memphis-style sauce is thinner than others and has a strong vibrant flavor that's classified by its tangy taste and semi-thin texture. "Every drop of our sauce is made from scratch and hand-mixed," says Powell. "The level of sweetness and viscosity of our sauce is tailored to the flavor profile of how we smoke our meat."

But where did the idea come from to dip barbecued meat into barbecue sauce in the first place? Powell says it's something that just makes sense. "Sauce is versatile in that it can be a supporting or leading food accessory," he says. "Thus, dipping allows one to appreciate the smoked flavor of the meat, the flavor profile of the sauce and the combination of the two respectively."

What is Carolina-style barbecue sauce?

Rodney Scott is founder and pitmaster of Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ, a restaurant with locations in Charleston, S.C., Birmingham, Ala. and Atlanta, Ga.

Scott has been the subject of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table and worked as a judge on two seasons of Food Network's BBQ Brawl.

Since he was 11 years old, Scott has been cooking whole-hog barbecue over wood coals. He worked at his family's barbecue restaurant in Hemingway, S.C. until 2017, when he opened his first restaurant. "In Hemingway, we only knew one kind of barbecue," says Scott, "that South Carolina-style, known for its slow whole-hog cooking."

Pitmaster Rodney Scott has been barbecuing since he was 11. (Photo: Angie Mosier)
Pitmaster Rodney Scott has been barbecuing since he was 11. (Photo: Angie Mosier)

"It's steeped in tradition that we'll always honor, because as they say — if it's not broke don't fix it," he adds.

Scott shares in the Carolinas, barbecue is known for its vinegar and pepper-based sauces. Carolina barbecue sauce is acidic and vinegary, as opposed to sauces like Kansas City-style, which is known to be thick and sweet. And they each have a place at the table: Carolina-style sauces are best-served with pork, whereas Kansas City styles, for instance, are usually paired with beef.

What is Alabama White barbecue sauce?

Scott may be a master in Carolina-style barbecue, but in expanding his restaurant to Birmingham, the team had to have Alabama White Sauce on the menu. The creamy sauce proved to be so popular, they added it to the menu at all of their restaurant locations.

"Alabama White Sauce is the only style of sauce that's mayo-based," Scott explains. "The flavor profile is usually a bit creamier, more on the savory side compared to the more vinegary profiles of Carolina sauces and the sweeter Kansas City styles. It's best served on poultry like smoked chicken or turkey."

What is Texas-style barbecue sauce?

Rayford Busch was born and raised on the Southside of Houston, Tex. and says the community he grew up in, Third Ward, is the "original birthing ground" of barbecue in Houston.

"Growing up in this community you were surrounded by barbecue legends whose style of barbecue was passed down through families for generations," says Busch, who is one of the owners of Ray's Real Pit BBQ Shack in Houston. "Barbecue was everything to me: I watched my father serve as a pit guy at several barbecue establishments in Houston and, as a young man, I got the opportunity to work with him at those establishments and grew a fondness for the art of barbecue."

While Ray's BBQ offers up Texas-style barbecue sauce, owner Rayford Busch says Texas barbecue is more focused on rubs and meat. (Photo: Ray's BBQ)
While Ray's BBQ offers up Texas-style barbecue sauce, co-owner Rayford Busch says Texas barbecue is more focused on rubs and meat. (Photo: Ray's BBQ)

But in a state as big as Texas, it's no surprise barbecue means something a little different to each person you ask. "It all depends on what region you are from here in the Lone Star State," says Busch. "Traditionally Texas barbecue is big on brisket, ribs and house-made sausage."

Busch says in Texas, meat is traditionally smoked using a dry rub. After the meat has been cooked, it's not heavy on sauce. "We specialize in a mild but sweet barbecue sauce that is tomato-based," he says. "It leaves a small kick of heat as you finish, but is very good for all different types of smoked meats."

What is Caribbean-style barbecue sauce?

Max Hardy, head chef and owner of COOP Caribbean Fusion and Jed's Detroit in Detroit, Mich., was a contestant on the latest season BBQ Brawl. At his restaurants, Hardy combines deeply-rooted barbecue traditions with a passion for exploring flavor to share barbecue dishes with island influence.

"It's different because you don't get a chance to see Caribbean barbecue sauces a lot," he says. "You might see a jerk marinade or a mango-spicy-something, but to really dive into it and bring all the island flavors together? I think we don't see that a lot."

Hardy describes his sauce as "barbecue with an island vibe."

"It's one of the things we do that speaks to a lot of the different islands in the Caribbean," he explains, "but we're also paying homage to traditional barbecue. A mix between a red and vinegar-based sauce spiced up with a little more jerk, guava and mango."

Although he's a French-trained chef who specializes in many different types of food, for Hardy, barbecue is a true passion that connects him to his roots and memories of cooking with his dad. "For me, it's probably my favorite thing to do, my favorite pastime," he says. "When I have free time, I'm barbecuing."

Yahoo Life asked the pitmasters for recipes to make different barbecue sauces at home.

The Watts Family's Kansas City-Style Dr. Pepper BBQ Sauce

Courtesy of Eudell Watts IV

Ingredients

  • 2 cups ketchup

  • 1 1/2 cups Dr. Pepper

  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

  • 1 tablespoon butter

  • 2 teaspoons onion powder

  • 2 teaspoons mild chili powder

  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

  • A few drops of liquid smoke, optional

  • Salt, to taste

  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan.

  3. Simmer over medium low heat for 10-12 minutes, stirring often.

  4. Remove sauce from heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes.

(Photo: Pollards BBQ)
(Photo: Pollards BBQ)

Pollard's Memphis-style BBQ Sauce

Courtesy of Kortney-Dewayne Powell

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup Heinz Ketchup

  • 1/4 cup water

  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons honey

  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard

  • 1 teaspoon seasoning salt

  • 1 teaspoon chili powder

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients thoroughly and cook on medium heat until it comes to a boil.

(Photo: Pollard's BBQ)
(Photo: Pollard's BBQ)

Pitmaster Rodney's Carolina-style BBQ Sauce

Courtesy of Rodney Scott

Ingredients

  • 1/2 gallon distilled white vinegar

  • 1/2 lemon, thinly sliced

  • 1/4 cup ground black pepper

  • About 2 1/2 tablespoons cayenne pepper

  • About 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

  • 1 cup sugar

Instructions

  1. In a small stockpot, warm the vinegar over medium-high heat. After about 5 minutes, when the vinegar reaches 150°F on an instant-read thermometer, just before it starts to simmer, add the lemon slices and continue to cook until the lemon peels begin to soften and wilt, about 10 minutes more.

  2. Whisk in the black pepper, cayenne, pepper flakes and sugar. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until the sugar is completely dissolved and the sauce reaches 190°F, about 10 minutes.

  3. Remove from the heat and allow to completely cool before using. Once the lemon is removed, the sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to eight weeks.

Pitmaster Rodney's Alabama White BBQ sauce

Courtesy of Rodney Scott

Ingredients

  • 2 cups ranch dressing (preferably Hidden Valley)

  • 1 cup Duke's mayonnaise

  • 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the ranch dressing, mayo, vinegar, lemon juice, salt, black pepper and cayenne until everything is fully incorporated.

  2. Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container up to 3 weeks.

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