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What is BBQ Sauce Made of?

The main ingredient in barbecue sauce—which we shall henceforth refer to by its street name, “BBQ sauce”—depends on the type of sauce you’re making: Kansas City-style? North Carolina-style? Do you want South Carolina barbecue flavor or Texas/Southwest sauce? Different styles of BBQ sauce start with different base ingredients. Alabama even invented a mayonnaise-based BBQ sauce in the 1920s—that’s all we’re going to say about that. 

Each main ingredient gets spiced up with a bunch of different herbs, seasonings, and sometimes even a little booze (whiskey sauce, anyone?). Let’s dig into the various flavor components of our favorite meat-marinating and fried-food-dipping condiment to explore what makes BBQ sauce so dang delicious.

Is BBQ sauce just ketchup?

First, let’s clear this up right away: no, BBQ sauce is not just ketchup. Not even close. The difference here is that ketchup is tomato puree and sugar (with vinegar and some other flavorings), and BBQ sauce is art (with a whole host of flavor-filled ingredients).

What is the base for BBQ sauce?

You’ve got three main bases for any BBQ sauce worthy of the name: vinegar, mustard, or tomato. The base ingredient gives the BBQ sauce its texture and the main bulk of the flavor. Vinegar bases came out of Eastern NC, mustards from SC and Western NC, and tomato gets credited to Kansas City sticky sauces (think ribs—mmmmmm, ribs), although SC invented their own versions of light- and heavy-tomato based BBQ sauces as well. Texas and the Southwest also generally stick to a tomato base (with vinegar as well as meat drippings, onions, peppers, and garlic). Louisiana, as always, does whatever the hell it wants, so you might get a tomato base or you might get a vinegar base. Just enjoy that barbecued gator tail and don’t worry about it. A breakdown of the various BBQ sauce bases is as follows:

  • Vinegar-Based BBQ Sauce

You can get an outstanding two- or three-ingredient BBQ sauce with a vinegar base. Most of these rely on apple cider vinegar and crushed red peppers for the main flavor, plus salt because salt makes pretty much any food taste amazing.

  • Mustard-Based BBQ Sauce

For zip and tang, mustard-based sauces deliver. A typical South Carolina mustard sauce includes a smoky flavoring like Worcestershire, plus something sweet like honey to balance it all out to lip-smacking deliciousness.

  • Tomato-Based BBQ Sauce

This is the most ubiquitous version of the sauce, commonly distributed in those tiny packets at fast food joints nationwide. While tomato-based BBQ sauces were around in the 1800s like their vinegar- and mustard-based brethren, it wasn’t until Kansas City’s ketchup-tomato-molasses-brown sugar mixture turned tomato-based BBQ sauces into a favorite from coast to coast. 

Main ingredients that give BBQ sauce its flavor

We’ve given you the BBQ sauce 101, but if you love cookouts like we love cookouts, you’ve probably experienced plenty of fusion sauces that mix up vinegars, ketchup, tomato paste, and mustards with spices and flavorings to create scrumptious concoctions for whatever is going on the grill. The main ingredients that give most BBQ sauces their signature flavor include:

  • Apple cider vinegar.  A solid start for a thin sauce that packs a nice zing.
  • Yellow mustard. Gives BBQ sauces a tasty tanginess that complements smoked meats.
  • Ketchup/tomato paste. Makes a thick, tomatoey base that a lot of people love. 
  • Spices and sweeteners. Salt, cumin, peppers, honey, molasses, brown sugar, liquid smoke, Worcestershire, garlic, onions, cayenne…the list of ingredients that help fill out the flavor goes on and on.

For us, the main ingredients are only the starting point. The real fun starts when you begin to mix in the unexpected to create a fruity BBQ sauce or tongue-torching habanero sauce to give your hot dogs meaning.

Hit the (BBQ) Sauce

Let’s face it: BBQ sauce is delicious in all its glorious shapes and forms. Go out there and try some vinegar-based sauce, you tomato fans. Vinegar lovers, reach across the aisle to some mustard-based BBQ sauce. We strongly encourage you to hit the sauce and hit it hard. We certainly do, and our lives are better for it.

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