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BBQ Sauce 101: The Basics & How to Use Them

Sweet, smoky, tangy, and sometimes spicy, there’s no denying that BBQ sauce is Boss. Whether you’re using it to baste, mop, dip or glaze, there’s nothing that pairs with smoked meats quite like a mouthwatering sauce. Whether you’re already a sauce boss or you’re new to ‘que, we’ll walk you through the basics of BBQ sauce to create mouthwatering meats. 

What Makes a Good BBQ Sauce? 

A good que sauce is equal parts tangy, sweet and smoky but the ratios of those flavors differ by region. Using BBQ sauce to baste meat dates back to colonial North Carolina where the first vinegar-based sauce was used to baste whole hogs. Other variations evolved over time with flavors influenced by immigrants using ingredients brought over from their homelands. 

Vinegar-Based Sauces

Virginia and North Carolina were settled by British immigrants who brought over vinegar and incorporated the idea of basting the whole hog. Today, vinegar-based sauces are associated with the Carolinas and even into Memphis where low and slow meats are balanced by the acidity of the vinegar. 

Mustard-Based Sauces

When you think of a Carolina BBQ sauce, you immediately think of that tangy, golden, honey mustard base. The vinegar base in the mustard helps cut the richness and fattiness of BBQ meat. 

Tomato-Based Sauces

A rich deep red with sweet and smoky notes, this is the sauce that typically comes to mind when you think BBQ sauce. Tomato-based sauces are relatively new, originating in the 19th or 20th centuries in America, and most found on shelves today are similar to a Kansas-City style with added sweetness from molasses and brown sugar. For a twist on the traditional, we like the richness of the tomato-based sauces balanced with a fruity, tangy flavor like Cherry or Peach, or heat from hot chipotle peppers 

Because of the higher sugar content, most tomato based sauces should be used as a finishing sauce and not cooked low and slow. 

Alabama White Sauce

Not as common but simple to make at home, Alabama White Sauce is a mayo-based BBQ sauce that is both creamy and tangy. Similar to a ranch dressing, white sauce typically include apple cider vinegar, mustard, brown sugar and horseradish. We like to add a hearty amount of black pepper to our version for a kick. 

When to Sauce

While it depends on what you’re cooking, there are some general rules when it comes to BBQ sauce. Most sauces have a high sugar content which can easily get coagulated or even burn during a long cook or high sear. So apply the sauce at the end of your cook with just enough time to cook it and set it without burning it.

Sauces with a higher sugar content will caramelize slightly under heat, adding mouthwatering goodness to the edges of your meat. If you're cooking your meat low and slow, like 3-2-1 ribs, we recommend saucing in the last hour or 30 minutes before pulling. If you prefer your BBQ sauce very caramelized, you can turn the heat up or set it under the broiler on low heat until perfect crisp.  

How Much to Use

Is there such a thing as too much BBQ sauce? Sometimes! If you’re smoking ribs, pork or brisket low and slow, you want that smoke flavor to shine through and not be overpowered by sweet flavors. The BBQ sauce should enhance the flavors of your meat without overpowering. We recommend only one to two coats of sauce, or about a ¼ cup per rack of ribs. A thicker slab like St. Louis can go up to ½ cup per rack. 

If making pulled pork, we recommend saucing at the very end by just adding a few tablespoons per serving--and don’t toss it in the sauce! You want to still taste equal parts smoky, tender meat and luscious BBQ sauce. 

How to Apply

We always recommend letting your sauce sit out to room temperature or microwaving for a few seconds (with the cap off!) until the consistency loosens. Not only will it be easier to remove from the bottle and spread on your meat, but it will have less of an impact on the temperature of your meat. Basting on ice cold sauce on smoking meats is an easy way to lower the temperature of the surface and throw off your cook times. 


For easier basting, we recommend pouring the amount of sauce you need into a glass dish or mason jar and using a basting brush or clean paint brush to apply. This will give you more control and ensure you’re saucing every last spot. 

Other Ways to Que

Obviously BBQ sauce is great on ribs, pork, chicken and other Que fare. We also love it as a basting sauce for burger patties or brats. 

BBQ sauce also makes a delicious base for pizzas, chilis, stirred into baked beans or blended with cream cheese or sour cream to make a dip. One of our favorite uses is blended into a bloody mary or cocktail. 

Cherry Bomb Manhattan

Memphis BBQ Candied Bacon 

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