When It Comes to BBQ, Sauce Is Boss

Fire up the grill and get cookin' with the best BBQ sauces in the world.

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There's no real mystery behind the appeal of barbecuing. The tasty food, the fun company, and the primal act of cooking over open flame—they're the ingredients for one of America's favorite pastimes.

Anyone can turn on a gas grill and heat up a couple of wieners, but truly world-class barbecue depends on a number of critical factors. And for most in the U.S. and abroad, the most important of these is the choice of marinade or sauce.

(Yes, we love dry rub, too. But bear with us here.)

To make the summer BBQ season a little easier, and a lot tastier, we've compiled the best regional sauces in the United States, as well as a few international offerings for the more adventurous. Happy grilling!

Grilling
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American Flavors

America is a country of immigrants, so it makes sense that "American cuisine" is a hodgepodge of the best bits of other countries' food traditions. BBQ is no different. Brought to these shores by slaves from sub-Saharan Africa, it has evolved over time and spread throughout the U.S., picking up unique regional traits along the way.


Kansas City

Chances are, this is the sauce most of us think of when we think of BBQ.

This versatile tomato-and-molasses sauce is known for its sweet and tangy flavor. If you're only just starting to dip your toes into the wonderful world of grilled meat, this is probably the best sauce to start with.

Kansas City–style sauce via The Food Network

Kansas City BBQ Sauce
Kansas City BBQ sauce. [Image credit: Flickr user "thisismesmiling" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)] View Larger

Memphis

Memphis-style BBQ sauce shares much with the traditional Kansas City recipe. It's tomato-based, and also features vinegar and molasses as primary ingredients. However, the ratios are slightly different. Memphis BBQ sauce is thinner than Kansas City sauce, is less sweet, and showcases a more pronounced vinegar flavor.

Memphis-style sauce via Serious Eats

Memphis BBQ
Memphis style BBQ. [Image credit: Flickr user "sifu_renka" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)] View Larger

Texas

Texan BBQ varies from region to region, but the two most popular variants are a sweet, spicy, and thick sauce common in East Texas, and a thin tomato and vinegar mixture popular in the central regions.

The Central Texas sauce is often referred to as a "mop sauce" or "dip," since it's used to baste and flavor the meat while it's cooking or served on the side when it comes time to eat.

East Texas BBQ sauce via James Stroud
Central Texas Mop Sauce via AmazingRibs.com

Texas Style BBQ
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South Carolina

Given the long-standing and oft-heated debate over which Carolina's BBQ reigns supreme, we're going to tread lightly here. As far as we're concerned, each regional sauce has its own merits.

South Carolina is known for its unmistakably rich and tangy mustard sauce. Ideal with pork, this sauce should be used sparingly—too much mustard can overpower the flavor of the meat.

South Carolina mustard sauce via Simply Recipes

South Carolina Mustard Sauce
South Carolina mustard sauce. [Image credit: Flickr user "anotherpintplease" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)] View Larger

North Carolina

On the other end of the spectrum we have the thin vinegar-and-spice sauce popular in North Carolina.

While it has its notable detractors, this distinctive sauce packs a delightfully acidic flavor, and cuts through the the smokey flavor of barbecued meat.

North Carolina vinegar sauce via Meatwave

North Carolina BBQ Sauce
North Carolina vinegar sauce. [Image credit: Flickr user ""joshbousel" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)] View Larger

Alabama

While it's not particularly well-known outside of the deep south, Alabama has its own, rather unusual take on BBQ sauce.

In the northern part of the state, BBQ purists smoke chicken and pork that's been based with a mayonnaise-based white sauce. It's described as being rich and tangy, and is used as both a marinade and a dipping sauce, as well.

Best of all, if you have any sauce left over when you're done prepping the meat, you can use it whip up some coleslaw.

Alabama white sauce via Serious Eats

Alabama White Sauce
Alabama white BBQ sauce. [Image credit: Flickr user "johnnystilett" (CC BY-NC 2.0)] View Larger

International Tastes

Barbecue isn't just an American obsession—it encircles the entire world. If you're looking for something a little different than the usual fare, here are some of the classics from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia.


South Africa: Monkey Gland Sauce

While South African BBQs—or braais—tend to eschew marinades, one sauce in particular is favored in the country: The bizarrely named "monkey gland sauce" includes neither monkeys nor glands, but instead derives its zesty flavor from a mish-mash of various sauces and spices—including chutney.

Monkey gland sauce via Tasty Kitchen

Monkey Gland Sauce
Monkey gland sauce. [Image credit: Flickr user "simon2207" (CC BY 2.0)] View Larger

Southern and Eastern Africa: Piri Piri Sauce

Piri piri sauce is popular in a number of southern and eastern African countries—most notably Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa. Piri piri sauce (or peri peri) is Portuguese in origin and derives its peppery flavor from the bird's eye chili. The sauce is perfect as a meat and shellfish marinade, and offers a unique mixture of creamy texture and spicy flavor.

Piri piri sauce via BBC Food

Piri Piri
Piri piri chicken. [Image credit: Flickr user "wenchee" (CC BY-NC 2.0)] View Larger

Jamaica: Jerk Marinade

Outside of Olympic bobsledders and Bob Marley's music, jerk seasoning is arguably the island country of Jamaica's most beloved export. It can be a dry-rub or marinade, and is known for its intense spiciness and complex flavor.

The piquant taste is derived from two key ingredients: Jamaican allspice and scotch bonnet peppers. While a coal grill is perfect for cooking up some jerk chicken, you really want to cook your food over pimento wood for the most authentic jerk flavor.

Jamaican jerk marinade via Islands

Jerk Chicken
Jamaican jerk chicken. [Image credit: Flickr user "peanutlen" (CC BY 2.0)] View Larger

India: Tandoori Chicken

Ubiquitous in Indian restaurants far and wide, tandoori chicken is perhaps the most accessible form of Indian cuisine for westerners.

Ideally, tandoori chicken should be prepared in a traditional tandoor oven—but for the average home chef, a charcoal grill should suffice. Blending yogurt with an array of Indian spices, tandoori marinade isn't particularly overpowering, but it does lend grilled chicken a pleasantly spicy and smokey flavor.

Tandoori chicken marinade via Cooking With Thas

Tandoori Chicken
Tandoori chicken. [Image credit: Flickr user "taitoh" (CC BY-NC 2.0)] View Larger

South Korea: Bulgogi and Galbi

Any list of global BBQ favorites would be incomplete without Korean bulgogi and galbi. These two preparations use essentially the same sauce: a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and pepper. The only real difference between the two is in the choice of meat cut. Bulgogi uses thin slices of rib-eye steak, while galbi is made with beef short ribs. Regardless of the meat, both are delicious, and well worth firing up the grill for.

Bulgogi/galbi marinade via Savory Sweet Life

Galbi
Grilled galbi. [Image credit: Flickr user "instantvantag" (CC BY-SA 2.0)] View Larger

China: Char Siu

A mainstay of Cantonese cuisine, char siu is marinated and roasted pork. The sticky honey-and-hoisin marinade creates a crispy, lightly charred crust on the savory-sweet loin or belly. While char siu is commonly roasted, it tastes great grilled as well.

Char siu marinade via Graceful Cuisine

Char siu
Char siu. [Image credit: Flickr user "kattebelletje" (CC BY-NC 2.0)] View Larger

Hero Image: Flickr user "perspective" (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Flickr user "eulenfan" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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