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The Best Homemade BBQ Sauce Recipes: 5 Recipes by Region

Vespa's recipes have appeared in "Midwest Living" and "Taste of Home." She belongs to Cook's Recipe Testers for "Cook's Illustrated."

Baby Back Ribs

Baby Back Ribs

Barbecue Sauce Recipes: 5 BBQ Sauces

Nowadays, the word "barbecue" is often synonymous with "grill," such as when we grill a juicy hamburger directly over a flame. Originally, though, the definition of "barbecue" was to slow-cook meat over an indirect heat source, such as in a pit heated with charcoal or wood. It seems that native North and South Americans introduced this method to Europeans as a way to tenderize tough meat.

There are as many barbecue styles worldwide as there are opinions about it. Barbecue in the United States can be traced back to cooking methods Caribbean slaves brought to the Carolinas in the 17th century. Meat smoking techniques came from German and Czech peasants who immigrated to North America.

Early Native American Barbecue

Early Native American Barbecue

Etymology of the Word "Barbecue"

Some etymologists believe the word “barbecue” is derived from the word “barabicu” in the languages of both the Timacua people of Florida and the Taíno of the Caribbean, which literally translates “sacred fire pit.” Bon Appetit magazine claims the word comes from an ancient tribe in Guyana who “cheerfully spit-roasted captured enemies.” Others claim the word comes from the French phrase “barbe a queue” meaning “from head to tail."

The Origins of U.S. BBQ

The origins of U.S. barbecue sauce are much more vague. Some claim that Christopher Columbus brought the sauce back from Hispaniola while others say its origins lie in the 17th century American colonies. How do you like your BBQ sauce? Tangy, sweet, smoky, thick or thin? The answer probably depends upon where you grew up.

Each region of the United States boasts its own unique barbecue style involving type of meat, method, rub and sauce. Although there are fruit-based and even white barbecue sauces, most of the popular sauces in the U.S. fall into four categories: light tomato, heavy tomato, pepper-vinegar and mustard. Join us on a tour around the country as we sample top recipes for the five most common sauces, in no particular order (so as not to offend anyone)! Our first stop on the tour: Memphis.

Hickory Smoked Ribs

Hickory Smoked Ribs

1. Memphis Barbecue

Memphis, best known for The King of Rock 'n Roll Elvis Presley, is also home to many famous barbecue sauces. At a typical Memphis barbecue expect to find smoked and often pulled pork and dry-rubbed baby back ribs.

This sauce falls somewhere between the light and heavy tomato categories and is tangy, slightly sweet and thin enough to penetrate the meat instead of sitting on top of it.

Memphis BBQ Sauce Recipe


  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 3/4 cup vinegar, red wine or cider
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste


  1. Sauté onion and garlic in butter until softened.
  2. Scrape onion and garlic into a blender container along with the rest of the ingredients. Blend until smooth.
  3. Transfer blended sauce to a medium saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes, until thickened and fragrant. Delicious on chopped pork or ribs.
Texas Brisket

Texas Brisket

2. Texas Barbecue

In Texas, everything is big, including the flavor of their barbecue sauce. Expect to find beef, beef and more beef: dry-rubbed brisket mopped with a tomato-based, spicy and barely sweet sauce which often contains jalapeño peppers and chili powder thanks to a south-of-the-border influence. This Texas sauce falls in the light tomato category and penetrates the meat instead of just sitting on top.

Texas BBQ Sauce Recipe


  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
  • 1 chipotle chile (from a can of chipotle chiles in adobo), minced
  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon unsulfured molasses
  • 1 tablespoon malt vinegar
  • 1/3 cup Worchestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup lemon or lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin


  1. In a medium saucepan, sauté onion and garlic in butter until softened.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer the sauce for 10 minutes.
  3. Serve with brisket or beef ribs. It can be stored in the refrigerator for one week.
Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce

Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce

3. South Carolina Barbecue

South Carolina, especially the Midlands area from Columbia to Charleston, is most known for a unique mustard-based barbecue sauce. Since the area was settled by German immigrants, this sauce reflects the German love of mustard. It's hard to beat pulled pork bathed in tangy mustard sauce.

South Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe


  • 2 cups prepared yellow mustard
  • 2/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons Worchestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco or other hot sauce


  1. Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer slowly for about 30 minutes, being careful not to scorch.
  2. Allow to cool before tasting, then adjust seasonings. Sauce will keep one week in the refrigerator.
Pulled Pork

Pulled Pork

4. North Carolina Barbecue

North Carolina, especially the eastern part, is known for pulled pork. It is also home to the simplest of all barbecue sauces, usually made of vinegar, black pepper and hot chile pepper flakes.

This vinegar-pepper sauce is the oldest of all barbecue sauces, probably originating with African slaves in the South. Used to "mop" the meat while cooking, it penetrates easily due to a thin consistency. Since there is little sugar in the sauce the flavor is sharp and, some say, an acquired taste.

Eastern North Carolina BBQ Sauce Recipe


  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne or more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • salt and pepper


  1. Combine ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake to dissolve sugar and combine ingredients. Refrigerate for a day or two so flavors can mellow.
  2. Use on pulled pork sandwiches. Due to high vinegar content, this sauce will keep for up to 2 months in the refrigerator.

5. Kansas City Barbecue

If you visit a Kansas City barbecue restaurant, you will most likely be served several different meats at once: beef, pork, chicken and sausage. However, Kansas City is most known for its ribs and burnt ends, or flavorful brisket trimmings.

Kansas City barbecue sauce falls in the heavy tomato category and is sweeter than the rest due to a lower vinegar content and the generous addition of molasses and brown sugar. Also thicker than the rest, it sits on the surface of the meat instead of penetrating. KC-style ribs are brushed with sauce in the final moments of grilling. Extra sauce is served on the side.

Kansas City BBQ Sauce Recipe


  • 4 cups ketchup or tomato sauce or combination
  • 1 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/4 cup apple cider or red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin


  1. Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Simmer on low for about 1 hour, until thick, being careful not to let it scorch. Stir occasionally.
  2. Slather ribs with the sauce in the last minutes of cooking and serve extra sauce on the side. Store sauce one week in the refrigerator.

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KC BBQ Sauce: Thick & Sweet

KC BBQ Sauce: Thick & Sweet

BBQ Sauce Troubleshooting

  • Too tangy: Add more sugar or molasses
  • Too sweet: Add more vinegar
  • Too thin: Simmer it longer
  • Not spicy enough: Add more cayenne or hot pepper
  • Too thick (Is that possible?): Stir in more liquid

If you'd like to share BBQ advice or prefer another sauce not discussed in this article, please feel free to tell us in the comments section below.