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What is Barbecue Sauce?

By S. Scolari
Updated May 17, 2024
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Barbeque sauce is a thick concoction usually consisting of a base of garlic, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, vinegar, and assorted condiments that is used to baste meat as it cooks. The ingredients in each recipe are often closely guarded secrets and vary from place to place. Many cooks claim to have their own "secret recipes" but bottled versions are on every supermarket shelf across the country.

The term barbeque can refer to either the meat itself or to the act of cooking it. It is frequently used interchangeably as either a noun or verb.

It is commonly agreed that the secret of a good barbeque is in the sauce, which is applied lavishly as the meat cooks. More is usually supplied when it is served. Barbeque sauce can also be used simply as a condiment.

In America, barbeque is traditionally defined as a festival or celebration whose centerpiece is an animal, usually a pig or cow, roasted whole on a spit in a fire pit. The meat is first marinated for hours while the fire pit is prepared. After being put on the spit, it is turned regularly and basted with the sauce. Barbequed meat is very tender and permeated with flavor of the sauce.

Barbeque is believed to be a Southern custom as the word was known to be used in Virginia before the 1700s. The term came into common use in America in the 1800s with Western cowboys, who needed to be fed on long cattle drives. Herd owners did not want to give them the good cuts of meat and they normally got tough cuts like brisket to eat. Brisket can be stringy and unappetizing but the cowboys figured out that if it was cooked for a long period-usually 5-7 hours, at low heat (about 200 degrees) and basted often, the meat was transformed into something tender and succulent. They soon discovered that other meats, such as beef ribs, venison, pork, and goat worked well also.

The origin of barbeques and sauces as an American custom is sometimes disputed by those who point out that many cowboys were, in fact, from other countries and that the word "barbe-a-que," meaning "cooked from snout to tail," is French. It has also been said that barbeque is a derivation of the term barbacoa from the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. As used there, it refers not to the meat itself but to a cooking framework of sticks set on posts.

Barbeque sauces today are big business. They can be found in supermarkets, gourmet shops, and special-ordered from the Internet. Different parts of the country prefer different sauces with different ingredients. In Louisiana, for example, the sauce is traditionally hot and spicy. In Kansas it is usually sweeter and the Carolinians tend to like sauce with a smoky flavor.

There are probably as many variations on barbeque sauce as there are states and countries. In most cases, the amount of preparation and prolonged cooking time necessary for a traditional barbeque serve as the backdrop for the gathering of friends and family.

For barbecue sauce recipes enter, "barbecue sauce recipes" in your favorite search engine.

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Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On Jul 11, 2014

@Grivusangel -- I've had the North Alabama white sauce. It's divine! It's also good on the pork, but it is fantastic on chicken! It's even good on hushpuppies!

A popular thing in the restaurants down there is to serve these gigantic baked potatoes with butter, sour cream, cheese and chives, and then pile barbecue on top! One potato will easily feed two people -- and maybe have some left over.

They also have a vinegar-based slaw that's really good, and they serve it on their barbecue pork sandwiches. Sounds a little odd, but it works. That white sauce is hard to beat, though. One of the restaurants even bottles their own white sauce and sells it in the grocery stores.

By Grivusangel — On Jul 10, 2014

There are as many recipes for barbecue sauce as there are people who do barbecue! Kansas City sauce tends to be dark and sweet, while Memphis sauce tends toward a red, spicy blend. North Carolina sauce is often mustard based, and sauce in North Alabama is either a thin, spicy vinegar sauce, also popular in North Carolina, or a thinner version of Memphis sauce. There's also a mayonnaise-based white sauce that is peculiar to the area and served mostly with barbecued chicken.

For a red (or rib) sauce, start with regular ketchup. Collect things like mustard, brown sugar, molasses ad various spices, and start mixing until you find a taste you like. That's your barbecue sauce!

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