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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.