The following is an article that I wrote in 1991,
when I was President of the California Barbeque Association,
entitled "Experts know the many different styles of traditional barbecue sauces".
Traditional United States barbecue includes many different sauces, and barbecue veterans must have a familiarity with the many styles.
Most sauces have their origin in different regions, and this is the most common way to classify them: Eastern North Carolina, Western North Carolina, South Carolina, etc.
But in this story, we classify them by color -- the same sauces with a different way of looking at them.
The most basic and earliest of all traditional barbecue sauces is the simple Eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce, a clear sauce made simply of cider vinegar with a little salt and pepper. The origin of this clear vinegar is English ketchup: early ketchup included no tomatoes, which were of course unknown in Europe prior to the discovery of the New World.
Clear vinegar sauce is used on whole hog barbecue, the staple of the Eastern half of the State.
Western North Carolina deserves credit for putting the tomato into barbecue sauce. But in a manner befitting Southern traditions of moderation, their sauce starts with the clear sauce and adds a little tomato for color and flavor and perhaps a little sugar for sweetness.
The traditional Western North Carolina sauce is neither sweet nor thick. The color is light red and the dominant flavor is the vinegar, tempered with the tomato and perhaps sugar. In this part of the State, barbecue can mean either whole hog or just pork shoulder, and this Western North Carolina light red sauce goes well with both.
Vinegar complements pork, because it cuts the taste of fat. Add a little salt and pepper, and you have a Eastern North Carolina clear sauce, described above, which is the foundation and base of almost all other sauces. Thus, Western North Carolina cooks added a little tomato for color and flavor.
In South Carolina, instead of adding a little tomato, the cooks added a little mustard to the foundation. The traditional sauce is light in appearance and texture -- watery, not thick.
Cooks today will add many other ingredients, such as honey, onions and peppers like paprika and cayenne, so that many yellow sauces today are thick, sweet and spicy. But the traditional Carolina yellow sauce is not thick, sweet or spicy.
The theme of vinegar continued into Alabama. The basic clear sauce of vinegar with a little sugar, salt and pepper was enhanced with eggs, and the result was Alabama white sauce.
Of course, eggs blended with fat and added to the basic clear sauce of vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper is mayonnaise -- a French word for a sauce that was in widespread use in Europe and America by the late 17th Century. To be more precise, if the fat is from lard or (nowadays) vegetable oil, then it is called mayonnaise; if the fat is butter, then it is called hollandaise. Mayonnaise and hollandaise developed because, without refrigeration, fresh eggs could not be preserved and thus were unknown in areas far from chicken farms. When blended with fat, salt and vinegar, however, eggs could be stored and transported.
Traditional Alabama white sauce is not heavy, like modern mayonnaise, but is very light, almost watery in texture, with the taste of vinegar tempered with (and not overwhelmed by) the taste of the eggs. Additionally, the color is not so much white as a pale yellow.
Kentucky lies next to Alabama, but for reasons now lost in the mists of history, cooks around Owensboro developed a black sauce, which is served traditionally with Mutton (old sheep).
The traditional sauce begins with the basic clear vinegar sauce, to which Kentucky cooks added dark molasses. Molasses, of course, is a by-produce of sugar production and adds sweetness and sometimes bitterness as well. (Recall that the educated human tongue distinguishes only four taste elements: sweet, bitter, sour and salty.) Molasses is the most well-known ingredient which imparts both a sweet and a bitter flavor.
When dark molasses is added to vinegar, salt and pepper, the result is a strong sauce perfectly suited to the strong taste of mutton.
Memphis is on the Mississippi River in the middle of the South, and the traditional Memphis sauce reflects this centrist theme. The traditional Memphis sauce combines the elements of the South into a sauce which is medium-bodied, medium sweet and medium spicy.
Traditional Memphis red sauce relies on the tomato for its body and combines molasses for its flavor and texture. The result is a rich, red sauce which is not too sweet, not too thick, and not too spicy.
Traditional Texas red sauce starts with a base of Memphis red, but the taste is enhanced and sharpened with jalapeno, serrano or other chile peppers. As a result, Texas red sauce has an edge unknown in the traditional sauces of other regions.
Traditional Texas red sauce tends to be very thick -- thicker than Memphis red, because it includes onions and other thickening ingredients. The result is a sauce which is very different from and heavier than Memphis red in texture, flavor and spiciness.
KANSAS CITY RED
If Memphis is the center of the South, then Kansas City is the center of the country. The traditional end of the cattle drives from Texas, and the beginning of the railroad east, Kansas City produced an eclectic barbecue sauce which combined almost all the elements of the sauces form other traditional regions. The result is the thick, red, sweet, tangy barbecue sauce that most Americans today identify as "the" authentic barbecue sauce.
Traditional Kansas City red sauce contains the ingredients of almost all the other traditional sauces (excepting eggs). Thus, it includes the vinegar, salt and pepper of the basic clear sauce; the tomatoes, introduced in Carolina red sauce and enhanced with sugar for their flavor and texture in Memphis red sauce; mustard, first used in South Carolina yellow sauce; molasses, used in Kentucky black sauce; chile peppers, introduced in Texas red sauce.
No one can be considered a barbecue expert without knowing the history and styles of the traditional barbecue sauces. An expert barbecue cook can prepare each of the sauces to perfection, and an expert barbecue judge can identify each by its appearance and taste alone.
The sauces discussed here include only the major traditional sauces of the United States. There may be other traditional sauces of the United States -- perhaps a green sauce or orange sauce. (Please email if you have any such information.)
This story does not address the evolution of these traditional sauces. Today, for example, Alabama white sauce is usually made with modern mayonnaise, blended with vegetable oil, so it is truly white in color, while the traditional sauce was a pale yellow. Moreover, most modern variations of these traditional sauces include ingredients not found in the originals, as a result of which the appearance and tastes have evolved. (This is not to say that they are better or worse, just different. An expert can tell the difference and determine whether or now a particular sauce is well-made and a worthy example of its heritage.)
This story also does not discuss traditional sauces from outside the United States. Since barbecue was "rediscovered again" from the Taino in the Caribbean by the Spanish Explorers, the islands certainly have a rightful claim to the "most traditional" of traditional barbecue sauces, including the sweet-sour sauces with tamarind from Jamaica and environs. But this story does not address them.
Finally, this story does not describe the many hundreds or thousands of barbecue sauces which are available now, both throughout the United States and around the world -- not processed sauces, but those hand-crafted examples of culinary excellence. If chemistry -- the study of combining about 100 different elements to form new materials -- has just scratched the surface of possible combinations (dealing with only 100 different elements), then the study of barbecue and its sauces has yet to reach its infancy. How many thousands or even millions of potential ingredients have not yet been tried in a barbecue sauce? How many fruits and vegetables, in addition to tomatoes and onions? How many peppers, in addition to red pepper, cayenne, paprika, jalapenos and serranos?
Barbecue experts stand with one foot firmly anchored in the rich history of barbecue, and the other foot grounded in the limitless discoveries yet to come.
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