We love all regional barbecue variations and have explored the United States of Sauce in general, but Carolina BBQ sauce styles deserve an even closer look.
While innovation and cross-pollination have their places in the modern American barbecue landscape, the hallmark of the genre has always been regional specificity. Beyond the smoked meat itself, state or city modifiers provide context as respects the dry rubs, cuts, sauces, and even processes that comprise the whole of American barbecue styles: from the stark, salt-and-pepper beef rub of Texas, to the bold, sweet tomato-based sauce of Kansas, to the spicy style of pork ribs in Memphis, to the renegade approach of Alabama white barbecue sauce. Every place to have staked a claim on the American barbecue map has staked a very particular claim that defines the region.
Except that in the Carolinas, all hell kind of breaks loose, and variety becomes the trademark more than specificity. North and South Carolina combined are barely half the size of the state of Texas, and yet the barbecue culture there lays claim to four distinct BBQ sauces.
One State, Four Styles
According to Discover South Carolina, the website maintained by the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, S.C. is “the only state in the nation where you’ll find all four of the basic types of barbecue sauce, sometimes on the same restaurant menu.”
The four barbecue sauces that exist throughout the Carolinas do tend to have stronger footholds in particular regions, based in part on certain immigrant communities that settled in different regions, as well as proximity to other prominent barbecue states. No matter your personal preference, the Carolinas are a barbecue condiment-lovers dream. (And you can bet that if they are indeed on the same menu I’m going after all of those squeeze bottles.)
Coastal Carolinas: Vinegar and Pepper
If you think the prototype for American barbecue sauce is the viscous, smoky flavor, tomato-based sauce that is ubiquitous on grocery store shelves, think again. The light and bright vinegar and pepper sauce of the Carolina coast is believed to be the oldest barbecue sauce in the country, and the one that best nods to barbecue’s Caribbean roots.
The combination of vinegar and red and black pepper, maybe combined with a little water or butter, was initially used to baste a whole pig while it cooked for hours. As the popularity of barbecue sauces as condiments grew in the early to mid 20th century, the baste became a simple way to dress the pork once it was served, the sharp acidity of the tangy sauce complementing the natural fattiness of the pork. Adam Scott of Goldsboro, NC was one of the first to commercialize his sauce after World War II, and Scott’s Barbecue Sauce remains commercially available today.
Scott’s Carolina BBQ Sauce, $10.41 from Amazon
One of the OG vinegar and pepper sauces available on your doorstep.
Central South Carolina: Mustard
This neon-yellow sauce is sometimes considered the “unofficial” sauce of South Carolina, mostly because it doesn’t really appear much of anywhere else, though as described above, South Carolinians are more keen to promote “variety” as being the official barbecue profile of the Palmetto State. In either scenario, here is a case where an immigrant community put a firm stamp on the American barbecue landscape, as it is believed that German settlers in the area, with their love of sausage, were naturally inclined to apply one of their favorite ingredients—mustard—to pork in all forms, whether bratwurst or barbecue. Apple cider vinegar and brown sugar round out a sauce with a taste that is sharp, savory, and sweet.
4 Rivers Smokehouse Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce, $10.95 from Amazon
With a color that vivid, it can only be South Carolina style.
Lexington, NC and Piedmont, SC: Light Tomato Sauce
The light tomato style of central North Carolina and the “Pee Dee” region of South Carolina reflects the convergence of several styles of barbecue and factors described above. Basically, light tomato is what happened when the old guard vinegar and pepper sauce encountered the advent of commercial ketchup, and was met favorably with the German palate preference for sweet and sour. The result is a delicious sauce that is still mostly acid-driven, with a touch of sweetness and slightly more body for clinging to larger chunks of chopped pork from whole smoked pork shoulder.
Lillie’s Q Western North Carolina Tomato Barbecue Sauce, Pack of 2 for $18.49 from Amazon
An applaudable tribute sauce from a Chicago-based barbecue joint.
Western Carolinas: Heavy Tomato Sauce
Heavy tomato, or tomato and sugar sauce, starts to resemble what we know to be “classic” barbecue sauce, with its signature viscosity, spice, and sweetness, where the Carolina borders meet the Tennessee border and the slightly rounder and thicker style of Memphis barbecue has a loud enough megaphone to be influential.
Lillie’s Q Hot Smoky Barbecue Sauce, Pack of 2 for $20.94 from Amazon
You know you’re starting to tilt toward Memphis when the sauce gets thick and has a kick.
Everything Else You Need to Know
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